Sowing seeds of community: New Paltz Town Historic Preservation

Pictured are members of the Town of New Paltz Historic Preservation Commission (l-r): chair John Orfitelli, commissioner Susan DeMark, commissioner Dawn Elliott and vice chair Helen Christie. Not pictured: commissioner Caryn Sobel and New Paltz Town Board liason Julie Seyfert-Lillis. (Lauren Thomas | New Paltz Times)

Pictured are members of the Town of New Paltz Historic Preservation Commission (l-r): chair John Orfitelli, commissioner Susan DeMark, commissioner Dawn Elliott and vice chair Helen Christie. Not pictured: commissioner Caryn Sobel and New Paltz Town Board liason Julie Seyfert-Lillis. (Lauren Thomas | New Paltz Times)

An historic preservation commission (HPC) is one of those volunteer municipal boards that have real power. Members of the commission may declare a property to be a local historic landmark, deciding what’s worth preserving and what might be lost to time. The commissioners are mindful of the historic nature of those decisions. The challenge, according to chairman John Orfitelli, is deciding when and if to use that power.

The process of designating a local landmark involves a public hearing — with notices published and posted. Technically, designation could be done without the owner’s consent, but in New Paltz the HPC members have no interest in forcing such a decision. They prefer to work with people who are interested in preservation themselves.


“We have our own code of ethics,” Orfitelli said, different from the one that covers other town volunteers and employees. “We want to build rapport with the public.” He feels that couldn’t happen if a stronger hand were applied.

The Testimonial Gateway on the Mohonk Preserve was already listed on the national registry, “but that’s just a nice thing,” Orfitelli explained. “It does not protect the property, which the local law does. Without a designation, a developer who bought that property could bulldoze it.” The preserve, which wanted that additional layer of protection and preservation, worked with HPC throughout the process.

Bulldozing can and does happen. When the Studley barn on Butterville Road was declared a lost cause by engineers for owner Open Space Institute, neighbors were dismayed. More recently, the Ohioville Chapel was demolished to make way for an office building. Neither structure was listed on the local registry. Had they been, the owners would have had to apply for and receive a certificate of appropriateness from the HPC before a building permit could be issued.

Orfitelli isn’t sure that the barn could have been saved; by the time he got a close look, he agreed that it would be expensive to salvage it. “It would have cost more than a new building,” he said. “The best we felt we could do is ask OSI to replace it with something the reflected the essence of the style” of the old barn.

HPC members feel constrained by their own past actions. “There’s a precedent of not designating without owner participation,” Orfitelli explained A change of course might lead to an owner prevailing in court for that reason alone. Designation would certainly have stopped the demolition of the Ohioville Chapel, but the chairman said that that HPC must focus its efforts where it will get the best results.

For some owners, listing their properties as local landmarks is a dream come true. Others see it as an intrusive inconvenience.

HPC members received a grant that would have paid for all the necessary documentation to place 15 stone houses on the local registry all at once. “We figured they were low-hanging fruit,” Orfitelli explained, since the stone houses capture the essence of what makes New Paltz historic.

It didn’t work oit that way. “Only one of the 15 owners was willing,” the HPC chairman said.  The others didn’t see designation as a benefit for them, They saw it as “government interference that will get in their way,” possibly negatively affecting future resale value.

For the commission members, it was an exasperating situation to be in. “If we don’t protect the stone houses, the barns, the cemeteries, we will lose what we cherish over time,” Orfitelli predicted. Designating a property without owner cooperation, on the other hand, could easily lead to bad blood and court expenses. In the case of the stone houses, the HRC chose not to move forward.

The perception of how difficult it might be to get a certificate of appropriateness might be overblown in the minds of some residents. But at the very least it’s one more meeting that must be attended. If commissioners don’t think a project is consistent with the historic site, they can require changes to the plans. “There’s no reason you can’t make changes,” Orfitelli said, but one more group of people will have to grant their blessing.

Commissioners would like to see some kind of tax incentive put into place. Several different models exist, Orfitelli said, including one that delays how soon the owner’s tax bill would be increased by an addition. Such tax plans shift that cost to all taxpayers, something which Orfitelli believes is a fair price to pay in the name of historic preservation.

The presence of protected landmarks increases the value of other homes in the community, Orfitelli argued. His opinion as a real-estate professional adds weight to that argument. Together with communicating a rationale for preservation, those incentives could “create an environment for people to come to us.”

Some kind of incentive might make it easier for something else commissioners have been working on: historic districts. Two districts, Mohonk and Ohioville, are being considered at this time. The Mohonk district is more feasible because commissioners would be working with preserve officials, who have demonstrated a desire to protect iconic structures. Ohioville, the town’s last hamlet, has a number of buildings of interest to HPC members. To create a district os a tall order. It would entail convincing all the propertyowners of the importance of preservation to the community as a whole. Tax breaks along with the landmark label might be helpful.

The ad-hoc committee studying a moratorium to create a gateway zoning district included Orfitelli. “We want to be sure that whatever we impose is consistent with what we feel good about,” he said, “the essence of New Paltz.”

Renderings of the CVS drugstore haven’t gotten the warm reception that the Hampton Inn being built across the street has. The owner asked HPC members for input, which was not required.

Orfitelli believes that good development could accentuate the historic nature of New Paltz, but without a plan that character could be undermined. “The ShopRite Plaza could be the next thing, if somebody buys it,” he said. Thoughtful zoning could prevent decisions that negatively impact the community. The most recent comprehensive plan adopted in the town before the turn of the century didn’t reflect present community values. It also didn’t make reference to the importance of a gateway.

The existence of the HPC and an historic preservation law have paved with way for a certification that opens the door to grant opportunities and other benefits. Money from such grants has been used to survey properties of historic significance, and also to create an interactive map on the town’s website.

The HPC page on contains tools and information of interest to the amateur historian. The property map shows the borders of all the town’s historic hamlets then and now, photo comparisons of some landmarks, video and prose information about the town, and an animation that compresses centuries of population growth into a few seconds on the screen. Also included are relevant forms, including one that lays out the criteria and steps for getting a property listed as an historic landmark.

The New Paltz HPC meets on the third Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the community center. The town website lists Orfitelli as chairperson, Helen Christie as vice chair, and Susan DeMark, Caryn Sobel and Dawn Elliot as commissioners.


Editor’s note: The willingness of residents to serve their communities plays a large role in what makes our towns so great. This is the fifth in a series of stories focusing on volunteer committees/commissions and how their activities change a town’s local color. If you’d like to suggest a group to be included in this series, please e-mail editor Deb Alexsa at To read previous “Sowing seeds of community” articles, visit

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