Charles Majestic walks through the old 1740s-era stone house he rebuilt with his father from the pile of rubble it used to be in the 1970s. He points out architectural features as he goes: the Huguenot-style colonial fireplaces, the underground tunnel, the twisting staircase. The way a good rancher knows all his animals by name, Charles Majestic knows every board, every brick and stone, and each wall.
As a boy, he said, he’d sneak into the abandoned but not-yet-collapsed building with a friend on a dare. It was their place to play and hang out. The house itself, on Route 208, is special to him. When he revitalized the historic structure with his dad Frank, it became his passion project.
By profession an engineer who specializes in underground construction, Charles added onto the house in an unconventional way. The garage and a large part of the basement are built down into the earth. That underground tunnel – like something from a catacomb in an ancient European cathedral – is of his design.
Upstairs his wife Marybeth sits at a table with a large blue Rubbermaid filing box. Filled with documents, notes and thick manila folders, the heavy box would land with a crash where it was allowed to drop. That box holds the story of another project – a project waiting to happen. It holds the story of a house off North Mountain Road.
The Majestics’ proposed house on a landlocked 40-acre parcel in the Shawangunk Mountains in Gardiner has been the subject of intense scrutiny from environmentalists, town officials and skeptics. The main reason for that is the approximately half-mile-long driveway that’s needed to reach the building lot. In 2005, when the stricter Shawangunk Ridge Protection zoning was being developed, the couple figured they might have to build before the laws got more stringent. “There was really no intention of building up there until the zoning came into play and rights were jeopardized,” Marybeth says.
That land has been in the Majestic family since 1966. Charles has owned the lot since the early Eighties. Building on it has become the Majestics’ other passion project.
“The property would just be sitting there vacant,” Charles says. “But with all the new zoning laws, we were afraid that future generations – if they added more laws to the existing laws – that they would have zoned it out for even a single-family home.”
The couple attributes the length and odd, snakelike curves of the proposed and controversial driveway to the SP-3 zoning in which their property resides. For safety and to avoid runoff, the regulations try to keep driveway grades gradual rather than steep. “With the new zoning laws, you can’t have a slope. It made this driveway much longer than it needed to be,” Marybeth explains.
No interstate highway
“It’s going to be quite a driveway,” her husband adds. “It’s as narrow as the town would allow it to be, and it’s as short as the town would allow it to be.”
Officially the project got started in 2010 – after the couple had won a state Supreme Court settlement with neighbors, allowing them to cross other land to get to their property. Neighbors like Annie O’Neill and Barry Lebost split a $25,000 settlement payment for that easement on their land.
As the process played out at the planning-board table last year, opponents of the extra-long driveway came out in droves. Environmentalists such as the Friends of the Shawangunks, who had helped lobby for that stricter mountain zoning, opposed the plan. But the Majestics got support from property-rights advocates, who thought the couple had a right to build on the land they owned.
Even when they heard hurtful comments in public or read letters to the editor in the paper criticizing their plan, the Majestics stayed quiet. In private, they objected to being told they’d starved their neighbors out, forcing them to run out of money in the 2005 lawsuit that established the easement.
“Those property owners agreed to it with full legal representation,” she says.
Another charge they dispute is the pejorative label given the driveway by opponents: “interstate highway.” Plans call for the path to be twelve feet wide, except for every 500 feet where it widens out to 20 feet to allow fire trucks enough space to turn around.