The Village of Baxter Estates has spent more than $100,000 on matters relating to the historic Baxter House, including legal and consulting fees.
The spending — and the controversy surrounding the house — dates back almost two years when the village rejected the owner’s request to subdivide the home, and continues to grow two months after a fire ripped through the home, heavily damaging it.
The spending includes legal advice to the Board of Trustees, including lawyers reviewing documents; communications with the building inspector and other hired consultants; communications with the owner’s attorney; special internal strategy meetings related to the house; community meetings; and legal advice for various village committees, village Trustee Chris Ficalora said.
The clock on the hourly pay of the village attorney, Chris Prior, also starts when residents contact him directly with questions concerning the home, Ficalora said.
Ficalora mentioned a group seeking to preserve the house that has contacted Prior with questions.
Legal fees have also increased because village meetings have run longer due to excessive public comment regarding the Baxter House, Ficalora said.
“Every time that group comes in they spend two hours making noise,” Ficalora said.
With engineering consultants and the village’s building inspector deeming the home at 15 Shore Road structurally unsound and calling for it to be demolished, the owner, Sabrina Wu, has yet to submit an updated application regarding the house.
Wu withdrew her original application to demolish and rebuild a replica of the home days before the fire, and was planning to revise her plans and renovate the home. The house was built in the 1700s and once sat on the Baxter Homestead, which dates back to 1673.
Wu purchased it in 2003 for $990,000. The home’s exterior was landmarked in 2005, a decision Wu opposed.
“When we have an application to make, we will make it,” said A. Thomas Levin, Wu’s lawyer. “I am not going to predict in the newspaper what we will do.”
At a village Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting on March 1, Levin said Wu would submit an updated application in “several days.”
The village issued four Order to Remedy violations to Wu in March to remove blue tarp remnants from her property and surrounding homes, remove the tarp from the house, remove garbage bags from the yards and remove fire debris from the property.
Ficalora was scheduled to meet with Wu and Levin on March 22 but only Levin showed up for the meeting with him, which was set to discuss Wu’s plans for the house.
Ficalora said Levin seemed frustrated that Wu has still not made a decision.
“It wasn’t a very productive meeting,” Ficalora said. “He was just testing the waters. He’s feeling the pressure from the fact that he made a statement and hasn’t come through with it.”
Before Ficalora threatened to end their meeting, he said, Levin mentioned suing the village, but they didn’t discuss what the lawsuit would involve.
A small group of residents, a few of whom run the “Save the Baxter House” Facebook group, have filed papers to establish a 501(c)(3) foundation to raise money to purchase the Baxter House, Kathy Coley, a resident, said.
Ficalora said he mentioned the idea at the meeting and Levin started to laugh.
Levin said the topic wasn’t discussed.
If residents raise enough funds to purchase the house, and Wu agrees, Coley said, they would like to build a replica and turn the first floor into a museum, chronicling the history of the area and land, starting with its Native America roots and the Baxter family’s participation in the American Revolution.
“It’s a big task but it’s worthwhile, and that’s why we’re spending our spare time working on it,” Coley said. “Once we have the foundation established, we hope to get support from the community.”
After the fire, residents began floating ideas to save the house from being demolished and replaced with a different structure.