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Madison Barracks building demolition application comes before Sackets Harbor Planning Board

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SACKETS HARBOR — Tensions were high Wednesday night as the village Planning Board opened discussion about demolishing the former mess hall and theater building at Madison Barracks.

The two buildings, based at 117 and 123 Pike Road, have been abandoned for more than 60 years. Though developer Michael A. Lawler has contended the property is economically obsolete and requires millions of dollars in repairs he cannot afford, opponents of the demolition said that the buildings are important pieces of the village’s history, and more time is needed to determine their future.

More than 45 village and town of Hounsfield-area residents filled the village office to speak their mind on the project, with board Chairman Gary M. Gibson calling it the largest crowd he had seen attend one of the board’s meetings.

The two buildings are among a small number in the barracks area that have not been redeveloped or torn down. The military developed the buildings in the late 1800s and abandoned them toward the end of World War II.

With the buildings in the village’s historic overlay, the demolition cannot be considered unless the building is either incompatible to the rest of the district, a safety hazard, deteriorated past economic viability or incapable of earning an economic return of its value.

Mr. Lawler, claiming the buildings already met the latter three of the four criteria, tore into critics of the plan, questioning their construction knowledge and business savvy, and threatened legal action against the board if the application was held up.

“If you guys want to make up your minds, fine, but I’m going to tell you I’m going to pursue it too,” he said. “I hope your bank account is in good shape, because those three things I can prove, and I only have to prove one of them.”

Though Mr. Lawler, who has owned the buildings since January 2011, said he did not want to tear them down, he said he did not have the funds to repair the structures alone.

He said an estimate he received from Karl O. Bender of AOK Engineering, Gouverneur, pegged the cost of repairing the mess hall at $8 million to $10 million, and the theater at $2 million to $2.5 million. Mr. Lawler said he and Peter B. Bryant, village and town of Hounsfield economic development coordinator, had no success attracting new business interest in the buildings.

“That thing’s been abandoned since 1947 for Christ’s sakes and it sat there, and all of a sudden you do-gooders are going to save it?” Mr. Lawler said.

Asked by resident Kevin W. Murphy about how much he spent for the two buildings, Mr. Lawler replied “none of your damn business.”

Many village residents during a public comment session later in the meeting were strongly against the demolition, clapping for each other as they finished their remarks.

David W. Altieri, village heritage area director, said the decision before the board was one of the most important it had ever made, calling it an “all or nothing” proposition.

“The question is not if we can do it, but can we afford not to preserve it?” he said.

Harold R. Cring, a resident since 1949, suggested that the village hire a third party to get a better idea of the building’s future use.

“Once these buildings are gone, they’re gone,” he said.

Susan L. Walling said destroying the buildings would be a “slap in the face” to the military that served in the barracks area.

Village Mayor F. Eric Constance, who pointed out the limited amount of time Mr. Lawler has owned the buildings, said that more time was needed to fully investigate their redevelopment possibilities and explore possible state grant funding.

“I think we need a little more time to do that,” he said. He added that he did not think the theater building was in as bad a shape as the mess hall.

The board adjourned a public comment period about the demolition until its July 15 meeting, when it will also continue its review of Mr. Lawler’s application. Board members also approved an offer by the Sackets Harbor Historical Society to commission and pay for an engineer’s structural report of the buildings, with Michael W. Campbell, the developer’s representative, expressing support for allowing the engineer access to the buildings. The village also passed a motion requesting Mr. Lawler suspend his application for 24 months. A response to that request was not available Wednesday night.

The board spent 15 minutes at the start of the meeting debating a letter sent by Mr. Altieri asking whether emails sent by Mr. Gibson appearing to be open to the demolition created a bias requiring him to recuse himself from the decision. Mr. Gibson said he had not made up his mind about the application, and the board continued its review with no further action.

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