Katharine Hepburn kept a pretty low profile in the seaside borough of Fenwick, but the new owners of the actress’ expansive estate got into quite a tussle with the local historic district commission.
The dispute wasn’t over the massive makeover of the Hepburn mansion that raised the house 5-1/2 feet, but the height of two granite posts marking the driveway entrance. The posts were tall enough, apparently, to fuel a two-year court battle that ended this week.
Owner Frank J. Sciame thought that by planting raised flower beds around the posts, he would be reducing the visible size of the posts from five feet to four feet, the height ordered by the commission. The commission disagreed and took Sciame to court.
A Superior Court judged last summer sided with the commission over the height. But Sciame, a prominent New York City developer, pressed the issue in an appeal arguing that he was being harassed by the commission. On Monday, the state Appellate Court backed the lower court ruling.
“The commission can’t pick and choose the orders that they are going to enforce,” Lewis K. Wise, of Rogin Nassau LLC in Hartford, the commission’s attorney, told me today. “He basically ignored their decision. This was a fight that they didn’t pick.”
Sciame and his wife, Barbara, bought the Hepburn House in 2004 and renovated it. It has been on the market for a year-and-a-half, now with an asking price of $30 million.
The problems began in 2010 when Sciame installed the posts without getting approval from the commission. They later sanctioned the idea but only if the posts were reduced in size by a foot to better mask their visibility. Sciame responded by planting the flower beds.
Sciame argued in court that he had found an appropriate solution to the commission’s concerns, especially since their regulations did not specifically address driveway entrance markers.
The commission pushed back, saying it did have the right to demand that the posts be physically reduced in size. The commission, Wise said, has the power to approve or disapprove exterior alterations or new construction within the district.
Genevieve Salvatore, Sciame’s lawyer, told me her client sliced off the offending foot of granite on the markers a couple of months ago. But he pursued the appeal because he didn’t believe the commission had the right to specify how he reduced the size of the posts.
“He didn’t think the borough had the right to tell him how to do it,” Salvatore said. “When you look at the regulations, they don’t talk about posts.”
Salvatore said the commission also didn’t tell Sciame how to shave off a foot. “He reduced them in a way that he thought was appropriate,” given extensive experience as a developer of historic preservation projects,” Salvatore said.
Sciame does not plan any further appeals in the case. “My client just wants to move on,” Salvatore said.
The spat could prove costly for Sciame. Wise said the commission has filed court papers to recover about $40,000 in legal fees.
When the granite markers eventually were cut down to size, one of the slices went right through the number “10” for the property’s address, 10 Mohegan Ave.
That prompted a snarky comment from a borough official quoted in a New York Times story today. The official said Sciame was sending the borough a “message.”
Salvatore said that wasn’t the case. In fact, she said, workers were being dispatched to the house today to fix the number.