Associated Press Coverage of Aurora NY Released the week of January 13, 2002



AURORA'S HISTORIC DISAGREEMENT

Local group challenges plans to remodel historic village inn

By William Kates, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

AURORA, NY -- Highlighting American history in a popular collection of period-perfect dolls and stories produced fame and fortune for Pleasant Rowland.

Now, some residents in this exceptionally preserved Finger Lakes village are accusing the millionaire businesswoman of joining with Wells College to use her money and prominence to thwart historical preservation and push through a character-altering renovation of the landmark Aurora Inn, the heart of village life for almost 170 years.

A coalition of nearly 70 village residents has legally challenged -- so far, unsuccessfully -- a development group led by the American Girl Doll creator, arguing that village officials violated local zoning and state environmental laws and ignored the advice of historic preservation specialists.

"We are not against progress. Everyone wants the inn to reopen," said Karen Hindenlang, a village resident, Wells College graduate and Aurora Coalition, Inc. board member.

"We want to see things done properly, though, with full consideration given to historic preservation issues," she said. "We were hoping -- with her background -- she would be more sensitive to the building's historical significance."

Also opposed to the renovations are the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Preservation League of New York State and The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private, nonprofit organization chartered by Congress in 1949 to oversee private historic preservation.

"To loose these buildings to demolition or inappropriate development would be a tragedy for the town and state," said Marilyn Fenollosa, a regional attorney in The National Trust's Boston office.

Meanwhile, village leaders and college officials say they can save the inn from rotting away if the coalition stops interfering.

"The project we are committed to is a wonderful project. We will stay the course. We are confident we will prevail," said Wells College spokeswoman Ann Rollo.

Village attorney Andrew Fusco maintains the village and college "did everything they were supposed to do and more" during a six month review.

Rowland is not a party to the lawsuit and has no comment on the dispute, said spokeswoman Katie Waller.

Aurora is on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake, in the heart of upstate New York's Finger Lakes wine country. Wells College, an all-women's school founded by Wells Fargo founder Henry Wells, is the economic anchor for the village of 600.

The Aurora Inn is on the National Register of Historic Places, which includes more than 100 structures, according to Tania Werbizky of the Preservation League of New York State.

"This is one of the largest, most intact historic communities in the country," she said. "It is rare to see almost an entire village listed. The inn is at the heart of this district ... and we are concerned that the proposed changes will have a lasting impact."

The college-owned inn operated until fall 2000 when it was closed after a decade of financial troubles.

Built in 1833 by E.B. Morgan, co-founder of The New York Times, has been added to over the years, the three-story brick and wood inn has been added to repeatedly over the years but the original sections remain intact, including the distinctive central stairwell and the federal-style, front-to-back hallway.

Until now.

Rowland is a wealthy Wells alumna from Wisconsin who created the American Girl empire of historical dolls, books and accessories, which she sold in 1998 to Mattel Inc. for $700 million. Since then, she has been purchasing properties in Aurora, including two mansions and MacKenzie-Childs Ltd., an upscale pottery and home-furnishings business.

Earlier this year, Rowland and Wells College formed the Aurora Foundation to develop and operate commercial properties. The group's top priority was remodeling and reopening the inn.

The plans call for demolishing two later additions and replacing them with two balconies and a stepped terrace. Much of the current interior would be replaced.

Fusco said the planning board approved Rowland's plans despite the state's recommendations because the private foundation will pay for all the work. He said developers are "going to great lengths to preserve the historical qualities of the building."

In its decision, the planning board said that the buildings had structural problems that made them dangerous, had no present economic viability; and, "although they are old and we are used to them, they are not particularly rare or unique."

Richard Lord, the state's Historic Sites Restoration Coordinator, vehemently disagreed, describing the inn as "an extremely rare and intact surviving example of an early 19th century inn in New York State."

In a letter to Village Planning Board Chairwoman Nancy Gil, Lord said the foundation's description of work as interior restoration was "misleading." He said the proposal was for a "gut rehab" that would have "a significant and irreversible adverse impact on the historic district."

The coalition in September filed a lawsuit asking a judge to nullify the village permits alleging improper review and approval procedures.

"Two state agencies provided recommendations and guidance which appear to have been ignored by the village government," said coalition board member Pru Campbell Kirkpatrick, an Aurora native and Wells graduate.

Kirkpatrick said the inn could open right away if not "for this radical plan." The coalition believes the mechanical systems and decor could be upgraded quickly without destroying the building's historic value.

Acting State Supreme Court Justice Robert Contiguglia ruled in early November the coalition's arguments were "without merit." In December, after the coalition failed to post a $250,000 indemnity bond, an appeals court lifted a temporary restraining order that had stopped the work.

Even though work has resumed, the coalition has appealed to the Appellate Division in Rochester. A hearing will be held after Feb. 19.

*****

Preservation group loses appeal, renovations to be completed



By WILLIAM KATES Associated Press Writer
The Ithaca Journal, 18 March 2002

AURORA, N.Y. -- An appellate court has denied a challenge by a coalition of preservationists who tried to stop renovation of a 169-year-old inn.

Although renovation of the historic Aurora Inn is already underway, the Aurora Coalition hoped a favorable ruling from the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Rochester would protect other historic buildings in this Finger Lakes village.

In a ruling issued Friday, the appellate court without comment affirmed a lower court's dismissal of the coalition's lawsuit.

Village attorney Andrew Fusco said the ruling shows the village went "above and beyond" the law.

The coalition sued last September claiming Wells College and village officials violated local zoning and state environmental laws and ignored the advice of historic preservation specialists by continuing with the renovation.

The inn, owned by the college since 1943, operated until fall 2000 when it closed after a decade of financial troubles.

The village and college maintained their six-month review went further than the law and argued the renovations would preserve the building's character.

The coalition of village residents, college professors and alumni was joined in its challenge by The Preservation League of New York State and The National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"It would seem that the state Environmental Quality Review Act may be inadequate to protect our irreplaceable historic buildings," the coalition said in a statement.

Built in 1833 by E.B. Morgan, co-founder of The New York Times, the three-story brick and wood inn is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Last year, Wells College and alumna Pleasant Rowland formed the Aurora Foundation to develop and operate commercial properties. Rowland created the American Girls Collection of historic dolls, books and accessories, which she sold in 1998 to Mattel Inc. for $700 million. She was not a party in the lawsuit and has declined comment.

Since renovation work resumed in January, after a judge lifted a restraining order, additions from 1904 and 1958 have been removed and interior work has begun. It is scheduled to be finished in 2003.

*****

3 groups join to appeal Aurora Inn ruling

The Ithaca Journal , Thursday, April 25, 2002
By WILLIAM KATES The Associated Press

SYRACUSE -- The Preservation League of New York State and the National Trust for Historic Preservation have joined with a grassroots group to ask the state's highest court to hear a dispute over the renovation of a 169-year-old inn.

If left to stand, lower court rulings regarding renovations of the Aurora Inn could "open the door to the piecemeal dismantling of New York State's historic districts," the three groups claimed in its motion to the New York State Court of Appeals.

William Hurst, an attorney for the Preservation League, said Wednesday that he expected the court to rule on the appeal request by mid-May.

"The demolition is under way ... but we think there is still a concrete opportunity to affect changes in the alteration of the inn. We are not just seeking precedent for future projects," Hurst said.

Attorneys for the village and Wells College said they were confident the Court of Appeals would reject the appeal request and let the decisions by the lower courts stand.

The Aurora Coalition -- a local group of village residents, college professors and alumni -- filed a lawsuit last September claiming Wells College and village officials violated local zoning and state environmental laws and ignored the advice of historic preservation specialists by continuing with the renovation of the landmark inn.

Built in 1833 by E.B. Morgan, co-founder of The New York Times, the three-story brick and wood inn is on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Aurora Village-Wells College Historic District, which includes more than 100 structures. The inn, owned by the college since 1943, operated until fall 2000 when it closed after a decade of financial troubles.

Last year, Wells College and alumna Pleasant Rowland formed the Aurora Foundation to renovate the inn and develop and operate commercial properties in Aurora.

The village and college maintained their six-month review went further than the law and argued the renovations would preserve the building's character.

A state Supreme Court justice last fall dismissed the lawsuit. Last month, the state Appellate Division in Rochester upheld the lower court decision without comment.

Hurst said the preservationist groups are asking their appeal to be heard on two key issues.

First, they argued that neither the village planning board nor the public reviewed the plans for a new replacement right-of-way allowing residents access to a lakeside village park. Such a review is required by state environmental review laws, Hurst said. The previous right-of-way, which had been used for 50 years, was eliminated in the development plans.

The groups also contend that the village planning board erred by not considering the environmental impact of the inn renovations as a part of the foundation's larger "comprehensive" development plan, which includes up to 10 other buildings. State regulations disfavor so-called "segmentation" of environmental reviews, Hurst said.

Since renovations started in January, additions from 1904 and 1958 have been removed and interior work has begun. It is scheduled to be finished in 2003.

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