The city should consider action to gain title of the former Erie Canal Village via a reverter clause in its 2002 sale deed for the site if current owners’ noncompliance with deed restrictions and easements continues, says Common Council President Stephanie Viscelli.
Viscelli included that request by the council in a letter to city Chief Codes Enforcement Officer Mark Domenico and Corporation Counsel Gerard Feeney, which she read aloud at Wednesday night’s council meeting.
Her letter expressed opposition to recent renovations at the Rome-New London property that prompted the city to issue a stop-work order this week due to issues with zoning codes and deed restrictions.
In further opposition conveyed at the meeting, Rome Historical Society trustee Bobbie O’Brien said in a statement that trustees have disassociated from the Fort Bull Research Group. The statement said the group previously has been helpful but is now complicit with the Canal Village property’s current landowner in unauthorized digging on the site against deed terms.
Rome Historical Society Director Arthur Simmons additionally issued a statement Wednesday afternoon regarding the society’s opposition on the matter. It said “images of the project show large posts being tarred and driven into the ground, severe rutting caused by machinery, and other extreme ground scarring occurring as a direct result of this project.”
The stop-work order by the city was directed to the Erie Canal Village property’s owner, Rick Rios, Mayor Jacqueline M. Izzo said Tuesday. Rios, of Brea, Calif., purchased the site last spring from Wheelhorse Development and has been planning to open Cross Roads Redemption Church there. The Canal Village property at one time had been operated as an historic attractions site including various buildings.
Izzo referred to soil being disturbed near the Victorian House building for a proposed performance area. There has never been a building permit issued for work at the property, and Rios submitted plans to the city Monday, according to Izzo.
Rios has not returned messages seeking comment. Representatives of the Fort Bull Research Group also could not be reached for comment.
The Common Council, in addition to learning of “construction and soil disruption taking place on the property,” has learned the Rome Historical Society “is being prevented from using all easements granted to them in the original transfer of the property,” said Viscelli’s letter.
The construction is occurring less than 100 feet from the Historical Society’s Fort Bull/Wood Creek property which is on the State and National Register of Historic Places, said Simmons’ announcement. It cited deed restrictions requiring review by the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation of any ground disturbance. It further said “we believe that this project is contributing to the unconscionable and willful destruction of one of the city’s most important and historic archaeological sites and we condemn this irresponsible action.”
Viscelli’s letter said “to allow the current property owner to violate the restrictions and easements...will have detrimental impacts on these historic properties....These properties are of historical significance and have the potential for additional economic development for our city.
Therefore, the council is requesting that the...Code Enforcement Office and the Office of the Corporation Counsel take all legal steps necessary to seek full enforcement of all deed restrictions and easements. The council further requests that should noncompliance continue that the City of Rome consider taking legal action to gain title of the property by exercising the reverter clause included in the bargain and sale deed of 2002.”
Feeney said city officials have been discussing the matter and will take appropriate actions, including notifiying the state historic preservation agency and pursuing a full environmental review.
“We’re in the process of looking at all our options,” Feeney told the council. “And we’re still looking at the zoning issue and whether or not it’s going to have to go to the Planning Board for site plan review.”
Councilor Kimberly Rogers, R-3, said "when the city sold that property in 2002 we put those requirements in place because we wanted it protected....I feel like while it may not be a legal duty of ours it’s certainly a moral duty that we make sure that those resources are protected.”
O'Brien, in her statement regarding the Rome Historical Society's disassociation from the Fort Bull Research Group, said “it is apparent via social media postings that they are complicit with Crossroad Redemption Church in the construction project at the former Erie Canal Village....We are concerned that these individuals who say that they are dedicated to preserving history are in fact acting irresponsibly and in direct conflict with their own stated mission. They have abetted an act that compromised one of our most important archeological sites....”
The announcement issued by Simmons said the Fort Bull Research Group is "an incorporated group of individuals" who are not chartered in the state and is not a 501c3 non-profit under IRS code nor is it registered with the New York State Charities Bureau. The group's Facebook page said its activities include "the continued research and preservation of Fort Bull, Fort Wood Creek and the Oneida Carrying Place."
The group "has, in the past, assisted the Rome Historical Society by volunteering their time to maintain and interpret the society’s Fort Bull/Wood Creek property, for which the society is grateful," said the Historical Society announcement. But "regretfully it has become apparent that the Fort Bull Research Group is complicit with Cross Roads Redemption Church in a misguided, irreversibly destructive construction project at the former Erie Canal Village."
Viscelli's letter said that when the city sold the property, "it took painstaking steps to ensure that the historical integrity of both the Erie Canal and the Fort Bull properties were preserved." It said this was achieved through easements granted to the Historical Society, plus a requirement for archeology oversight and a requirement that the property be used as "museum/tourist facility which shall remain open to the general public." It added "failure to comply with these deed restrictions and easements allows the title to revert back to the City of Rome should the city so desire."