Historic Altamont decides not to pursue ownership of Doctor Crounse House

— Photo from Thomas Capuano

Tethered to trees: Jay Cougar White Cloud stands on the Doctor Crounse House, in August, trying to cover the roof, which has a gaping hole, with two tarps.

GUILDERLAND — The citizens’ group Historic Altamont Inc. wrote a letter this week to Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber and Altamont Mayor Kerry Dineen advising them that it would no longer seek ownership of the historic Doctor Crounse House, at the gateway to the village.

The group still plans to pay a sympathetic local contractor $2,000 to put a tarp on the roof in the hopes the house may yet be saved by someone else. The village and town, which jointly own the property, had spent $25,000 in state funds earmarked for the Doctor Crounse House roof on something else.

Group member Thomas Capuano told The Enterprise on Tuesday that the village and town had been willing to offer the house to the group for free in exchange for its restoration but that, after long investigation, the group had found that the expense of remediating the asbestos was too great.

Capuano feels disappointed, he said, not at this decision, but at the fact that the house had been allowed to decay since the municipalities purchased it for back taxes a dozen years ago.

Historic Altamont was in the midst of trying to place both a tarp and a stronger scrim plastic over the roof in August, during Fair Week, when town officials stopped them and told them they could not go up on the roof. They had gotten the tarp up, but not the scrim plastic, so eventually the tarp fell off.

There have been “tremendous amounts” of rain since August, Capuano said. “Every time I’ve gone in there, the building has deteriorated more and more.”

Altamont’s first doctor, Frederick Crounse, lived and practiced in the 1833 Federal-era building.

The Doctor Crounse House, like the the Knower House and Inn of Jacob Crounse next to it — both of which have been restored — has a historic marker and is part of the original settlement that predated the nearby village of Altamont, which grew up because of the railroad.

Over the last six months, the town and village have gone back and forth on how to deal with the property; when a decision to demolish it raised public concern, the owners decided to try selling it with a restrictive covenant.

Historic Altamont formed in order to consider ways to preserve the home and save it from demolition.

Yellow jackets

By covering the roof, Historic Altamont hoped to buy time and prevent further deterioration. The group had spent over $500 on two tarps — one blue and the other a white scrim plastic sheeting.

During Fair Week, which ran from Aug. 14 to 19, Capuano said, the group had a small crowd at the house. Everyone working on the ground had signed waivers. “So we thought we were OK,” Capuano said.

Jay Cougar White Cloud, a timberwright who had volunteered to oversee the project, was in a harness tethered to the trees around the house so that, if he had fallen, he would have dangled, and not plummeted two stories to the ground.

“Jay is a trained arborist, among other things. He knew what he was doing,” Capuano said.

The plan had been to pull a blue tarp over the roof first, to provide a smooth surface. Then White Cloud would maneuver a scrim plastic over the tarp.

Without the tarp, it would be hard to put the scrim plastic on, Capuano said. It would get caught in the roofing materials.

All was going well. The blue tarp was on and secured.

Then White Cloud began getting stung by yellow jackets. He couldn’t get away from them, since he was harnessed in, and he couldn’t use both hands to bat them away, since he needed to hold onto the ropes for balance, Capuano said.

He came down and the group determined that they would try again after the yellowjackets had calmed down a bit.

But in the meantime, someone had seen them on the roof and alerted town officials, who let them know they could not go on the roof.

“That put a stop to it,” Capuano said.

Eventually the tarp fell off, while the scrim plastic just sat on the ground, unused.

“It was never meant to be on there by itself,” Capuano said of the blue tarp on Tuesday, as freezing rain fell.

The group could do no more than just clear brush away from around the house and create “more or less safe access,” Capuano said.

He started applying for a building permit so that he could get up on the roof himself.

He spoke with his homeowner’s insurance company. “They were very nice,” he said, “when I explained we were volunteers, a citizens’ group. She suggested I write my homeowner’s insurance policy number on the building-permit application, and that that would be my coverage.” However, he said, the town would not accept this.

“I guess it didn’t satisfy their liability requirements. That was a big disappointment,” he said.

“What it boiled down to was whoever was going to do this work had to have contractors’ liability insurance.” No one in Historic Altamont had that. None of them were doing this work as as livelihood.

Asbestos obstacles

It’s advantageous to test a building for asbestos, said Capuano, because if asbestos is determined to be in only, for instance, the roofing, then those materials can be removed — with elaborate safeguards in place, to protect neighbors and workers — by an asbestos contractor.

An asbestos-removal company would have to “create a bubble” around the structure, monitor the air quality, and control all the tools, equipment, and apparel that has contact with the asbestos. All the materials from the building need to be treated as hazardous waste and taken to a specific site that handles that type of waste.

But then the rest of the structure can be treated the way any other building would be.

Capuano had an asbestos-testing company come out to give a free estimate. He understood at the time that testing just the back portion of the home would probably cost more than $3,000.

But he forgot to tell the company that the back portion of the building — the part needing demolition — had already been condemned by the town of Guilderland.

Asbestos-testing companies can’t test condemned buildings, he said.

It can be demolished without testing, but in that case, all of the materials from the building have to be treated as asbestos.

An asbestos-remediation company quoted him a figure of between $25,000 and $30,000 just to demolish the rear ell.

“But,” Capuano said, “since the town owns it, not us, it would easily be $40,000, because the town would be required to pay prevailing wage.”

“Now we're talking about $40,000 if the town — $30,000 if us — just to remove the rear ell,” he said. “We would have needed so much money just to cart away the asbestos material.”

Someone with a lot of money, he said, could put scaffolding up all around the house, “and then maybe they could cover the roof,” Capuano said.

Back to the roof?

When Capuano wrote to Barber and Dineen, he said, Barber asked him if he was going to finish putting the tarp on the roof. “I had to remind him,” Capuano said, “that we were told we can’t.”

Capuano told Barber that the group had contacted builder Troy MIller, and that Miller had called the job “a risky undertaking” but agreed to do it for $2,000, which Historic Altamont would pay, simply because the group wants to see the house saved, if possible.

Capuano is heartened by the fact that town building inspector Lou Vitelli and Miller have been in direct contact with one another since then.

The weather, though, is not cooperating.

Miller told The Enterprise, “This is an early cold snap I wasn’t really counting on. If it was 40 degrees and sunny, we’d do it in a short period of time, but that roof is basically ice every morning right now.”

The only reason he agreed to do it, Miller said, is because of “the cause.” He said, “I think it’s a bunch of people getting together to save something, with good intentions.”

If the weather improves, he said, he will do it, because he cares about the village.

A buyer in sight?

Capuano said that one of the board members of Historic Altamont has been in contact with a private citizen who has expressed interest in the house, “even at this late date.”

According to Capuano, that person had always been interested in the house, but assumed it would be too expensive.

“I always thought,” Capuano said, “the easiest way would be for a private citizen to buy it.”

All around the village, he said, are examples of what people can do with old homes when they care for them.

“So that would be the best possible outcome,” he said. 

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