The Baxter House dispute goes underground

The Baxter House dispute goes underground
A demolition crew with the remains of the Baxter House, as seen from Shore Road. (Photo by Luke Torrance)

In early October, the 200-year-old Baxter House was demolished, ending a long-running battle between the home’s owner, Sabrina Wu, and local residents who wanted to save the building. But the demolition marked the beginning of a new dispute between Wu and the Port Washington Water Pollution Control District.

Wu and her attorney, Thomas Levin, wrote in separate letters that the sewer district was unnecessarily requiring her to disconnect from the main located beneath Shore Road instead of on Wu’s property.

“To process the disconnect at the main… will cost us 28 to 30 times of what a standard homeowner [is] expected to pay for the sewage disconnect,” Wu wrote in a letter on Sept. 8.

Disconnecting from the sewer main would cost Wu about $35,000, according to a letter by her attorney, because the main is located beneath Shore Road. When the owner wanted to reconnect to the main, Levin wrote that it would cost an additional $35,000.

“If this $70,000+ cost can be avoided, it would be a great benefit to Ms. Wu,” he wrote.

Windsor Kinney, the superintendent for the water pollution control district, said that disconnects usually cost around $4,000 to $15,000 and that the district offers several licensed contractors so homeowners can get the best possible price.

“We don’t deal with just one contractor, so you can hire someone cheaper,” he said.

Baxter Estate Trustee Chris Ficalora suggested that the increased cost might have been due to the water pollution control district commissioners’ frustration that the Baxter House was allowed to be torn down.

My understanding is that [the district commissioners] were unhappy with how the village handled the legal matter,” Ficalora said. “They made it very well known to our mayor they were unhappy with her for letting the house fall into disrepair and are assessing [Wu] a huge amount of money as punishment.”

Efforts to reach the commissioners were unavailing, and Levin declined to comment on the details in the exchanges he and his client have had with local officials.

“We don’t handle our matters in the newspapers,” he said.

The issue first came up over the summer. With the Baxter House critically damaged from a fire, the village wanted Wu to tear down the house as soon as possible. But before the house could be demolished, it had to be disconnected from the sewer main.

Wu and the water pollution control district could not reach an agreement, so the village waived the requirement to disconnect from the sewer main so the house could be demolished.

Since then, Ficalora said the village has not been involved with the dispute.

“The village has not gotten involved in the battle between Ms. Wu and water district because it’s not in our jurisdiction,” he said.

With the disconnection, there is a small amount of clear water leaking out of the pipe— about 50 milliliters a minute, according to an inspection conducted by Kinney shortly after the house was demolished.

In a letter, an attorney for the sewer district said Wu would be permitted to temporarily cap the sewer line if she paid a $300 disconnect permit fee and a $2,500 deposit; if she agreed to do a full disconnection/connection to the main before construction or selling the property; and if the capping was done in the presence of a district engineer and as close to the property line as possible.

Kinney said that Wu was being made to follow the requirements of every other resident.

“You have to take what they say and draw your own conclusions,” he said. “The homeowner is not doing what she’s supposed to be doing. We’ve got to watch out for the public, for the environment and our infrastructure, so it’s not like I’m doing anything to be a bully.”

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