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Tower in view of painter's old home sparks suit

  • A curator at Olana State Historic Site takes in the views of the Hudson Valley from the bell tower in Greenport, N.Y.

    Mike Groll / Associated Press

    A curator at Olana State Historic Site takes in the views of the Hudson Valley from the bell tower in Greenport, N.Y.

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Associated Press
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  • A curator at Olana State Historic Site takes in the views of the Hudson Valley from the bell tower in Greenport, N.Y.

    Mike Groll / Associated Press

    A curator at Olana State Historic Site takes in the views of the Hudson Valley from the bell tower in Greenport, N.Y.

GREENPORT, N.Y. -- The on-high views of the Hudson River that inspired Frederic Church's classic landscape paintings remain largely as he saw them in the 19th century. The river below his hilltop home still shimmers in the sun and there are still stately mountains in the distance.
Keeping those views unmarred by the trappings of modern technology is the focus of a legal fight over plans for a 190-foot emergency communications tower 2 miles from Church's old estate, Olana.
While backers of the tower call it a necessary choice between a nice view and public safety, opponent say the plans are tantamount to someone trying to deface one of the old master's paintings.
"The views from Olana are integral to an understanding of who Frederic Church was and why he was such an important figure in American history," said Sara Griffen, president of The Olana Partnership, which manages the National Historic Landmark in cooperation with the state. "When you look at those views, you are looking at a three-dimensional painting."
The lawsuit filed this month by the partnership and the conservation group Scenic Hudson touches on a thorny question: How sensitive should developers be within the "viewshed" of historic sites?
John Howe, Columbia County's fire coordinator, is among the officials in this hilly, rural county about 100 miles north of New York City who say the sturdier tower -- a latticed, antenna-style spire six times wider than the two towers it would replace -- is needed to remake an inadequate emergency communications system. The planning board in nearby Livingston gave its approval in July to build the tower.
"We try to be sympathetic, but the reality is this is our best site. It has to go somewhere," Howe said. "And if this doesn't work, we may have to put up three or four towers at considerable cost."
Church was among the most famous of the Hudson River School painters, a group known for their romantic depictions of the young country's natural landscapes. He built a grand Persian-inspired home on a high spot of land by the Hudson and carefully picked spots on his hillside to paint sweeping valley vistas.
The 130,000 annual visitors to Olana see some things Church never saw, from an old cement plant by the river to a separate trio of radio station towers prominent just to the south. The two towers already perched atop what is known as Blue Hill are difficult to see from the house when trees are in full leaf, but they are visible from other points at Olana.
Jeffrey Anzevino, director of land use advocacy for Scenic Hudson, said the current towers are 2 feet wide and held steady with guy wires. The new latticed tower, 13 feet at the tree line and tapering to 4.3 feet at its top, would be far easier to see, he said.
"Our real issue is we want to make sure the proposed facility is as minimally visible as possible," Anzevino said.
Anzevino, whose group has protected 1,600 acres of land that can be seen from Olana, believes there are compromise solutions that could be negotiated. He said he was encouraged the Federal Communications Commission this month called for a review of the proposal under the National Historic Preservation Act.
The lawsuit against the planning board and applicant Eger Communications claims the board gave approval without taking into account the "significant environmental impacts" of the tower, as required by state environmental law. The lawsuit cites a recent letter from the state's deputy commissioner of historic preservation supporting that viewpoint.
Mark Eger's attorney, Jacqueline Phillips Murray, said the board did its job. She said the state found no significant visual impacts of the current towers when they went up in the early '90s and there does not need to be another review for this replacement tower of the same height in the same location.
"God forbids that something happens," Murray said. "By filing this lawsuit, Olana and Scenic Hudson have made a conscious choice to put the lives of citizens and visitors to Columbia County at risk."
Story tags » Painting

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