An innocuous sounding agenda item at the tail end of Tuesday’s Bedford Town Board meeting turned into a sometimes emotional, nearly hour-long discussion.
The item, “Report from Katonah Village Historic District Advisory Commission regarding Veterans Memorial and Town Board action,” had to do with the landscaping plan for the veterans monument — a monument that was first proposed in 2012, approved in 2018, and installed last year. The discussion boiled down to a disagreement between the town’s Veterans Advisory Committee, the KVHDAC, and several neighbors over the height of the shrubs that are supposed to surround the monument.
Supervisor Chris Burdick said ahead of time that the board “will consider the report and decide upon the height of shrubbery which the Town’s Parks Department will plant.” He said members of the public would be invited to speak but, apparently anticipating what was to come, he reserved the right to apply the three-minute rule for each person’s statement.
That rule came close to being needed. And in the end, the board did not make the decision it had set out to make.
In March 2018, the town board officially sanctioned a new war monument to be added to the Katonah Green, the grassy area across the street from the Katonah Village Library. The Veterans Memorial, as it came to be known, aimed to honor the service and sacrifice of Katonah’s military veterans who served in all modern wars not recognized by the existing monuments in the hamlet, including local veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf wars.
The memorial was initially proposed in 2012 and approved by the town board in 2013. Eventually the town’s Veterans Advisory Committee assumed leadership of the project. The VAC worked with Bedford architect Glenn Ticehurst and Katonah Eagle Scout candidate Aidan Cryan on the design. Committee members also consulted with the KVHDAC, as well as the town’s Department of Public Works, Department of Recreation and Parks, and Planning Department. The project was funded completely through donations, with private citizens conducting the fundraising efforts.
The monument was described by VAC in 2018 as “an inscribed round granite centerpiece surrounded by a circular brick plaza approximately 12 feet in diameter” that would be “connected by a brick walkway to the existing seating area and crosswalk at the northern end of the island on Bedford Road.”
In a memo to the town board from the KVHDAC chairperson at the time, Deirdre Courtney-Batson, she noted the commission recommended that the remainder of the Katonah Green be maintained as open green space. Details of the proposal still needed to be developed, “and should be reviewed by the commission.”
The Record-Review reported in March 2018 that in addition to the commission, the Veterans Advisory Committee solicited input from the public at its monthly meetings and conducted two site walks with multiple town officials, all of whom supported the project and provided guidance regarding “safety, aesthetics, historical appropriateness, and construction and maintenance matters.”
In September, current KVHDAC chair, Andrew Chintz, sent a letter to the town board stating that at their Sept. 17, 2020 meeting, they had approved the landscaping plan submitted by the Veteran’s Committee, and thus completed their approval process.
The letter said that on June 10, 2019, KVHDAC had discussed several different landscaping schemes and reached a consensus to ask the landscape architect, who was the Veterans Committee representative to the meeting, to develop and draw a plan subject to criteria established at that meeting. That landscaping plan, dated September 10, 2019, was the one approved at the KVHDAC meeting on Sept. 17, 2020. That year-long gap, said Mr. Chintz, was due to the heavy workload of the Parks Department in fall 2019, and subsequently due to COVID-19-related delays in spring 2020. Because of that, two planting seasons had been missed.
All of this led up to Mr. Chintz asking, “Why are we here now?” Town attorney Eric Gordon explained that as he understood it, the VAC disagreed with the submission from the commission, and said the landscaping plan was not one with which they agreed. Therefore, under the Katonah Historic District law, the town board has the authority to review the commission’s determination.
“The Veterans Committee has been a party to this decision and has agreed with what we established in the criteria, and then submitted a plan based on that criteria,” Mr. Chintz said. “Why would there be an objection?”
Mr. Burdick said it was best to hear from all parties involved. He and board member Ellen Calves emphasized that they wanted to learn where in the process things had gone awry, and Mr. Burdick said “my inclination from day one” was that land use matters are permitting board decisions and should stay within those boards; he did not wish to have the town board start a new review of the plans.
David Zapsky of the VAC stated his objection succinctly: that the height of the granite monument was in fact 2’6”, but that Mr. Ticehurst, the architect, had erroneously stated it was 3 feet tall. Thus, the 3-foot hedges planned to surround it would completely hide the monument.
Neighbor Michael Kempin showed photographs of truckloads of dirt being added after the monument’s installation and said that had increased the height and altered the plan. Neighbor Susan Liederman pointed out that there had been several meetings on the green, which included the architect and neighbors, after the monument had been installed and the dirt added. She said they were just trying to make it “part of the beautiful green which has a natural appearance, and right now it doesn’t look that way.” She noted that no member of the VAC had appeared at the meetings where the plan was approved.
Mr. Burdick asked Mr. Zapsky whether it was his contention that the plan submitted was erroneous. Mr. Zapsky said the monument was originally to be 3 feet tall, but “that did not happen” and it was in fact 2 feet, with a total height of 2’6” at the crown. He also contended that there was no reason for committee members to attend all the meetings, and that anyway, no one had ever reciprocated and attended any VAC meetings.
Mr. Zapsky further noted that the location in front of the library was not the first location VAC had selected. “Our first choice was in front of the Methodist Church by the Verizon building,” he said; it was the sidewalk height of the island in front of the library that determined the height of the memorial.
Ms. Courtney-Batson said as chair of the historic district commission at the time the decision was made, she could attest that at that time it was flush with the curb. “Something changed,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what it was.” She said the commission had not originally wanted hedges surrounding the memorial, but because the monument was not installed in exactly the position that had been anticipated, and because the topography of the site had not been taken into account in the plans, it had wound up closer to the curb than originally thought, and the hedges were thought to be a solution that would please everyone.
Town board members attempted to make some sense of the dispute. Every member agreed they wanted to have the matter resolved quickly so that another planting season was not missed; Kate Galligan said it occurred to her that the hedge was something that could be allowed to grow or trimmed to whatever height was desired. Bobbi Bittker said she didn’t think it was about the hedge at all. “I am hearing one group of people is concerned about the integrity of the work they’re doing and their commission; another group feels like this is an affront to them as veterans; and there are neighbors who want things to be a certain way because they bought into the Historic District.” She said nobody involved wanted the monument totally obscured.
Mr. Burdick said he wanted to move things along and have KVHDAC review their decision, but veteran Clark Petschek argued that the town board should simply make a determination about the height of the hedge and not kick the issue back down to the commission. Mr. Gordon reiterated that the VAC has to submit a revised plan to the commission, as legally it was KVHDAC’s decision to make.
“Clark, to your point, we’re asking the commission to review all of this in good faith and to try to come to a determination on it that’s the best that they can do and as reasonable as they can make it,” Mr. Burdick said.
The board voted unanimously to return the matter to KVHDAC, which would review a revised plan from VAC.
“It’s unfortunate that this has become so painful to all, and hopefully we can come to some kind of resolution where all of the participants are not so unhappy,” Mr. Burdick concluded.