Rhinecliff estate renovations spark debate over river views

A controversial application now before the Town of Rhinebeck planning board has stirred up neighbors and raised significant questions about what’s appropriate for Rhinecliff development.

Carolyn Marks Blackwood, a film producer, and her architect, Steve Mensch, have been appearing before the town planning board and zoning board of appeals since early April for ongoing review of plans for three contiguous lots Blackwood owns at 64 Grinnell Street.

Blackwood’s original plans were to renovate the existing two-story home, which is on a .37-acre lot, and increase its size to 4,096 square feet. She also wanted to demolish the existing one-story garage, which is on a .24-acre lot, and build a new two-story one in its place. It would have the same footprint, with an apartment for guests in the second story.

By combining the two lots, Blackwood hoped to get a variance from the zoning board of appeals to exceed the maximum square footage of 2,300 per lot in the Rhinecliff Overlay zoning district. The third lot, of .27 acres, has no buildings.

During public hearings held before both boards, the application has been the subject of much debate amongst residents of Rhinecliff, who say the new buildings will block their view of the river and are not in line with the historic neighborhood in terms of the greater square footage and the proposed modern architecture.

Neighbors also say a planned 11-foot privacy hedge, will block their view and will promote isolation in opposition to the hamlet’s otherwise communal spirit. The zoning rules require hedges to be no more than 4 ft. high.

Blackwood, on the other hand, said she intentionally planned to keep the third, northern-most lot “park like” as a service to the neighborhood and has in other ways tried to keep the neighborhood in mind with the plans, including her plan for some of the additional square footage of the house to actually be underground.

Blackwood, who produced “Philomena” and “The Dutchess,” has owned the property, which she has used as a studio, since 2006.

At the June 2 planning board meeting, Blackwood outlined several concessions to the board and several concerned residents. She said she would remove the second-story apartment from the garage plans after neighbors, like Robert Heywood, on behalf of his parents who live at 66-68 Grinnell Street, claimed it would block their view.

She also spoke about her disappointment that neighbors have not discussed the project with her face to face. “I am one of you. I’m your neighbor. [If] you need help, I’m here for you…[This project] turned into something that I don’t really understand, and that made me feel very sad,” she said.

Other concessions include reducing the hedge height to 8 feet using a stacked planting method. Blackwood has also agreed to make it legally binding that no development should occur on the third lot in perpetuity, thus preserving the view to the Hudson River there for neighbors, residents, and passersby.

Some residents were still not satisfied. Rhinecliff resident Steve Hutkins submitted a 17-page letter to the planning board, and a supplementary 7-page letter to the ZBA, and spoke at length before both boards to address concerns he has with the project not meeting the zoning regulations of the overlay district. “Quite frankly, I just could not believe that the board was about to approve anything that resembled this project,” he said at the June 4 ZBA meeting, echoing the sentiment of many other residents who are still concerned that the size and design of the project could set a precedent.

Kathleen Flynn, a lifelong resident of Grinnell Street, said her concerns remain the same as when the plans were originally presented and that she does not feel they have been addressed by either board. “Rhinecliff is a community, it’s not just immediate neighbors. It’s a place where people walk about, you stop and talk, you help one another out…[W]ith the hedge and the wall, Carolyn is building a place that is isolated off from the rest of the community. It blocks the view of the river and the Catskills,” she said.

Flynn noted that approving the plan could set a precedent for future development in the hamlet and said the changes would affect all residents, not just those on Grinnell Street. “How many hours, days, week, and months we spent on the comprehensive plan to keep the integrity of Rhinecliff in place,” she added.

The ZBA will continue its public hearing on the application July 2. Pending the outcome of that meeting, the planning board is considering hiring visual simulation artist George Janes, at Blackwood’s expense, to create a 3-dimensional rendering of the plans using photography and computer graphics to illustrate what the property would look like.

The planning board will continue its public hearing July 21.

This story was updated to reflect the correct spelling of George Janes’s name and that the name of the member of the Heywood family who has spoken at public hearings is Robert, not Donald.

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