The house at 283 Soundview Ave. in White Plains, N.Y.

Holly Pickett for the Wall Street Journal

Bobby and Tamar Ben-Simon thought they had found the perfect site to build a new family home.

The couple had planned to tear down the sprawling but dilapidated stucco house in White Plains, N.Y., and build a home that would be a gathering point for their children, most of whom are grown, and future grandchildren, said Mr. Ben-Simon. The 4.3-acre property at 283 Soundview Ave. is next door to a synagogue, a convenient walk for family members during the holidays, he said.

But for the last two years, those plans have been on hold as the Ben-Simons have grappled with a new government body standing in their way.

When the couple signed the contract to buy the home in January 2015, Mr. Ben-Simon said, their research turned up no obstacles. But after closing on the house in August 2015 they learned the city had enacted a preservation law three months earlier and launched a commission. Almost two months after they closed the deal, the ramshackle house they had purchased to knock down and replace was on a swift path to being designated a historic landmark.

The White Plains Historic Preservation Commission sees the 1920 house as a significant, intact example of a beaux-arts architectural style and one of the few buildings in the city some 30 miles north of Manhattan that embodies the characteristics of a classic manor house built for the wealthy.

Bobby Ben-Simon, who acquired ‘Soundview Manor’ in White Plains. N.Y., in 2015, is challenging the landmark status that was bestowed on the house shortly after he bought it.
Bobby Ben-Simon, who acquired ‘Soundview Manor’ in White Plains. N.Y., in 2015, is challenging the landmark status that was bestowed on the house shortly after he bought it.

Holly Pickett for the Wall Street Journal

The homeowners disagree.

“It’s a basic stucco house with no special features, not even nice stone work,” said Mr. Ben-Simon, a builder of luxury single-family homes. “It’s just a plain stucco house.”

Now the couple is petitioning in state supreme court in White Plains to overturn the designation. They allege the city has disregarded their property rights and carried out the landmark law in a way that was at times secretive and confrontational and was always headed toward a predetermined outcome.

Requests for comment from members of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission as well as the mayor were referred to the city attorney, who declined to comment on pending litigation. In court documents, the city has asserted that the commission followed a preservation law crafted over several years that was based on the New York State Historic Preservation Office’s model ordinance.

The legal fight highlights the tensions that can flare between property owners and landmarking bodies. It also underscores the broad criteria preservation committees can call on to designate properties as landmarks. To some neighbors the house has been an eyesore; to the city’s preservation commission it is a local treasure.

Lion statues on the front steps of Soundview Manor.
Lion statues on the front steps of Soundview Manor.

Holly Pickett for the Wall Street Journal

“This scenario is one in which there is the ever-present contest between historic preservation law and the owners being able to control their property,” said Shelby D. Green, a professor of law at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.

Mr. Ben-Simon said he didn’t realize there was any local historic preservation until his request for a demolition permit was held up and he received a stop-work order around Oct. 16, 2015. On Oct. 19, the city’s historic preservation commission proposed the house be considered for landmark designation.

The property has been listed on the state register of historic places since 2008 and on the national register since 2009. Neither of the listings restricts owners from demolishing or altering a property but brings with it an extensive study conducted by a state researcher to support its historic significance.

The home, called Soundview Manor, was built by wealthy tobacco-company executive Robert B. Dula likely for his son, according to a report supporting its listing on state and national registers of historic places. But in the years before the Ben-Simons bought the house, it had fallen into disrepair, Mr. Ben-Simon said. The previous owner had used it illegally as a bed-and-breakfast, according to city documents. It sat on the market for roughly a decade, its price slowly falling from $8.5 million until the Ben-Simons offered $2.25 million, said Nick Wolff, a Rand Realty broker associate who handled the transaction.

The city said in court papers it was using the law to protect a historic structure under imminent threat of being destroyed, one of the main purposes of landmarking legislation, according to experts in the field.

Peeling paint and a stairway inside Soundview Manor that is designated as a historic landmark.
Peeling paint and a stairway inside Soundview Manor that is designated as a historic landmark.

Holly Pickett for the Wall Street Journal

“The recommendation to designate Soundview Manor as a local landmark was reasonable and rational,” the city said in court documents.

Mr. Ben-Simon said he now has a white elephant on his hands. The wood banisters and balustrades ringing the terraces are rotting, the foundation is cracked, and the floors are slanted and warped from leaking pipes and radiators, Mr. Ben-Simon said.

The couple’s original plan to build a new home would have cost about $900,000, Mr. Ben-Simon said. They estimate they would have to invest $2 million to preserve and restore the existing structure’s facade while overhauling the interior to make it usable.

The commission last month denied the couple’s application to demolish the building, saying the Ben-Simons failed to show hardship and that the landmarked house is unable to bring a reasonable return. By the commission’s calculations, the couple could still make a profit if they built and sold homes on subdivided parcels, according to city documents.

With a resolution up in the air, the Ben-Simons now have received preliminary approval to split the property into four lots.

The house had been neglected for several years while on the market, says the property’s current owner.
The house had been neglected for several years while on the market, says the property’s current owner.

Holly Pickett for the Wall Street Journal

But Mr. Ben-Simon remains exasperated. “First they rejected my evaluation of the cost involved,” he said in an email. “I do have the experience to know when I get into a financial disaster!”

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