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Neighbors in Historic District Abutting Shipyard Urging Village of Upper Nyack To Curtail Commercial Scale of Shipyard Operations
By Tina Traster
North River Shipyard in the Village of Upper Nyack, which is relying on an expired special use permit to run its maritime operations, has until April 1st to file an application to renew its right to continue running its business. The Village requires holders of special use permits to reapply every five years but the last round of renewals was delayed by the pandemic.
North River, which has been embroiled in ongoing litigation with the Village over a noise ordinance since 2021, had hoped as part of its legal case to convince a federal judge to restrain the Village from requiring the company to reapply for a renewed permit.
The shipyard had asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York to prohibit the Village “from declaring Plaintiffs’ Special Use Permit to be expired, and instead permitting Plaintiffs to operate their business and make use of the property…without any prohibition, expiration or restriction” as per the existing permit.
Judge Cathy Seibel, on the eve of the Christmas holiday last December, denied North River a temporary injunction, saying the shipyard had failed to show any valid reason why they shouldn’t re-apply.
Days later, the shipyard filed a state court case in Rockland County Supreme Court challenging the local laws requiring it to reapply for its permit as well as other Village zoning laws that would affect its ongoing operations. In that related state court case, the parties agreed by stipulation that the Village will not take enforcement action on the expiration of the 2015 Special Use Permit so long as the shipyard makes an application to the Upper Nyack Planning Board “on or before April 1.” Plaintiffs are seeking to have portions of the Village’s zoning code declared unconstitutional and unenforceable.
Lawrence Garvey, the attorney representing the shipyard, said his client Graefe and Sons Corp. is considering its options, adding “we haven’t come to the conclusion that we need to apply for a new permit.” At issue is whether the shipyard needs to have its existing permit renewed or apply for a new permit.
The shipyard was historically used for small and leisure craft; the 2015 Special Permit allowed it to include building, storing, repairing, sailing, and servicing boats. The business can also maintain a yacht club and marina.
In order to expand their offerings beyond what the Special Permit allows, the company installed large lifts offshore to avoid the Village’s zoning authority. The shipyard typically works on Circle Line sightseeing cruise ships and the Seastreak Ferry, that ran aground in Brooklyn in June 2021. The operations include lifting boats in and out of the Hudson River, sandblasting, welding, power-washing, power painting and at times pile driving from 7 am to 7 pm Monday through Friday.
But Meave Tooher, an attorney representing a citizens group known as Goosetown Environmental Association, says the shipyard’s activities go beyond the Special Permit’s scope. She also said the Special Permit is too vague, which restrains the Village from imposing violations.
“The shipyard is right in a residential community; it’s activities are no longer in sync with the residential community. You can’t be using toxic chemicals or spray painting because particulates spread through the air. The DEC is looking at that issue. The shipyard was supposed to install a concrete basin to collect runoff from seeping into the river. They have used shields to protect the residents but those 35-foot-high shields mean residents lose the viewshed.”
The shipyard’s original complaint against the Village of Upper Nyack was filed in 2021 in Rockland County Supreme Court and moved to U.S. District Court, White Plains. The new case was filed in Rockland County Supreme Court on December 28, 2022, days after the federal court denied the boatyard relief.
In the meantime, neighbors upset over what they say are the shipyard’s expanding operations have organized a website and petition to hold the boatyard accountable to local zoning laws and are hoping the Village will curtail the operations.
In 2004 the Van Houten neighborhood was designated a State Historic District.
Adam Budgor, who lives 1,500 feet from the shipyard on Tompkins Court, says the shipyard, which once handled recreational boats, is now serving barges and large marine vessels, which exceeds its Special Use permit.
Neighbors are besieged by noise, pollutants, foul odors from paints and chemicals and other issues that affect quality of life. Further, the neighbors, who’ve gathered nearly 100 petition signatures to constrain the boatyard operations, say the shipyard is operating beyond its property’s perimeters, drydocks boats with heights that exceed the permit allowances, obstruct residents’ river views, and exceeds the Village’s noise ordinance.
Also, the neighbors allege that from 2016 to 2022, North River Shipyard installed large moorings in the Hudson River 1,000 to 2,000 feet offshore without permission or review from state or federal agencies. These activities, they say, stray from the limitations of the Special Use permit.
“North River Shipyard was supposed to stripe the parking lot,” said Budgor. “Instead there are massive ships strewn all over the place. There’s no fire access lane. If there’s a fire, it’s game over for the whole neighborhood.”
Citizens, who are working together with the Goosetown Environmental Association, along with the Upper Nyack Environmental Protection Fund, say North River’s excesses have been “in plain sight for over ten years” but the Village has turned its back on enforcement.
“The Village, from our perspective, hasn’t done enough,” said Tooher. “Part of this is because the working of the Special Permit it vague. But we don’t think the Village, when it issued the last Special Permit, envisioned a shipyard with huge vessels. We don’t think the Village anticipated the growth. We understand there has to be a balance. The Special Permit needs to be amended so that it is clear and enforceable.”
The shipyard, founded in the 1790s by John Van Houten and formerly named Petersen’s Boat Yard, is two miles north of the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, and next to houses in the Van Houten’s Landing Historic District. Sloops, schooners, and steamboats were built on site along the Hudson River.
In 2010, Ken Graefe bought the outfit to repair large commercial vessels, such as Circle Line cruise ships, and he also built docks. The Village Planning Board approved Graefe’s plans, finding no “significant negative impact on adjacent uses or properties.”
The shipyard has become more industrial, according to the Village’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan. The plan called for new standards for noise, lighting, odors, debris, air quality and impact on river views to co-exist with the residential portions of the Van Houten’s Landing Historic District.
The boatyard, which stretches back to the late 19th century, built ships for the Army and Navy for World War II. By the 1980s, the business catered largely to servicing leisure craft.