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Room with a View

Peter Drexler wanders happily from his living room to his kitchen in his one-bedroom condo at Half Moon Bay, backing up and pointing as he does so. "See," the board member and HOA treasurer says enthusiastically. "Wherever you go in here you've got water. They built that corner window so that you feel like you are right on the Hudson, even though there are units next to you." He stands in the kitchen and looks: "Water." He walks over to his work desk against a wall in the living room: "Water." He moves to the short hallway that comes from his bedroom, pretending to walk out, surprised at the view: "Water." He adds: "I could retire here with this view."

Half Moon Bay, a 120-unit condominium in Croton-on-Hudson, is all about views. Nestled away behind a Metro-North train yard, the short one- to two-minute trip from Route 9A to its guard gate weaves around an almost hidden warehouse, through a canopy of trees and then over a small bridge to a wide-open vista of the Hudson below. It's the sort of privacy only rumored about in New York City.

Like many co-ops and condos, Half Moon has had its share of growing pains — developer defaults, encroaching public plans, high subletting, lender stagnation — but the important reminder for the board members has been to keep their eyes on that view, realizing what they had, what they wanted, and what they would accept. It has also been about what they have to accept: the good along with the not-so-good.

Construction on Half Moon Bay began in 1986. In the beginning, the dream was to have a complete 374-unit condominium development that reached out to the water. There were also plans for a dockominium (think boat slips) and a Chart House Restaurant onsite.

"It was advertised as a lifestyle," recalls Michael McFadden, vice president of the HOA and a resident since 1990. "You're 30 minutes by train outside of Manhattan, you hop on the jitney, and you come home and relax by the river. When it opened, there were sales offices by appointment only because there was so much interest."

But as so often happens, the developer — in this case Jim Harvie — was hit hard by the recession and, with bankruptcy, turned control of the property over to a lender, leaving only half of the project completed — 120 homes. The remaining units had their infrastructure ready, gas, electric, and sewage, but no buildings.

Other bad news wasn't long in coming. The parking lot for the restaurant had also been sold to the dockominium — and to the homeowners. The seventy owners who lived at Half Moon, of which seven remain today, started litigation to the tune of about $1 million, plus legal fees. With that they bought their freedom.

A settlement in 1993 granted Phases I and II (the completed sections) freedom from the marina, Phase IV, and from the undeveloped portion, Phase III. As part of the settlement, the unsold units in Phase I were auctioned off. Phase I was thus able to stand alone, independent of the confusion surrounding it.

"After the auction, the community really started to thrive," says McFadden, a no-nonsense businessman who works in the funeral industry. "We were owing to no one, self-contained."

Things were not as peaceful at Phase III, though. The site plan for the section, complete with a lazy river flowing through it, expired in 1995. The town took the opportunity to rezone the property. The homes, some of which were originally planned as three-story structures, could now only be two-story. So, the 254-unit Phase III was reduced to 158. In addition, the town mandated that the new plan include a bike trail that would be part of the Hudson River trail system, opening up the property to bike traffic. Residents of Croton-on-Hudson were also permitted to walk along the river.

A flurry of developers came and went in the years following the settlement. They seemed to step into the same cycle, according to McFadden: "They would get excited; we would get excited and then...nothing would happen."

Typical of the ever-changing nature of the situation is one deal. Ron Sher, a partner in Himmelfarb & Sher, the property's attorney, recalls: "We were negotiating with a developer one day and the next he sold out right beneath us and we're dealing with someone new. I thought we'd be in litigation for a while."

The board, to its credit, remained calm, cool, and focused. The reason, says Darrell Walsh, the HOA president, is that it kept things in perspective. "We had a community of 120 owners that worked and as a board we were committed to making Phases I and II work as a separate entity. So we were very diligent with developers to make sure that they fit into our idea of community."

Sher gives much of the credit to Walsh, an accountant by trade. He is meticulous with details, so one of Walsh's first actions when he joined the board was to bring the HOA's finances and finance reporting up to snuff. Walsh had been very surprised to learn that, when he asked for a financial statement, there wasn't one available.

Having people on the HOA with backgrounds in management, contracts, and accounting, among other skills, was key, but having the right leader was also paramount. "Darrel did a phenomenal job in leading this group," says Sher. "He really utilized the input of the board when it came time to negotiate with the sponsor successor. He was able to shape, frame, and form a good agreement."

"This board [consists of] team player[s]," agrees Marie Repicky, president of Phase I. Another no-nonsense, go-get-'em personality, Repicky brings years of experience in the management industry to the table — contract negotiations and board, community, and labor issues. Like many owners at Half Moon — Drexler included — she saw the property one day and vowed to live there. "No one fights for superiority. Sometimes we fight, sure, but we're always ready to move forward."

That willingness to do that, while at the same time checking on the past and the present, has made the board an effective user of its professionals. The members respect their professionals, certainly, but they also hold themselves ultimately accountable, over the professionals. The hiring of Sher shows such concern. The board actually employs two law firms. Since the negotiations with the town and with the developers and all the sundry parties were so complicated, the board brought Sher on as a specialist in these interactions, continuing to use their other firm for different matters.

In addition, with all the experience on the board, the members are extremely confident that when they reach a consensus on something that they've reached the best solution. The process is aided by their professionals, not ruled by them. Indeed, Walsh and company are keen on pointing out that the board and the community are the ones that run the property and successfully at that. Attorneys and managers may come and go — and they will, if they aren't doing their job — but the community remains.

John T. Lamorte II, president of Westchester Property Management Group, who manages the property, says this type of active, hands-on board makes his job easier and more effective. "This is a very active group and also one that has the association's interests at heart. They are there for the right reasons. Because of this, the relationship involves more talking and planning."

Lately, a majority of the planning and talking has involved Phase III. Realizing the addition of 158 units would have an impact on the property, the board stipulated some changes it wanted from any developer interested in the property. These included a new, larger clubhouse, another pool, and a playground. They also wanted a southern access for the trucks and equipment to enter Phase III, minimizing disruption to Phases I and II.

The property was finally acquired in 2001 by Spectrum Skanska of Valhalla, New York, a well-known and respected developer of some of Westchester's most upscale communities. A $500,000 sales office was placed on a corner of the property in January, near the entrance, and three price increases have occurred since construction resumed. Prices will range from $200,000 for terrace homes to $300,000 to $800,000 for townhouses, according to Spectrum. Rumors at Half Moon have it that 35 contracts have been signed already, site unseen.

Phase III has also been given its own title, Discovery Cove at Half Moon Bay, a marketing tool some members of the HOA have mixed feelings about. "It lends itself to almost start a caste system," says the outspoken McFadden. "The more expensive and less expensive. And when you are trying to work and create a community that can get in the way sometimes."

But those troubles are nothing next to what has been overcome. And, of course, there are the positives. "Look at that view," says Drexler, standing by his window. He waited nearly 20 years to buy a unit. And now, notes Repicky, he's got what they all have: "a slice of heaven."

 

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