The Bridgehampton Fire Commissioners hid the real value of a small parcel of land on Main Street in Wainscott to discourage competitive bids, court papers to be filed this week allege.
According to the document, filed this week on behalf of the district's former secretary/treasurer Charles Butler, the commissioners had arranged last fall to sell the parcel to Ron Lauder, a friend of Steve Halsey, who was the head of the fire commissioners board at the time.
Butler publicly objected to the deal, pointing out there were two other parties interested in paying more. Butler was subsequently stripped of both his titles, even though he was duly elected by the public to the treasurer's position and was to serve until the end of this year.
The district's attorney, John Courtney, agreed with Butler that the parcel should be sold to the highest bidder and he was subsequently replaced as well. Butler is suing for some $40 million in damages.
According to the court papers Halsey, stung by criticism, tried to defend the sale to Lauder. "In newspaper stories on the sale of the property, Halsey was quoted extensively," the lawsuit states. "At 6,000 square feet, the vacant land at 113 Wainscott Main Street is zoned for residential use, but could only accommodate a 700 square foot house. According to Fire Commissioner Steve Halsey, it serves no purpose for the district," a newspaper article stated, "The property is not large enough to put a firehouse on it and no one would put a firehouse in a residential area anyway," Halsey was quoted saying in The Press. Halsey further stated the property was appraised for $1.1 million, according to the newspaper article. The Fire Commissioner Board subsequently accepted a bid from Lauder for $940,000 after the other interested parties failed to follow up.
According to the court papers, though, "Neither Halsey nor the Board ever advised the public that the square footage allowable for a house on the vacant Wainscott parcel was, according to East Hampton Town Building Department official Thomas Preiato, three times the square footage described by Halsey" in the newspaper.
A 2100 square foot house on Wainscott Main Street would be worth millions, Butler's attorneys states. They contend "The Board of Fire Commissioners effectuated a plan of action which was consistent with lowering the public interest in the parcel by suppressing" the actual value of the parcel to be sold.
The proposed sale was then put to public vote by law, but the referendum "did not include the purchaser's name, the other higher offers made . . . the allowable square footage for the parcel."
The lawsuit contends Halsey and the Board breached the fiduciary duty owed to the public and committed "a violation of clearly established law."
Halsey was subsequently defeated in his bid to be reelected to the board. Last week he declined to comment on the matter since he is no longer a fire department official.