July 19, 2006

Anatomy Of A Steal? East Hampton Loses Condemnation Case

By Rick Murphy

East Hampton Town has been ordered to pay about $500,000 in compensation and legal fees after it condemned and took a parcel from its owner and offered her $37,000 in compensation.

The town notified Regine Starr, a principle in Three P Corp., that it intended to prohibit her from building on a 1/2 acre parcel she was preparing to build on in 2001. It was part of a four-lot subdivision she had carved out on an unopened "road" named Ocean Parkway off of Accabonac Highway, which lies between the senior housing project Windmill I and its neighbor to the north, Windmill Village II, which hadn't yet been built.

Starr had already paved the road, and sold three houses at affordable prices to Latino families.

It was then the complaints came from the seniors that the Latino families were too noisy, she said. According to court testimony, the complaints were forwarded to Nina Stewart, the town's housing director, by Gerry Mooney, the manager of the senior complex.

On December 14, 2000, Stewart went before the town board and told them the parcel in question was needed "to clear

. . . between Windmill I and II so they can have access to the community road. So it could be a . . . well lit walkway(s) and easy access. She claimed "many" of the seniors "need wheelchairs or walkers or probably will soon."

Stewart also stated access was needed for emergency vehicles, ambulance and fire.

No path between the two complexes was built for years, however, until a judge ruled in Starr's favor and she notified The Independent. The hastily poured tar "path" that exists now was recently done, and it is about 10-feet wide, with no lighting in place. It is too narrow for a vehicle like an ambulance, and is, in fact, blocked by a pole. On the other side of Ocean Parkway, the path narrows to about three feet as it meanders between two residential homes, and finally, into Windmill II.

Seniors interviewed at the site last week said there is little senior traffic between the two complexes. Instead, kids with motor bikes and other bicycles go "whizzing by."

"I wish they never built the damn thing," said one senior whose apartment is adjacent to the path and whose side door opens right onto it.

Philip Sanderman, an attorney representing Starr, pointed out Starr had invested a great deal of time and money combining the urban-renewal lots into buildable ones, paving Ocean Parkway. He also told the board the builder had a signed contract to sell the house, when completed, to a local Latino family from Montauk for $250,000.

"This is about the town being able to take something from a private citizen for no good reason," Starr said. "That's why I'm fighting it."

"We've improved Ocean Parkway. We cleared it, we graded it, stabilized it and contracted to bring water in a great expense," Sanderman told the board. He then offered to sell a 40-foot long swath traversing the lot for the "path."

Jay Schneiderman, the town supervisor at the time, said he would "take that under consideration."

Schneiderman said this week that "Nina said how critical it was we have that land." He did not recall the Latino homeowners being an issue. "I never heard any complaints involving race."

Sanderman proposed in writing "the transfer of a 40 to 50 foot wide strip for purposes of an emergency access and pedestrian trail," this time free of charge.

Meanwhile, tensions flared as Starr prepared to build the modest house. She said a group of seniors confronted her on her property. There were angry words between the builder and Eric Bregman, the town attorney at the time.

"I received a phone call late last night from Gerry Mooney," Stewart wrote in an e-mail to Bregman on July 2, 2001 that was entered into evidence during the trial. "The seniors are besides themselves thinking that once they build the house no one will make them tear it down."

"Gerry Mooney controls the senior population there," Starr said.

Bregman, nevertheless, said on Friday he "never heard any hint in any way about Latinos."

Stewart came up with another reason for condemning the 1/2 acre lot. She said under Suffolk County Health Department regulations, because the Housing Department was proposing 47 units of housing, the town had to set aside more property to accommodate the septic needs of the complex.

Sanderman stated in a letter to Schneiderman dated January 31, 2001 that Stewart's computations were inaccurate. He also pointed out the town could transfer development rights from other substandard lots it owned around the town. Sanderman voiced a strong objection to the condemnation, calling it "extreme."

The need for the extra 47 units was described by Stewart to the board at the public hearing. She said there was an "acute shortage" of senior housing. Yet, in fact, the town couldn't even fill up the 47 units with local seniors — it houses people over 55 from a host of other communities, including those on Section Eight (Suffolk County subsidies). In other words, Windmill II could have been built with fewer units, and thus no additional condemnations would have been needed.

The town offered Starr $37,000 for the lot it took, but ordered her to pay $12,000 to have the foundation removed, charging she had violated a stop work order issued on June 28th and delivered to the site by Don Sharkey, the town's head building inspector. "I delivered it," he confirmed Friday.

However, in court testimony Starr's foreman said Sharkey handed it to a member of the clean-up crew who didn't understand English.

The town also charged Starr with contempt for violating the order.

Judge John Bivona ruled for Starr on every count. He agreed with Starr that she hadn't been properly served the stop work order until July 3rd, and ordered the town to reimburse her for construction costs. He also set the true value of the land at $187,500. So far, taxpayers are on the hook for $314,340 for Starr and $120,000 and counting for her attorney. Interest accrues monthly.

The town's attorney, Michael Rikon, is appealing. "I wouldn't recommend an appeal if I didn't think it was called for," he said. He declined to reveal how much he has been paid thus far, stating his rate is "almost pro-bono." The Town Budget office did not have a case by case breakdown but said, in reply to a Freedom Of Information request, Rikon and his firm have been paid $280,673 since 2000.

Mooney and Stewart did not return numerous phone calls seeking comment.

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