May 02, 2007
Southampton Town To Take Village To Court
Tell it to the judge.
Weeks of simmering controversy have erupted into full-scale war. Last Friday, Southampton Town Supervisor Skip Heaney announced that the town board agreed to team up with residents to fight a controversial village hiring site – in court.
For weeks, residents have been furious about a hiring site created by Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley on land located on Aldrich Lane, adjacent to 7-Eleven.
Epley has maintained the site was envisioned to assuage ever-escalating dangers on North Sea Road and County Road 39 posed by crowds of more than 200 day laborers who congregate outside 7-Eleven.
But irate neighbors on Aldrich Lane have countered that their quality of life has been compromised by the site, which is located on a parcel purchased with Community Preservation Funds.
And now they've taken the fight one step further: Last week, neighbors represented by Melville-based attorney Anton Borovina appealed to the Supreme Court for help. Last Wednesday, Supreme Court Justice Peter Fox Cohalan granted an order to show cause with a temporary restraining order.
The suit was filed against Epley, the Southampton Town Trustees, the Southampton Town Board and Heaney, and members of the Southampton Village Police committee, including William Wilson and Thomas Cummings. The plaintiffs ask that defendants show just cause why an order should not be entered restraining, enjoining and prohibiting the defendants or anyone acting on their behalf from using the park property "for non-park and non-recreational purposes and in a manner that is inconsistent with the specific uses and purposes prescribed" by the town code and CPF program mandates.
The temporary restraining order also prohibits implementation of a plan or policy that allows, promotes, facilitates or sanctions use of the park as a place where people may gather, loiter or stand for purposes of being hired by employers on a permanent or temporary basis. And, defendants are enjoined from building or installing anything in the park that would facilitate non-recreational purposes.
Also restricted under the order is the erection or installation of a barrier, fence or wall that hinders the public's use of the parcel for recreation.
Southampton Town, a co-owner of the property, was named in the suit, despite Supervisor Heaney repeatedly calling for a management agreement for the site. He maintains the town was never informed of the mayor's intent.
"We support the position of the plaintiffs," said Heaney. The supervisor and the town board met in executive session last Friday and agreed to file a cross-action suit against the village and seek its own relief.
The town will ask the court to restrain the village from further developing the site. The municipality will also compel the village to remove the improvements, such as hedges and a gravel, circular driveway, and enjoin the village from violating the conditions of the CPF program.
Southampton Town Attorney Garrett W. Swenson, Jr. said the lawsuit initiated by residents "erroneously alleges that it's a joint effort by both the town and the village when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The actions taken by the mayor were without the town's knowledge and, certainly, without the town's consent."
As for the cross claim, Swenson added the town is requiring the village "to play by the rules. Essentially, we're parting company with the village, or with the mayor, on this."
The lawsuit also states it is unclear whether or not the village undertook a State Environmental Quality Review before implementing the hiring site plan.
Epley met with Heaney and town officials last week. The mayor contended he had merely formalized a use already existing on the property, although he said he would enter into a management agreement. "No matter how he tries to massage an illegal use, it doesn't become legal," said Heaney.
Borovina said the essence of his clients' case is that the land was purchased with CPF funds. The CPF program, he said, "was designed to foster and promote the preservation of open space of all the towns located in the Peconic Bay region."
The village, he said, "has subverted the intent, letter and spirit" of the program.
And, he said, "If unchecked, the willingness of the people to continue to support these kinds of programs would be compromised." The hiring site is precedent setting and could lead to governments using "these lands as a means to accommodate other social agendas."
Borovina said Epley believes that just because there is no building on the site, the land will continue to have a park-like quality. The mayor, he said, is "dead wrong."
Aldrich Lane resident Wieslaw Olko said taxpayers funded the CPF purchase. "I cannot agree with the mayor, who likes to change this land for something else than a park," he said. "I don't like this area looking like a concentration camp."
Olko, an immigrant from Poland, said he has worked hard for years to obtain citizenship and make a new life for his family. "We were looking forward to a bright future – not a future like the mayor has created for us."
Olko purchased another home for his daughter on the street believing the parcel would remain open space. "Our mayor is not a mayor for the residents of the village of Southampton," he charged. "He's a mayor for different people. I think he should protect his residents. We are all very upset."
Resident William Berkoski said his issue is not with the hiring site, but with using CPF-funded land for something other than its intended use. "Hopefully, we'll prevail and make sure it's open space." Most important, he said, is protecting the CPF program for future generations and preventing a precedent-setting move by the mayor that would convince voters that "government can bend the rules once they own" the land.
Epley said that the village is going to follow the temporary restraining order. "We will do what the judge says, and then we'll present our case. I feel like we have a strong case. Again, we didn't change the use of the property."
Epley said he understands the actions of the Aldrich Lane residents. "If I were in their spot, I would have done the same thing."
But he also believes that what he is trying to accomplish will benefit residents in the long run. "It will be better than what it was before."
The motion for a preliminary injunction is returnable in the Supreme Court next Tuesday.