The controversy over the sale of “excess” property, or the park at Garden City’s Franklin Court, erupted at the Thursday, February 5 meeting of the Village Board of Trustees. A year and six weeks after the board approved a sale for $100,000 without full transparency and the public’s input, residents and former Trustee Thomas Lamberti held Mayor John Watras, the village attorney and the entire board accountable as the meeting was prolonged during public comments.
The left side of the meeting room at Village Hall was packed with 15 Franklin Court residents who are appalled by the sale and issues over the possible lack of compliance with the open meetings law for local governments, as well as the tone of responses when the subject has come up at village board meetings.
Lamberti, backed by applause and cheers, was interrupted several times by Village Clerk Brian Ridgway as his comment period lasted over 13 minutes, far beyond the three minute rule for public comments at board meetings.
Public comments began mildly, however, with Ryan Cronin of 7 Franklin Court as the first resident to speak at the February 5 meeting. He told the Village Board that he took notice of the number of objections raised, primarily by the Coynes, over the last year at meetings and in the media. Cronin had also written a letter to the editor in The Garden City News at the end of January.
“A number of us live in the (Franklin Court) community and wanted to have the opportunity to invest in the LLC. As a result our property values are very negatively impacted because we no longer have our park. On my way to tonight’s meeting, I counted the number of houses that would be negatively impacted and it’s about 50. I can’t help but question the wisdom of a one-shot, $100,000 sale of a park that could negatively impact property values of at least 50 homes. I was wondering what, if any analysis was done on the part of the board regarding negative impacts on property values prior to approving that sale,” he said.
Mayor Watras immediately started to reply, saying “well, you know…basically,” and then stopped himself to allow Village Attorney and former Mayor Peter Bee to provide a response.
“As we have discussed, the possibility of litigation exists and accordingly I have provided counsel to the board. At this time the board should be reserved with further comments to the public. Comment has already been made from my office to The Garden City News, and I am inclined to read that comment again tonight, as that comment was made upon my review of the files and my conversations with the trustees,” Bee said. He then repeated his statement printed in the Friday, January 16 edition of The Garden City News:
The Village was first approached by letter of inquiry dated July 11, 2012 from a group of residents with regard to a purchase of the Franklin Court property. The existence of their proposal was discussed by BOT members informally in public at one or more budget work sessions in early 2013. We also believe it was referenced informally at other public sessions, prior to being properly and unanimously approved by the Board of Trustees at a duly-noticed meeting on December 19, 2013, which had an Agenda that included a Resolution to declare the property surplus & authorize the sale.
The Village Board was not advised at the time, and still does not believe, that there was any impediment to its ability to sell the property. The village believes the land, despite being characterized by some as a “passive park,” did not meet the criteria for “parkland” (the sale of which would have required state legislative approval). Once the property was sold, the Village Board recognized and understood that access to the property would be controlled by the new owners (like any property privately owned, with or without a fence) and did not intend that the deed would require continued public access (nor does it believe that public access is required).
With regard to the erection of a fence, the Village Board did not formally approve the fence that the new owners have installed. In hindsight, the Board acknowledges that it would have been more appropriate to follow standard Village protocols with regard to the fence and to leave all determinations, including the appropriate location and height of the fence, to the Village authorities that typically deal with them.
Bee turned to Cronin and summarized:
“In short sir, the board was empowered to sell the land and made the determination that it would do so. All of the proper procedures and steps were taken in compliance with the law,” Bee said.
Cronin stayed at the podium for Bee’s statements. He said he appreciated what was said but his question was still unanswered. Cronin summed up the issue as it stands today, with the Franklin Court fence creating a physical and symbolic divide.
“This sale has created a situation where we have neighbors feuding with one another. We are looking to leadership from the village board to prevent the eventuality of litigation,” Cronin said.
Ralph DeBrosse, a realtor who lives in Franklin Court and makes sales in the area, also addressed the board. DeBrosse moved to Franklin Court in late 2003, recalling the wintertime scenery as if it was “from a Christmas card.” He says the back property with the park was beautiful.
“As a resident and as a real estate broker, when I found out about the transaction and the fence I was shocked. I just recently sold a property of Franklin Court, and one of the questions the buyer asked was about the park and the fence. I feel it really impacts property values of the neighborhood, and something should be done about it,” DeBrosse said.
Rod Coyne of 28 Franklin Court brought up an issue he first commented on at the August 2014 Village Board meeting.
“This has to do with violation of the restrictive covenant in the deeds. As you’ll recall the deed provides a restriction against the erection of any structure on the property or any development on the land. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the erection and installation of the fence constitutes a structure. The definition of a structure in the glossary and building code includes fences,” Coyne said.
Coyne and his wife Bridget have been instrumental to opposing the property’s sale and the erection of the fence, turning out at a dozen board meetings in the last year and bringing their neighbors out too. He thoroughly explained what he sees as mistakes deliberately made by the village board.
“Beginning on December 13, 2013 when the deed was issued with the restrictive covenant imposed on the purchaser, subsequent to that they violated that term. Subsequent to my comment to the board on this, I was told that the purchaser procured appropriate permission. In light of Mr. Bee’s recent statement quoted in The Garden City News, that there wasn’t any formal vote by the trustees, it appears as if the village has done a complete U-turn on whether or not the purchaser was given permission to install the fence,” he explained.
Coyne says the saga has essentially returned to the point he made in August, and he asks the board to recognize that the restrictive covenant has been violated. He wants the board to fulfill its fiduciary obligations to the public and “to the greater good.” He told the board the village should take back possession of the property and remove the fence. Coyne then added to his ultimatum.
“If the village is inclined not to do anything or it declines to take any action, I think it’s only fair that the village explain in clear terms, and in writing to the residents why it’s refusing to do so,” he said.
Former Trustee Lamberti went much further as he lambasted the board during the final comments of the evening. He started with his background in the village, first working under Village Counsel George L. Hubbell, a lifelong Garden City resident who died in 1996 at the age of 96 and was a retired partner with Cullen & Dyckman.
“I served him as chief assistant for 30 years as village counsel, and for 28 years I was the general counsel to the school district. I think I know how a government should be run, and I am here to speak on this issue because I support these people,” Lamberti said, referring to the group from Franklin Court. February 5 marked the second consecutive meeting that the former trustee took up a hot topic with the Village Board, as an advocate for community members he felt needed an authoritative voice in their corner.
Lamberti went into the sequence of events from December 19, 2013 until now, and pointed out the role that Director of Public Works Robert Mangan had in setting up the surplus assessment December 16 of that year, as the village would deem the property “excess.”
“Each one of you knew that when you walked into that room, that you had arrived at an agreement. Everyone knows that. The legal question is when did you arrive at it, and how did you arrive at it. In order to comply with the open meetings law, it had to be at some agreement. I read all the minutes from that period of time and there was no executive session that discussed real estate. Nothing in the public minutes,” Lamberti said.
He added that imposing the details of the sale and the timeline of events on village attorney Peter Bee is “embarrassing” as he was not the village counsel at the time. Gary Fishberg of the firm Cullen & Dyckman was from 1976 until last year.
“There’s nobody in this room that doesn’t believe that you met and reached an agreement (for the sale). Who knows the answer? Village counsel. That was Gary Fishberg. He negotiated it and approved an appraisal, which was not approved by the board, with no resolution to memorialize it. The answer is to let Gary speak – lift him from his privilege.”
“If you have nothing to hide, let him speak and tell us what happened. This art form of protecting you (Mayor and board members) from speaking under the threat of litigation, I find to be a bit of a ruse,” Lamberti said.
Ridgway then interjected, saying Lamberti had 30 seconds left. He would have five more minutes after more interruptions as residents of Franklin Court offered to make a public comment and then yielded their time to Lamberti. When Mayor Watras said his time is up, Coyne and others from Franklin Court replied “we’d like to hear him” and tension built across the room.
Lamberti continued, saying the property had remained unchanged since 1930. He pondered why 23 or 24 people (Franklin Court Mews, LLC) decided to pay $4,000 apiece for a piece of land everyone had been using.
“I called John Wilton and he said that it was a dog run, and people from Hempstead were walking their dogs on this property, and we needed to stop that. Trustee Donnelly was the point man, and this is what they did,” Lamberti said.
Wilton did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
“I called John and said the fence is not legal, and if that was a condition of the deal then you got a bad deal. Gary Fishberg knows what a structure is, Peter Bee knows what a structure is, and (Superintendent of Building) Mike Filippon has defined it as a fence. Does anybody dispute what Mike Filippon has to say. The contract was drawn and the deed states in favor of the village – open recreational space. You (the board) have sat for seven months with an open breach of contract and done nothing! You locked the people out and you gave the public no right to speak, and this particular sale can affect every single piece of property throughout this village,” Lamberti added.
The former trustee wasn’t the only one with strong words for the board. Michael Butler of Huntington Road, a longtime Garden City resident, walked to the podium from the far side of the room. As he walked up the residents of Franklin Court seated on the opposite side did not know he would offer support and add to the criticism of the board’s actions. He spoke loudly and in a hearty Irish accent, staring the mayor in the eyes.
“I can’t understand why a board would approve anything like this, because this belongs to Garden City. Without me saying yes, there is no sale and you know the law. (Addressing the board) I am surprised with a man of your integrity allowing this to go to this position. You know this is wrongdoing, and you know what Mr. Stewart wrote into the agreement of Garden City, don’t you? Do you ever read it? Or you don’t and you just read what you want to see, and what you want to execute?”
“I didn’t hire you for me I hired you for Garden City at length, and you should be absolutely ashamed of yourselves for allowing this to get to this position,” Butler said.
“I drove over there and I think it’s appalling to sell that piece of property for that amount of money, period, without the people of Garden City approving it. Forget about the fence, take the fence down!” he added, followed by a standing ovation and cheers from the entire left side of the room, all Franklin Court residents.
The meeting ended without further replies from Bee, the village board or Mayor Watras. The last word, however, may be said in another formal setting with Coyne and other residents proposing a lawsuit and the village already reserving their dialogue.
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