Rehab Flip in Court

Building Department gave okay then had doubts

    The Dunes, a private alcohol and substance-abuse facility at 26 Bull Run in the Northwest Woods section of East Hampton, has filed a lawsuit against the Town of East Hampton claiming that the town’s senior building inspector reversed his own 2010 approval of it, following a complaint from the owner of a rehabilitation center in Westhampton.
    Safe Harbor Retreat, the corporate owner of the Dunes, which opened in November 2010, filed papers in United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York on Jan. 25, claiming that the town is in violation of its constitutional rights, the Fair Housing Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
    The lawsuit also challenges a decision by Tom Preiato, the town’s top building inspector, that reversed his own March 2010 determination that had allowed the Dunes to open in a residential zone.
    In September, however, Mr. Preiato told the Dunes owners that it was a semipublic facility that would require site plan approval and an additional “special permit” from the town planning board.
    Safe Harbor Retreat seeks an injunction and monetary damages.    
    The lawsuit also claims that “By arbitrarily and illegally reclassifying 26 Bull Run described as something other than a single family use, the Town of East Hampton is threatening to make single family housing unavailable to persons recovering from drugs and alcohol addiction.”
    In an e-mail this week, Brian Sokoloff, partner at Sokoloff Stern in Westbury, who is an attorney for the town, said, “We reject the allegations in the complaint, particularly the charges that the Town of East Hampton has a discriminatory intent or bias against disabled individuals. The Town at all times has complied with the law, and intends to continue doing so.”
    “Cases cannot be litigated in the media. They get litigated in court with hard evidence, not racy headlines,” he said.
    In a letter dated Feb. 27, 2010, Joe McKinsey, founder and chief executive of the Dunes, told Mr. Preiato he intended to “establish a high-end executive retreat for men and women recovering from alcohol and drug dependence” in Northwest Woods, where they will live as a “family unit.” According to Mr. McKinsey, the residents “will live and cook together as a single housekeeping unit” for a recommended period of 11 months. Also, he wrote, residents will be under 24-hour supervision and cannot have vehicles.
    In a letter to Mr. Preiato dated March 1, 2010, Mr. McKinsey said he was applying for licensing for “community residential services” from the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse. These types of services are defined by the state as “transitional” for people who are in the process of or have completed treatment, but cannot live on their own yet and need clinical support.
    Mr. Preiato met with Mr. McKinsey at the property, and rendered a written determination on March 4, 2010, that allowed the Dunes in a residential zone. Overcrowding and vehicles were non-issues; Mr. Preiato cited the East Hampton town code and said the residents functioning as a family unit for that time period entitled the facility to exist without the additional permit.
    Following Mr. Preiato’s approval, Safe Harbor Retreat moved forward with its plans, and, the lawsuit states, it spent approximately $2 million to open the Dunes. The lawsuit also claims that Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, East Hampton Town Police Chief Eddie Ecker, and John Jilnicki, then the deputy town attorney, signed a letter on July 9, 2010, in support of the Dunes in its licensing application to the state. “The Town of East Hampton is looking forward to what will be the first of its kind on the East Coast: a private-pay comprehensive residential program,” it said. The application was approved, and the facility was ready for business in the fall.
    In April Mr. Preiato responded to a question from Mr. McKinsey as to whether lighted exit signs were necessary at the Dunes. He reiterated his determination that “the clients in your recovery program, although unrelated, function as a family unit in this residential setting,” and the “normal unobstructed doors” do not require exit signs.
    According to the lawsuit, Madeleine Narvilas, a former East Hampton Town attorney who is now the executive director of Safe Harbor Retreat, was told in September 2010 by Pat Gunn, the town’s director of public safety, that there had been complaints about the facility.
    Ms. Narvilas and Mr. Gunn met with Mr. Preiato to speak off the record. The lawsuit states, “She was told that the complaint arose from an article that appeared in the New York Post. She was told that the only complainant was George Benedict, the owner of Seafield, a 90-bed inpatient rehabilitation facility in Westhampton. Ms. Narvilas was asked if she would consider applying for a special permit based on a change in use, the suit claims.
    Mr. Benedict was unavailable for comment. In a phone interview this week, Mark Epley, the executive director of Seafield (Mr. Epley is also the mayor of Southampton Village) said, “We don’t view the Dunes as a competitor.”
    Mr. Preiato told Mr. McKinsey by letter on Sept. 27 that because the Dunes is “providing of on-site clinical addiction treatments and services, as well as the transient nature of your client’s varied residencies at the facility, it is now clear that such an operation is not permitted in a residential zone without site plan approval.” He advised that the Dunes could be classified as a semipublic facility, which requires a permit from the planning board. On Nov. 2 Mr. Preiato sent a notice of violation to Mr. McKinsey.   
    In response to Mr. Preiato’s reversal of his original determination, Mr. McKinsey wrote a letter to him on Nov. 11, and said he w
as “both baffled and mystified by your correspondence” and “it appears that you are attempting to backtrack from your completely unchallenged determination of over 19 months ago.”
    He asked that Mr. Preiato “consider standing proudly in support of your March 2010 determination and concurrent endorsements of the town’s highest ranking officials.”
    When asked about the lawsuit, Mr. Gunn said, “I can’t comment on it, it’s pending litigation.” Mr. Preiato, Mr. McKinsey, Ms. Narvilas, and Robert Schonefeld, an attorney for Safe Harbor Retreat with Moritt, Hock & Hamroff in Garden City did not return calls seeking comment.