In an impassioned address before the East Hampton Town Board last Thursday, Lawrence Kelly, a former federal prosecutor who filed a $55 million civil rights action against the town in May on behalf of a Montauk mechanic, warned board members that East Hampton faced a “financial Armageddon” in the form of a storm of lawsuits brewing just over the horizon.
Mr. Kelly told the board that although businesses together with other pre-existing, nonconforming uses took place on only 6 percent of East Hampton’s total land mass, the owners of those properties “have been harassed over the past few years, and they have made the decision not to take it anymore.”
“They are researching ways to deal with abuse they have taken. Some of their options are legal. If they take those options they may well recover enough in federal civil rights actions to once again bring the town to the brink of financial Armageddon.”
On Monday, Mr. Kelly said that in recent weeks he had interviewed more than a dozen disgruntled business owners who had accumulated complaints against the town going back years.
In May, Mr. Kelly fired his first salvo in federal district court in the form of a suit against former town supervisor William McGintee, four town council members who served on Mr. McGintee’s board, a police sergeant, two town attorneys, two code enforcement inspectors, as well as the current town government. The case is before Justice Joseph Bianco of the United States District Court in Central Islip.
The suit claims that beginning in 2009, members of the McGintee administration conspired to deny Thomas Ferreira of his constitutional rights to operate his Automotive Solutions business in a residential area even though the business was a pre-existing, nonconforming use of his property.
The suit alleges that officials acted to drive Mr. Ferreira from his business and his home by twice seizing and destroying without a court order vehicles and tools worth over $100,000, then charging him for the materials’ removal. When Mr. Ferreira could not come up with the $19,700 fee, a lien for that amount was placed on his tax bill.
“It was an epidemic under McGintee. [Dominic] Schirrippa [the code inforcement inspector] and code enforcement went to town without any basis in law,” Mr. Kelly said, referring to actions he claims took place without legal authority, including plans hatched behind closed doors and undertaken without due process.
Although not named as defendants, the suit includes a narrative that alleges the involvement of ad hoc citizens committee members, and at least one Democratic Party functionary.
In last week’s address, Mr. Kelly revisited the alleged participation of a vocal minority of citizens groups bent on harassing, and in some cases, destroying local businesses.
He told Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and the board that, with a few exceptions — the result of naiveté or bad advice — they had “fought for a balanced approach to local business.”
He said the current board had “taken care to safeguard the legal rights of local business owners, but seems tired from fighting for simple, basic legal rights against a vocal cadre inclined to support reckless and illegal harassment of business owners. I would note that if the vocal cadre is followed, it will lead the town off a financial cliff of civil rights actions from which it will never recover.”
Mr. Kelly waved a full-page advertisement placed by a group called the East Hampton Conservators that appeared in The Star’s July 5 edition. “I’m taking it a little out of context,” he said of the ad’s text, “but basically they’re saying ‘put up the gates, close East Hampton down, and let us live here without the harassment of people who actually have to work for a living.’ ”
Mr. Kelly said his threat was not an idle one. He told the board that he had brought suit against the Town of Islip on behalf of “the last bayman” in that town. Frank Slope was “driven out of business by the town’s marine police,” Mr. Kelly said.
He said he had given that town an opportunity to join with him in an effort to arrive at “a reasonable settlement. . . . They decided not to. In the end the town paid five times what would have been acceptable to me at the start.”
Mr. Kelly asked the board to sit down with him, “with your attorneys, and figure out a way to resolve these things before I file the next round of cases that may well destroy the financial condition of this town.”
Supervisor Wilkinson said yesterday, “I need to do further analysis to see if his recommedation is necessary.”