Critic says board is ‘giving away’ valuable land

Board Backs Off Trail Easement Deal

Three-quarters of an acre down the block from Albert’s Landing in Amagansett is worth a pretty penny on the open market. But even if it is not a buildable lot, there is no justification for East Hampton Town to give it away.

That’s what critics charged at a heated town board meeting on August 2, when the board held a public hearing on what appeared to be an innocuous matter: the “Abandonment of Part of Cross Highway.” The board, after approving the measure, would then accept “Scenic, Conservation & Trail Easements” from the party that was acquiring the property gratis, identified only as Galaxy Group Investments LLC.

The proposed transaction caught the eye of David Buda, a Springs board watcher who frequently complains that recent town boards often do favors for connected individuals, often Democratic Party loyalists. It doesn’t hurt there is a very public rift in the local Democratic Party membership and one faction is led by longtime party boss Chris Kelley from the law firm Twomey, Latham, Shea, and Kelley.

In last week’s Independent, there was a story about the party infighting, as well as a letter from Rona Klopman, who is vying for control of the Democratic Party Committee. She accused the Democratic controlled town board of trying “to give away — for nothing — an unimproved town road to an adjacent property owner who wants a bigger lot.” She further said the value of the parcel in question would “increase the value of the lot significantly.”

Kelley opposes Klopman’s ascension to party leader. Perhaps not coincidentally, Steve Latham, the Latham on the Twomey, Latham masthead, represented the beneficiary of the largess — the owner of the adjacent parcel.

On paper, the deal looked routine. The land slated to be turned over to Galaxy was about 50 feet wide and runs from Cross Highway to Abraham’s Landing Road. The easement, almost 30,000 square feet, would ensure it remain part of Paumanok Path in perpetuity. The Paumanok Path is a trail that goes from Rocky Point to Montauk Point State Park.

No one on the town board publicly asked who controlled Galaxy or questioned whether there were other motives behind the deal. There was no inkling a connected individual and a major donor to the party was the real beneficiary — until Buda took the podium.

Wealthy Landowner

Buda told the board, “A wealthy landowner wants to move a house” onto his lot, 85 Oceanview Lane, which is adjacent to the parcel under discussion. Buda charged the town, by giving him the land, would facilitate the house move by easing clearing restrictions and setbacks on the newly-created property.

More important, Buda also unearthed a 1914 “Highway Record Book of the Town of East Hampton” that shows the so-called trail as a bonafide town road, which means the town board would would not have the authority to give it away in its present state.

Latham took the podium in an attempt to refute Buda. “I met with the Trails Preservation Society. We did an exhaustive search. We’ve gone through a great deal of trouble to protect the public,” he told the board.

Buda hammered away, lambasting the resolution itself, which stated Galaxy was “giving the town” an easement. In reality, he said, the town was handing over nearly three-quarters of an acre of land in a multi-million-dollar neighborhood for no remuneration.

Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, who also served on the planning board, said the stretch of “trail” has never been a public road. “I don’t see the downside of turning it over to Galaxy,” he said. “This preserves the public’s right in perpetuity where the Paumanok Path exists. I think that alone is reason enough to do this.”

But Jeff Bragman, the board’s newest member and an attorney, thought the 1914 highway department book “should be addressed.”

Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, like Van Scoyoc, a former planning board member, pointed out the lot wouldn’t be able to be subdivided even if the town gave Galaxy the additional land. “It’s giving a benefit to a private property owner,” said Bragman, digging in his heels.

Latham, a bit flustered, took to the podium yet again. “I’m asking the board to close this.” The board declined, deciding to leave the hearing record open until at least August 16.

Who Controls Properties?

In a letter written to the town board, Buda maintained Michael Novogratz, “a billionaire with local ties, appears to control Galaxy.”

Novogratz, “apparently owns or controls numerous other properties in Amagansett on Ocean View Lane and Town Lane. Limited liability companies controlled by Novogratz have appeared before the planning board when members of the current town board may have then been members of the planning board,” Buda wrote, a zinger with clear implications: one or more of the current town board members might have a possible conflict of interest.

“I don’t know Mike Novogratz,” Van Scoyoc countered this week. The supervisor said he has no idea if any of Novogratz’s companies did business with the planning board when he was a member. “LLCs are usually designed to shield owners and controlling interests. Without knowing the names of the LLCs, the property addresses, and what the applications would have been, I can’t confirm David’s comments.”

Overby, however, said after the meeting that it was possible there indeed is a conflict of interest, at least in her case. “I would ask our town attorney for advice on the issue of recusing myself. During my tenure on the planning board, there were several horse farms on Town Lane that came before the board, as well as several applications in the Devon area, but I do not recall the names of the applicants or the LLCs that were involved.”

Overby made the motion to hold the record open two weeks. ”I felt the town should investigate more thoroughly the deed to the property. Mr. Buda has brought up some very serious and interesting information that needs to be addressed.”

Buda said in a letter to the town board that, “It is an open secret that 58 Cross Highway East was purchased with the intent to relocate the former residence of architect Francis Fleetwood from its existing location at 85 Ocean View Lane, Amagansett. That property was purchased in July 2016 from the Estate of Fleetwood by another entity under common control: Novofam, LLC, which appears to be controlled by Novogratz,” he wrote.

One possible reason for the town’s largesse, critics charge: according to Forbes, Novogratz is a Democratic contributor, who, along with his wife, donated more than $100,000 to the party from 2005 to 2010.

“An unmistakable odor is starting to waft from the Van Scoyoc Town Board. Four members, Peter Van Scoyoc, Sylvia Overby, Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, and David Lys act almost entirely in lockstep. One member, Jeff Bragman, is raising the questions that need to be asked and protecting the public interest . . . That odor you smell? It’s the smell of money, and something very rotten,” Klopman wrote.

Latham did not return emails by press time.

rmurphy@indyeastend.com