Structure On Franklin Court Property Stirs Controversy
When Rod Coyne’s kids were growing up, the triangular-shaped piece of property right outside his Franklin Mews residence was where all the neighborhood kids would go to play ball, hang out or enjoy the freedom of unstructured playtime on open green space. It was an ideal place to walk a dog, have a picnic or merely stargaze–that is, until Dec. 20 of last year, when an LLC called Franklin Court Mews purchased the property from the Village of Garden City. The Garden City Board of Trustees had voted to approve the $100,000 sale at a sparsely attended meeting the day before. Nothing happened for the next few months until a six-foot-high gated fence was erected in early June of this year. It was a shock to Coyne and the rest of his neighbors, who’d previously had free run on this spot for as long as he could remember. And while Coyne had received a letter the prior August from the LLC offering him the chance to buy in, the appearance of the fence caught him completely by surprise.
“In fairness to anyone that received that letter, this private consortium didn’t even own the property at the time much less have permission to erect a fence. And there was no public discussion at all about the fence. When I saw it, I thought that it couldn’t be legal and the kids’ playing field is now off limits,” explained Coyne.
Coyne, as a resident of Franklin Court Mews, a Garden City historic section originally constructed in the early 1900s to house workers at the nearby Doubleday, Page and Company, was a recipient of this letter. He later found out that neighbors living in nearby houses that aren’t part of the Mews were not extended an invitation to join the private coalition.
The roughly 39,000-square-foot parcel of green space that had been owned by the Village of Garden City is bordered by an embankment of trees and shrubbery on the west side and the Country Life Press Station of the Hempstead railroad line, both of which are owned by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), with the third side going curbside.
Calls to Philip Falk (president of the Franklin Court Mews LLC) for an explanation as to why his group purchased the property and the purpose of erecting a fence were unreturned.
Coyne’s outrage over the fence is shared by an ad hoc band of neighbors who are not part of the Franklin Court Mews collective. As a means of obtaining answers, the group has filed numerous FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) requests, which guarantee the right of access to information pertaining to the sale held by the village. This group has also started showing up at village board of trustees meetings demanding to know about the LLC’s ability to get a variance on the erection of the fence. The village’s building department has stringent codes about fences, specifically 200-55, which states, “…a fence, wall, gate or play yard [shall not exceed] four feet in height.”
At a recent Oct. 2 board of trustees meeting, Coyne and Kara Lord, who lives near Franklin Mews, spoke during the citizen comments portion of the night. The board met their inquiries about who sanctioned the erection of the fence with silence, which clearly frustrated Lord.
“I wanted to put up a fence on my property, being that the new Doubleday Building is next door. I understand that I have to file for a variance and pay a fee,” she said, adding, “But…the people that purchased our field didn’t obey the law, so why should I have to? I keep going to the village and nobody will talk to me.”
Lord had a telling exchange with Superintendent Michael Filippon, head of the village’s building department. After she pointed out to Mayor John Watras that Filippon wouldn’t speak with her about the fence’s erection during prior visits to the building department, the superintendent asked the mayor’s permission to respond.
Filippon then explained that “…the building department had no involvement in that installation whatsoever,” and that it “…was strictly a matter between the board of trustees and the council.”
Lord insisted that the fence should come down because she wanted to file a complaint about the LLC not paying a fee and filing a variance, but her complaint was denied. Filippon countered, “Your complaint wasn’t denied. Your complaint would be charged against, for lack of a better word, the perpetrator of the action.” He then jokingly asked, “Do you want me to seriously file against the mayor and board of trustees?” Lord simply said yes. Kenneth A. Gray, Esq. from Bee Ready Fishbein Hatter & Donovan, LLP, representing current village counsel Peter A. Bee (who was not in attendance), summarized the situation by saying ,“I think what’s being asked is that a resident filed a complaint that another property owner didn’t follow procedure and erected a fence without the proper permit or variance. Sitting here today, I don’t know the answer to your question, but it might have to be readdressed.”
What’s With The Fence?
The vote to sell the property to Franklin Court Mews LLC took place last year on Dec. 19 during a holiday week and was finalized the following day. Many Franklin Court residents have voiced concerns not only over how the transaction was handled in a stealth manner, but how no public notice was given regarding the erection of a fence. The sale of the property didn’t come up in subsequent meetings until the same residents who were not part of the LLC and were upset by the construction of the barrier started attending and asking questions about the transaction, in August. It was not until the most recent trustees meeting on Oct. 16 when Trustee Richard Silver explained the chronology of the fence to resident Amy Griffo on behalf of the board. The Garden City native and her husband had bought a home with a small plot of property near the then-unfenced plot with the notion of being able to bring their two-year-old daughter there to play. Silver explained how a group of citizens had approached the village about purchasing the property. Being as it was considered surplus, it was appraised and sold to the group for more than the appraised value with the condition that it remain open space.
Silver did add, “As part of that part of the purchase, we approved the erection of a fence and for us, the fence simply was a mechanism that reflected that it was private property. There were restrictions in the deed that required it to be maintained as open space which was intended by the village. The restriction was not intended to convey that it would be open to the public as in any property sold to a private purchaser. It is their right to restrict access if they wish to do so.”
And it is that issue of restricted entry to what was formerly space available to all residents that is promising to make this an ongoing issue, particularly for people living near the Franklin Court property, like Michael Griffo. He echoed this feeling at the Oct. 16 trustees meeting.
“When we were looking at our home, it was a selling point by the real estate broker for us,” he recalled. “Because we had such a small property, [we thought] that we had that land to use as well, and now it’s taken away. And now the value of our home has been personally affected.”