- A $25 million lawsuit recently filed against the Town of Southampton by prominent real estate developer Dede Gotthelf charges the town with deliberately stalling her Rivercatwalk project while favoring a much larger development, known as the Riverside Hamlet Center, across the street.
The lawsuit contends Gotthelf's project was delayed while a project to develop land directly across the street in which town planning board member John Blaney reportedly has a financial interest has moved forward. Reached at his real estate office for a comment this week, Blaney noted he had not been served and had not seen the lawsuit. "I have no comment," Blaney said.
Dede Gotthelf speaks out at a recent town board meeting.
The defendants named in the case, including past and present members of the Town Board, along with current Supervisor Linda Kabot
, as well as her predecessor Patrick "Skip" Heaney, have yet to be served with papers while attorneys for both sides begin discussions concerning the case.
"We'll answer the complaint at the appropriate time," Town Attorney Daniel Adams said, noting none of the defendants have been served yet.
"Unless and until the defendants are served, the court has no jurisdiction over the defendants. The defendants do not have to answer the complaint."
Adams noted the town has been in discussion with Gotthelf's attorney Andrew Campanelli, Esq., but declined to discuss the case further. "I am hopeful we will be able to work this out," Gotthelf said as she discussed her case freely in an earlier interview.
"People have been calling me and emailing me in support of the lawsuit," Gotthelf said, contending she was suing the town reluctantly after more than seven years of delays that she claims have derailed her project.
Gotthelf's project proposes the construction of a hotel and conference center on a 20-acre parcel of riverfront property located along Route 24 in Flanders. The property has yet to be re-zoned to mixed maritime use by the Town Board despite early assurances from town officials indicating they approved of the project, according to Gotthelf, indicating it was in keeping with the Town's Comprehensive 1999 Zoning Plan as well as the Town's Master Plan adopted in 1970.
The Riverside Hamlet Center proposes the construction of an estimated 80,000 square feet of commercial space on a 68-acre parcel on Route 24 along with 112 residential housing units.
That project, according to Gotthelf, signals the demise of her plans. "Forget my project," Gotthelf said. "It's all spent. The traffic congestion and the sanitary issues related to sewage and water would overwhelm the area."
Town Attorney Daniel Adams has refused to comment on the case
noting the defendants have yet to be served by Gotthelf's attorney.
Gotthelf contends town planners have favored the Riverside Hamlet project over her project and waived requirements for traffic studies, environmental impact statements and financial analysis in its review, while forcing her to comply with a host of regulations that have delayed her proposal. "They want to wear me down to either kill the project or force a sale to another developer," Gotthelf asserted. According to Gotthelf the application process has cost over $1 million to date.
"They asked me to provide them with an econometric study," Gotthelf said, "Does anyone even know what that is?" To add insult to injury, Gotthelf notes the taxes on the property comprised of eight contiguous parcels along 3,000 feet of riverfront have escalated from $14,000 to $140,000 over the last seven years.
Gotthelf owns and operates the Southampton Inn
located on Hill Street in Southampton Village
. A figure in the local business and real estate community for years, doing business as Catcove, Gotthelf's company has specialized in the purchase and development of properties across Long Island.
"I am trying to do something that has the full support of the community," Gotthelf argued. "The Flanders, Riverhead, North Hampton Community Association (FRANCA) has been in favor of this project from the beginning. Everyone agrees it will be a big improvement to an underdeveloped and sometimes crime ridden area."
Former Southampton Town Supervisor Patrick "Skip" Heaney is named in the lawsuit, along with Blaney. The suit names the entire sitting town board, as well as past members, namely former Councilmen Steven Kenny and Dennis Suskind. Both were on the Town Board when Gotthelf began her application process in 2001.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is named as a defendant as well, and is cited with misdeeds and mistakes contributing to the delays that have made it "impossible," according to Gotthelf, to get her project off the ground, raising issues concerning wetlands on the waterfront property and requiring numerous - and in her estimation, "repetitive reports" and environmental impact statements.
The Rivercatwalk project has had widespread community support from the Flanders Riverside Northampton Association since it was proposed several years ago.
The lawsuit also claims the town over-reached its authority in attempting to map salt water wetlands that fall under state's jurisdiction. The town's jurisdiction is limited to fresh water wetlands according to Gotthelf's complaint.
Gotthelf's attorney contends his client's constitutional rights have been violated and points to the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.
"My client's right to due process is guaranteed under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution," Campanelli said. "The right to petition the government to redress grievances is guaranteed under the First Amendment."
According to the complaint, town officials unlawfully discriminated against Gotthelf based on her gender, raised the property taxes on the waterfront parcel to unreasonable levels, and treated Gotthelf "differently" than other developers.
The complaint notes that former Supervisor Heaney, accompanied by town land planner Jefferson Murphree and town employee Martin Shea, visited the property in October 2005, less than a week after a flash flood left homeowners across Long Island with flooded basements. On the strength of that visit, in which water levels were unusually high everywhere due to the flood, according to the lawsuit, town officials sought to re-map the wetlands on her property in a deliberate attempt to stop the project.
The remapping resulted in a diminished building envelope making the eastern portion of the property unusable, sending Gotthelf back to the drawing board to revise her plans.
The lawsuit also notes Rivercatwalk developers submitted an engineer's report to the town in 2004 along with a draft Environmental Impact Statement. The report was "rejected," according to Gotthelf, on the grounds that the document did not have a three-hole punch. The plan was subsequently revised in June of 2004 and resubmitted in three-hole punch form.
The complaint also notes the Town required Rivercatwalk to write the legislation for zoning changes for the Flanders property in August 2005 but did not require the developers of the Riverside Hamlet center to draft their own zoning legislation.
"What has happened here is really ugly," Campanelli said. "It is clear the town wanted this project but they wanted someone else to have it."
The plaintiffs have demanded a jury trial. Campanelli will begin serving the defendants this month as he prepares to go to court citing what he describes as his grave concerns over the way the town proceeds with litigation. "The town makes no attempt at discussion," Campanelli said, "and that is a disservice to the taxpayer."
"To me this case is about a level playing field," Gotthelf said. "Everyone should be treated fairly. They have done everything they could to wear me down and force a sale or abandonment of the property, but I am still hopeful we can work something out."