Mastic Beach land dispute may affect Sandy funds

Mayor Bill Biondi, left, stands on the damaged Mayor Bill Biondi, left, stands on the damaged dock at Marine 5 in Mastic Beach with trustees Nick Busa, Gail Cappiello, and Bob Morrow, Jan. 31, 2014. The Mastic Beach Property Owners Association wants to retain control over the 6.5-mile stretch of waterfront property in Mastic Beach. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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A three-year battle over a 6-mile stretch of waterfront property in Mastic Beach could cause the disputed parcel to lose out on its share of millions of dollars in Sandy aid, involved parties said.

The Mastic Beach Property Owners Association, formed in 1928 to provide such services as garbage collection and beach maintenance for local residents, wants to retain control over the land -- some of which was battered by the superstorm in October 2012.

But officials in the Village of Mastic Beach, incorporated only in September 2010, assert that the association should transfer title to all the property to them, and point to a 74-year-old deed to support their claim.

Village officials said that only the municipality, not a private group such as the association, is eligible for Sandy recovery money that could come to the area.

The village sued the association in April 2011 for control of the land, which includes docks, piers and two marinas -- one of which was ravaged by Sandy, its wood mangled by pounding waves.

Suffolk County Supreme Court Judge Jerry Garguilo is expected to decide the case this fall, a lawyer for the village said.

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Meanwhile, the state-led Sandy recovery effort, called New York Rising, has been working for months with local residents to develop a plan to address long-standing infrastructure issues, with the goal of making Mastic Beach better prepared for future storms.

 

$3 million in aid at stake

The community could get $3 million in Sandy aid if the state approves its plan, which may include a levee, sewers and various economic development projects. The final proposal is due to the state in March.

But members of the NY Rising planning committee, a grassroots group working with the state on how to use recovery funds, said they're at a standstill because of the legal wrangling.

"We're stuck," said Frank Cappiello, 65, a committee member. "It's a conundrum."

Jean San Martin, 49 and president of the association, has lived in Mastic Beach since 2004. She said she can't envision a positive outcome to the litigation.

"I don't really see a light at the end of the tunnel right now," she said, saying the association and the village "really need to come to some type of compromise."

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Perhaps her group could lease the land to the village, she said, and have the municipal government maintain it. "But we would have some type of rights to it," San Martin said.

State Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said Mastic Beach is "the most vulnerable hamlet in the entire South Shore" and in greater need of infrastructure repair than any other hamlet on the Island.

"It would be unacceptable for Mastic Beach to lose a dollar of Sandy money with this litigation referenced as an excuse," he said. "The village and the property owners association hopefully will resolve this issue amicably in the near future."

Barbara Brancaccio, a spokeswoman for NY Rising, said, "This matter is under review."

Both Mayor Bill Biondi and Gail Cappiello, a village trustee and Frank's wife, said NY Rising representatives have told them the program can't give money to a private entity.

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Entity status a roadblock

"We were told that no money would be released unless it was for municipal property," Gail Cappiello said. Federal representatives have said the same about their grant programs, village officials said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency promised the village $400,000 to repair the two marinas but won't relinquish the money until the case is decided, Biondi said.

FEMA gave the village an 18-month grace period, which will expire by April. While the village can ask for an extension, the mayor said, he worries that "time is going to run out and we will lose the opportunity to get that money."

Martin Altman, a disaster recovery consultant hired by the village, said the final amount might surpass $400,000, but the lawsuit is stalling progress.

Even if the association wins in court, he said, it would not be eligible for that funding, said Altman, who worked for FEMA until 2009.

Gail Cappiello said the village will appeal if the judge rules against it.

Some members of the association said they're reluctant to hand over the property because they are worried it will be developed.

"If the village gets the property, my fear is that it would not be forever wild, the way we want to keep it," said Michelle Wilkinson, 47, and a director for the homeowners group.

She said she would at the very least like to grant the village ownership of the parcel, but retain stewardship of the waterfront.

Gail Cappiello said that much of the land cannot be developed due to zoning restrictions.

"We are not looking at developing," she said. "We are looking at replenishing and making our community stronger, adding acres and acres of sand."

The parcel, she said, would be better maintained by the village, which has the money and resources to support it.

Zeldin said any Sandy money aimed at improving the disputed land should be set aside until the case is decided.

 

Village 'open' to discussionVillage attorney Brian Egan, who noted that the zoning is restrictive, said the village is willing to talk.

"It's not true that the village hasn't wanted to sit down with them," he said. "We are always open to reasonable discussion of settlement terms that will provide for the longtime future stewardship and preservation of the Mastic Beach waterfront."

If the association wants access to federal recovery funds, they should relinquish the parcel now, Egan said.

Maura Spery, 55, and a director of the association, said that from the minute she drove down Neighborhood Road 12 years ago, she was smitten with the place.

"I fell in love and put an offer on a house the first day I was here," said Spery, who is running for village trustee. "I am disappointed that even with the unbelievable amount of time and energy that we the property owners association, and me personally, have spent trying to positively move Mastic Beach forward, there seems to be some who do not want this to happen."

She is skeptical about the village's assurances that it will maintain the land, noting the disrepair of Riviera Drive. The state Department of Environmental Conservation fined the village $4,000 in 2012 in relation to the materials it had used to shore up the road. The village is fighting the fine.

"But I remain an optimist," Spery said. "We are open to any discussions regarding any of the properties as long as it will be to keep them publicly accessible and remain as natural parklands."

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