A federal court ruling this month could end a 44-year saga over the ownership of a 1.1-acre piece of land in Muttontown known as “smallacre.”
On Sept. 1, U.S. Magistrate Arlene Rosario Lindsay in Central Islip ruled that Lexjac LLC and its owner Richard Entel had not been deprived of their right to due process when the village in 2007 voted to take possession of the property, which is part of a subdivision.
Although the 1.1-acre site had been dedicated to the village in 1972, the village hadn’t formally accepted it when in 2003 Lexjac entered into a contract with the property owner to purchase it. Entel wanted to purchase the land, which abutted his own property, from Foreal Homes Inc.
Lexjac paid $90,000 for the property, which had a developable value of $1.6 million, according to the court ruling.
At issue in the ruling was whether Entel, who had been a village trustee, had violated state law against conflicts of interest when the village board voted in 2005 on measures that cleared the way for his company to take possession of the property regardless of the 1972 dedication.
In her decision, Lindsay found that, although Entel had recused himself when the village board voted, his role on the village board effectively nullified the 2005 vote.
“It is not the exercise of control, but rather the power or duty to make the decision, that creates the conflict of interest against which [New York State law] seeks to protect,” Lindsay wrote.
Lexjac and Entel sued Muttontown in 2007, and in 2013, a federal jury awarded the company $1.45 million for denying the company its right to due process.
By nullifying that 2005 vote, Lindsay also overturned the 2013 award.
“It is clear that Lexjac bought Smallacre in the hope that the village would not exercise its incontestable right to take Smallacre as parkland,” Lindsay wrote. “Lexjac had absolutely no basis or right to challenge the village’s action and therefore no need for process.”
Russ Haven, legislative counsel at New York Public Interest Research Group, said the decision was a victory for state ethics law.
“Taking yourself out of the formal vote doesn’t cut it under state municipal ethics law and any contract that violates this law is null and void,” Haven said in an email.
Haven said the village could have handled it differently.
“The goal of ensuring the property was kept in good, undeveloped condition could have been handled in a variety of ways without a trustee’s direct benefit and involvement,” Haven said.
Village Mayor Julianne Beckerman said the public would have input on what to do with the land.
E. Christopher Murray, Entel’s Uniondale attorney, said he disagreed with the judge’s decision and his client would likely appeal.