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Judge allows pursuit of damages in farm ownership case

One of the buildings remaining on the Carll

One of the buildings remaining on the Carll farm, entrusted to the district by Marion Carll in 1969, seen here on Aug. 23, 2012. Credit: Handout

A state Supreme Court justice is allowing Marion Carll's heirs to seek damages in a legal battle with the Commack school district over ownership of a historic farm.

Judge Daniel Martin rejected the district's motion last month to change its strategy to use statutes of limitations in the case, which some have said was its most effective argument.

Carll left the farm to the district in 1969 on the condition that it maintained the property as a historical site or educational farm.

Carll's descendants sued for the return of the Commack farm in 2012 because the district has not met those conditions.

The district is considering "a possible appeal of Justice Martin's order. . . . The district continues to seek a solution to its ownership of the Marion Carll property and the restrictions contained in the deed conveying the property to the district," the school board said in a statement.

Carll's heirs are seeking damages for the cost to repair buildings the school district has not maintained, said S. Russ DiFazio, a Huntington attorney representing the family.

"I am hopeful that a resolution can be reached with the heirs and the school district," he said.

Martin's ruling was frustrating for board member James Tampellini, who before being elected to the board was one of four residents who unsuccessfully sought to intervene in the case. They believed the district was trying to lose the case and urged officials to pursue the statutes of limitations argument.

District officials said in October that the prior board sought to settle the case and dispose of the roughly 9-acre farm so the issue would not have to go before voters, who defeated an earlier attempt to sell the site to a developer.

"If we do lose the farm and get monetary damages, I think that would be a case where board members should be held personally liable," Tampellini said. "Because they did breach their fiduciary duty to do all they can to protect the assets of the district."

Martin scolded district leaders in his decision, noting they failed to use the statute of limitations early on and "failed to proffer a reasonable excuse for its delay."

"If there ever was a case where the use of the court's discretion to deny such an application was appropriate, it would be this matter," he said.Some current and past board members have said maintaining the farm is too expensive. Peter Wunsch, a prior board member, characterized the farm as an "albatross" around the district's neck that voters would never agree to divest.

The next step is disclosure, which could take several months as both sides produce documents and hold depositions.

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