The owner of the strip club across from Smithtown’s town’s iconic bull statue spoke publicly this week for the first time about town plans to condemn his property, describing his business as one that pays its taxes on time and employs area residents.
Town officials, though, have long viewed Thomas Murray’s Oasis Gentlemen’s Club as an embarrassment, and favor plans for the area that involve a park, not pole dancing. The two sides spoke Tuesday at a hearing, conducted online, that was legally required for the town to exercise eminent domain over the Main Street property, which covers less than a quarter acre. Among other steps, the town must now offer Murray fair market value for the property, though settling on a number can involve multiple appraisals and litigation, a process that can take years.
Murray, who said he has owned the Oasis since 2002 and lives in Pelham Manor in Westchester County, according to records, defended his business as a "safe rite of passage for many" and one that had caused police no trouble. He pays property taxes regularly and on time, he said.
He said he hoped to avoid a contested condemnation proceeding. "I wonder if time and money can be saved on both sides and this matter can be resolved agreeably," he said. "I thought I was trying to negotiate in good faith."
Murray said he paid for an appraisal of the property in 2017 and the town countered with its own appraisal a year later. He forwarded a year’s worth of income statements but the town ceased negotiating, he said. Town officials have disputed that account, saying that Murray was asking for more money than they could legally spend, since they are limited by the appraised value of a property.
Smithtown Town Attorney Matthew Jakubowski said in an email the town began negotiating with Murray in 2018 and gave him a "valuation" in 2019. In January 2020, the town received a "counter-offer for an amount that simply could not be justified given the Town’s appraisal." The town commissioned a condemnation appraisal that month.
Smithtown Town planner Peter Hans on Tuesday described "potential to redevelop the waterfront area around the bull for park purposes." The Oasis is located in an "environmentally sensitive area" near Nissequogue River and redevelopment could result in removal or updating of an on-site septic system, he said.
Supervisor Edward Wehrheim in a September interview said his office had fielded numerous complaints from residents who said the topless bar was "in entirely the wrong place, right at the entrance to our town." He and Deputy Supervisor Thomas McCarthy have said they would prefer to see an information center or kayak and canoe center than a bar on the property.
Howard Greenberg, a Smithtown lawyer representing Murray, said the town’s appraisal did not account for the value of his client’s business or an apartment above the club. "It’s the town’s goal to get rid of the place and they’ve been trying to get rid of it since 1995," he said. But the dancing that takes place at the club is constitutionally protected and the business is legal, he said. "If you want to take away my client’s legal business, you’re going to have to pay him."
Greenberg said last month that while state rules permitted the club to operate during the pandemic, there were no performances and he was unsure if the club was open daily.