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Village files charges over showcase house in Laurel Hollow

Jane Grucci's grand ballroom at the Laurel Hollow

Jane Grucci's grand ballroom at the Laurel Hollow designer showcase on Ridge Road on Aug. 27, 2013. Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

Laurel Hollow, an affluent village of 1,952 people in the Town of Oyster Bay, allows the breeding of dogs and horses at residential properties as well as the maintaining of home offices and limited servants' quarters -- but little else.

Officials in September shut down a designer showcase house at a 1930s-era mansion, saying the event constituted an illegal commercial activity, and charged its organizers and two limo drivers with violating zoning codes, punishable by fines and jail time. Lead organizer Claudia Dowling has said she thought she had complied with the village's rules.

An attorney for Dowling, who faces a Feb. 5 trial, contends the village has gone too far.

"They seem to be pouring a lot of resources -- and taxpayer money -- into this campaign to annihilate Claudia Dowling -- who does not fit the profile of your usual criminal mastermind," Kenneth McCallion said in an email. "We have told them categorically that Claudia Dowling would never try to do something like this again in Laurel Hollow, i.e. beautify the interior of a house at her own expense -- and that of other designers."

Laurel Hollow Mayor Daniel Devita said the village was within its rights to pursue the case.

"We're just trying to enforce the rules in the village and the decisions of our boards."

Village attorney Howard Avrutine said Thursday that the village does not intend to seek jail time.

The village is also engaged in legal action in state court against Dowling, Maria Lanzisero, the real estate agent trying to sell the house, and the house's owner, Bobby Bakhchi. And McCallion said the village is seeking a permanent injunction against Dowling and her company.

"If the court lifted the restraining order tomorrow we don't know what would happen there," Devita said. "We're asking the court for some finality on the ruling."

Dowling said in an email that the designers' furnishings have been removed and that the owner changed the locks.

At issue is whether the designer showcase house constituted a commercial activity prohibited under the zoning code.

Maria Lanzisero, the real estate agent trying to sell the house, said she was told by village officials that a permit wasn't needed. Dowling said she was unaware that the house's owner had applied to hold a non-permitted use and was denied.

Jason Starr, director of the Nassau chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that while municipalities' zoning restrictions on commercial activities have been upheld, this case appeared to fall into a gray area.

"Whether or not this actually is commercial . . . is questionable," Starr said.

At an arraignment last week before village court Judge Joseph D'Elia, Dowling, Lanzisero and limo drivers Bruce Follett and Jivaro Mordaunt pleaded not guilty to the violations. Bakhchi, who was not ticketed, was absent in court.

At the arraignment village prosecutor Jeffrey Blinkoff gave Dowling an information item that said her company, Claudia Dowling Inc. was also being cited for violations for the event the village said was intended to promote the sale of the property.

In an interview Bakhchi made a statement about the case but declined to comment further, citing the litigation.

"I feel terrible about it because Claudia worked very hard and . . . we were surprised."

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