Criminal charges against Larry Oxman and Riverhead Park Corp., filed in connection with the clearing of land on Route 58 in 2004, have been dismissed by a Southampton Town Justice.
Justice Deborah Kooperstein ruled in a seven-page decision dated April 1 that the Town of Riverhead failed to make its case against Oxman.
The town failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Oxman violated the Riverhead Town Code by directing and allowing the clearing of wetlands without benefit of a wetlands permit, Kooperstein said.
“I feel vindicated,” Oxman said in an interview Tuesday. “I’ve always maintained I never violated the town code.”
Kooperstein ruled the town failed to establish the “threshold element” underlying the prosecution of the criminal case, namely that the 13-acre property in question was a designated wetland. The town’s evidence of the delineation of the wetland was based solely on the recollection of various town employees and consultants, whose memories weren’t backed up by field notes taken at the time of site inspections. Cross examination by defense counsel “cast doubt on their testimony, memory and thus their inferences and conclusions,” the judge wrote.
Riverhead called 11 witnesses to testify in the six-month, non-jury trial on 51 charges of alleged town code violations.
The charges against the corporate defendant were also dismissed by Kooperstein because the town failed to file a proof of claim — for potential monetary penalties — against the corporation in its bankruptcy proceeding in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. The town’s failure to file the proof of claim in bankruptcy court bars it from prosecuting the criminal case in justice court, Kooperstein wrote.
An action brought by the town in State Supreme Court against Oxman and Riverhead Park Corp. was dismissed by the court in October 2009 and the town’s appeal was denied in October 2010, said Oxman’s attorney, Andrew Campanelli. Oxman said the dismissal of the criminal case was more rewarding, because it was decided on the merits rather than on procedural defects, like the civil suit.
“The town put up all these witnesses and the judge didn’t buy it,” Oxman said. “I finally got my day in court and my chance to tell my side of the story.”
Oxman wanted to use his property for agricultural purposes to offset expenses and pay the property taxes, his lawyer said in a press release issued Monday evening. When Oxman learned in 2004 a pending zoning change would remove agriculture as a permitted use for his property, he first met with the town board to ask that the use be left intact, Campanelli said. When his request was denied, Oxman immediately began clearing his property “in order to preserve his right to use his property agriculturally.”
“Three days later, the bombs started dropping,” Oxman said. “Town officials issued criminal charges and shut everything down.”
Oxman said he was threatened with arrest and enormous fines and publicly ridiculed by former supervisor Phil Cardinale.
The whole episode has been a huge waste of money and resources for the town and for him personally.
“It’s been horrible. It really has been horrible,” he said Tuesday.
“I have spent the last seven-and-a-half years consumed by the litigation, trying to defend and clear my good name, and save my property,” Oxman said. “I can’t begin to tell you what a terrible toll this ordeal has been on me and my family, physically, mentally, and financially. I lost my property. When this whole thing started my two sons were in first grade, now they are about to start high school,” he said.
“Who is going to give me and my family back all those years filled with stress and anguish? How do you put a price on that?”
Oxman had heart bypass and valve replacement surgery on March 26. His partner in the project, Stanley Blumenstein, died in November 2010.
Riverhead Park Corp., Oxman and Blumenstein filed a $10 million federal lawsuit against Riverhead Town in 2007, alleging violation of their civil rights, and their rights to due process and the equal protection of laws. That suit is still pending and Oxman said he expects it will soon go to trial.
Supervisor Sean Walter cited the pendency of that action when he declined comment on the outcome of the criminal prosecution in Southampton Justice Court, where the case was transferred after both Riverhead Town Justices recused themselves from the case.
The company that bought the property in the foreclosure sale, owners, Saber-Riverhead LLC, has filed an application to build a 118,000-square-foot shopping center on the site, just east of Riverhead Raceway.
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