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Thatched Cottage Legacy Weaves a Wicked Web

Thatched Cottage in Centerport

“Yond Cassius over there has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Men like him are dangerous.” Julius Caesar; Act 1 Scene 2

Fifty years ago, the Huntington Town Planning Board granted special permission to the owners of Thatched Cottage, a catering hall on Route 25A in Centerport, temporarily changing the zoning of a nearby vacant parcel from “Residential D” to “Commercial C.” The deal had a restrictive covenant that gave Thatched Cottage a much-needed parking lot but stipulated that if the business ceased to operate, the parcel would revert to its original residential designation.

Fast forward to 1998 when local entrepreneur Ralph Colamussi bought Thatched Cottage and applied for a continuation of the vacant-lot revision. The Planning Board granted Mr. Colamussi’s request but stipulated, again, that the covenant “shall be binding upon the Declarant, their successors and assigns, and upon all persons or entities claiming under them and may not be annulled, waived, changed, modified, terminated, revoked or amended by subsequent owners or the premises unless and until approved by a majority of the Planning Board of the Town of Huntington or its successors.

In 2012, Mr. Colamussi opened Jellyfish, another restaurant located immediately west of Thatched Cottage. Again requiring more parking space than the plot could provide, he appealed to the Town and was granted permission to use the Thatched Cottage “parking lot” so long as he agreed to a new Declaration of Covenants and Restrictions. Mr. Colamussi accepted the revised accord which re-stipulated the return to residential zoning for the parking lot if both businesses – Thatched Cottage and Jellyfish – ceased to operate.

Everything seemed to be running smoothly until 2014 when Thatched Cottage ran into financial difficulty and Mr. Colamussi sought bankruptcy protection, blaming the downfall on the cost to correct the effects of Hurricane Sandy and Tropical Storm Irene. The property was placed at auction but the successful bidder backed out of the $4.65 million deal citing an engineer’s report criticizing the building’s run-down condition. Subsequently, the Town condemned the building, giving rise to two lawsuits.

In January 2015, Thatched Cottage Chapter 11 Trustee sold the property to Bethpage Federal Credit Union (BFCU), one of the site’s largest creditors. They were owed $5.7 million.

At the same time, Jellyfish closed its doors for renovation. It never reopened.

Last year, Thatched Cottage was ultimately sold by BFCU–along with the vacant residential parking lot–to Crest Cottage, LLC, for $2.8 million. Crest Cottage is owned by The Crest Group, Port Jefferson Station. Their website (www.thecrestgroupllc.com ) describes them as a “real estate management and development company and boutique private equity group.” It also says that they own Danford’s Hotel & Marina and Three Roads Shopping Plaza in Port Jefferson and Matrix Corporate Park in Hauppauge among other assets.

Today, the Centerport sites are in great disrepair. The parking lot, which should have reverted to residential zoning several years ago, is littered with leaves and weeds. Thatched Cottage’s roof is covered with plastic tarps and the grounds are overgrown. Both parcels are an eyesore in this otherwise bucolic, historically significant section of Long Island.

And here is where the plot begins to thicken . . . . . . .

7-Eleven Corporation has an application before Huntington’s Zoning Board of Appeals to construct a convenience store at the intersection of Route 25A and Little Neck Road. That property, a former automobile repair station, abuts the old Thatched Cottage “parking lot.” Among other things, the 7-Eleven application seeks relief from plot size restrictions. The proposal, which has been before the ZBA for several years, specifies that the new convenience store will be constructed just 10 feet from the adjacent property line. That’s fine, so long as the adjacent property is commercially zoned. And what is that property line? You guessed it! The vacant lot with the restrictive covenant now owned by Crest Cottage, LLC!

With Thatched Cottage out of business for nearly three years, the parking lot should have automatically reverted to its residential zoning.

However, enforcing the covenant would require the proposed 7-Eleven structure to be located 25’ from the property line; not the 10’ stipulated by local zoning should the now-illegal “parking lot” remain commercially zoned.

What’s holding up the parcel’s lawfully mandated return to its residential zoning?

Perhaps there is some connection between the fact that Crest Cottage, LLC, the current owners of Thatched Cottage and its parking lot, are closely affiliated with 7-Eleven. The Crest Group’s website says that they “have developed spaces for various retailers across Long Island, such as 7-11 [sic], Quick Check, CVS Pharmacy, LA Fitness, and Rite Aid.” On another page, they state that: “Most recently, we have begun a partnership with 7/11 [sic] to build out various locations and development spaces for this chain throughout Long Island.”

Many Centerport residents vehemently oppose 7-Eleven’s proposal, citing safety, emergency-service response (Centerport’s sole Fire Department and EMT station is located across the street), historic site preservation, quality-of-life, and traffic concerns. In fact, a group of taxpayers sued the ZBA a few years ago and won their case.

And the web gets even thicker . . . . . .

At the September 19th Town Board Meeting, Councilman Mark Cuthbertson moved that the restrictive covenant limiting the commercial use of the parking lot parcel be put up for public discussion at the Board meeting slated for November 9th. Mr. Cuthbertson’s motion was seconded by Supervisor Frank Petrone. The other three council members–Eugene Cook, Susan Berland and Tracey Edwards–voted against the measure.

The vote, as recorded in the Town Board Minutes, reads : 2017-458. SCHEDULE A PUBLIC HEARING: November 9, 2017 at 2:00 PM to consider adopting Local Law Introductory Number 43-2017, amending the zoning map of the Town of Huntington to change the zone of a portion of the property located on the north side of Fort Salonga Road, east of Little Neck Road, Centerport, New York, identified on the Suffolk County map by number 0400-044-03-021, on the Town Board’s own motion, from C-6 General Business District to R-7 Residence District and amending Town Board Resolution number 2012-428 and Local Law No. 19-2012. RESOLUTION DEFEATED

MC-AYE

FP-AYE

SB-NO

EC-NO

TE-NO

The ballot is a strange one, indeed, and raises a whole host of questions. Specifically:

  • Why would an elected official want to shut down public discussion on such a controversial subject?
  • Are the nay-voting Town Board members aware of the subtleties that we’ve uncovered?
  • Are there other 7-Eleven ventures on the horizon that taxpayers don’t know about?

We tried to get some answers. We spoke with Councilman Cook’s administrative assistant who took our inquiry and said she would forward our request for comment to him as well as Councilwomen Berland and Edwards. We also called all three. Our inquiries had no responses by press time.

Councilman Cook is running for re-election in November and Councilwoman Edwards is running to replace the retiring Frank Petrone. On Thursday, October 19th, Newsday and News 12 reported that Ms. Edwards and her husband, Walter Edwards, a Huntington town groundskeeper, settled federal tax liens totaling $173,507 and state liens of $59,387. According to the Newsday story, Mr. and Ms. Edwards resolved the issues just prior to her announcement about running for the Town Supervisor’s seat. She says that the problems stemmed from identity theft.

The situation gets even more curious. New York State Board of Elections Campaign Finance Disclosure reports that Huntington attorney Christopher Modelewski, chairman of the Town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, made contributions totaling $500 to Ms. Edwards political runs in 2015 and 2016. The site also says that over the last three years the law firm of Gathman & Bennett, home to John Bennett, legal-council to Huntington’s ZBA, contributed $3,900 to Ms. Edwards various electioneering efforts. Teamsters Local 812 Softdrink Brewery Workers PAC kicked in $1,000 on September 10th and Vincent James Management Company donated $350 this year. The latter’s CEO is Robert Fonti, a Cold Spring Harbor resident and Town realty advisor. The former represents union members who could benefit from increased beverage sales.

We also looked at the Campaign Finance Disclosure of Councilman Eugene Cook, but could find no record of similar donations.

Resident Stan Wertheimer, an octogenarian who has spent most of his life in Centerport, is adamant about returning the residential parcel to its original designation. He states, “Since the businesses have ceased to operate, the covenant and restrictions that temporarily changed the zoning must revert to their previous residential classification.”

At the same time, local resident Dr. Catherine Knight, another unwavering critic of the 7-Eleven proposal, asks some very pointed questions. She queries:

  • “Why has the legal burden to combat 7-Eleven been placed upon Centerport residents?”
  • “Why must taxpayers have to compel the Town to enforce its own zoning laws?”
  • “Is the ZBA applying its Special Use Permit and Area Variance decisions in a consistent manner?”

In her last question, Dr. Knight cites the Town’s Zoning Board of Appeals recent denial of 7-Eleven’s variance request for a new store at the intersection of Jericho Turnpike and Charles Street in Cold Spring Hills. That application engendered much less community opposition than the Centerport controversy.

Obviously, this conflict is anything but over.

 

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