Town to spend thousands of dollars in Appeal’s Court fighting Alfieri’s decision not to dismiss
BY CHERYL SLAVIN
A neighborly dispute concerning whether a line of evergreens and foliage at the corner of Sullivan Drive and Central Highway in Stony Point constitutes a public hazard will continue now that State Supreme Court Judge Victor Alfieri has ruled that the complaining party, Kevin Maher, has standing to pursue the matter before the Zoning Board of Appeals. Maher lives across the street from the offending hedge, and also happens to be the Stony Point Town Engineer. In the same decision the judge also denied Stony Point’s motion to dismiss the Article 78 proceeding outright.
The legal proceedings started back in May 2013 when Stony Point Building and Zoning Inspector Bill Sheehan issued a notice of violation to Erich and Kimberly Von Hein, property owners, that the trees were blocking the line of vision at the intersection. The Von Heins filed an appeal with the ZBA, and ultimately Sheehan found that as long as the trees were properly trimmed and pruned, they posed no violation. In December of that year he issued a “rescind letter” to that effect.
Consequently, Maher appealed the decision before the ZBA, resulting in that Board’s February 2014 resolution dismissing his appeal on the basis that he had no standing to bring his claims. Maher then brought an Article 78 proceeding before State Supreme Court to overturn the ZBA’s findings and force it to hear his appeal.
In an order dated October 30, 2014, Alfieri ruled that Maher did, indeed, have standing under the law to pursue the matter, both as an “aggrieved party,” since he lives adjacent to the disputed foliage and the intersection, and as a “town official,” since he is employed as the Town Engineer. Accordingly, the judge has sent the matter back to the ZBA for further proceedings.
According to Town Supervisor Geoff Finn, however, the Town Board has decided to appeal the portion of the decision denying outright dismissal, further drawing out what is already considered by many to constitute a complete waste of taxpayers’ money. Finn reports that the town has already spent almost $10,000 in legal fees on this matter. Both Maher and the Von Heins have come under criticism for allowing what in essence is a disagreement between neighbors to become a governmental and public legal issue.
Maher insists that he is in the right, that the trees comprise a sight line hazard, and that the law is being applied inequitably if the Von Heins are allowed to keep their hedge. The Von Heins, on the other hand, have previously alleged that Maher has actively sought reasons to antagonize their family ever since an argument erupted in 2009, and the fight over the trees is just one more provocation. Maher responds that his neighbors have been harassing him for years, and that he will continue to look into why they appear to be shown “favoritism.”
Both Maher and Finn agree that it is unusual for a town employee to bring a legal action against a branch of town government while still employed and carrying out his duties. Maher admits that it makes doing his job somewhat uncomfortable, and that he knows he might jeopardize his position. Still, he states he will “not bow to bullying” and will continue to push for his position. He does have some concern that the Town Board’s recent budget decision to “outsource” certain functions might adversely impact his job status. Finn notes that it is not easy to work with someone who is suing, but that so far Maher has continued to do his work competently.
In the meantime, the Town has six months to perfect its appeal of the Article 78 decision denying dismissal of the action, even though doing so will continue to run up a taxpayer funded bill for legal fees. Win or lose, both sides would have the option to pursue further appeals, potentially keeping the feud alive for years. The quickest way to resolve the dispute might be simply to allow the ZBA make its ruling on the danger of the trees, as Alfieri ordered. That, however, does not appear to be the direction that either side is choosing right now.