Costly FOIL Follows Dispute Between Neighbors In Sag Harbor

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A driveway at 200 Madison Street in the middle of one of Sag Harbor's busiest intersections remains a contentious issue. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

Processing Freedom of Information Law requests is a common practice for most municipal governments.

But in Sag Harbor Village, an unusually broad request made on March 2 for information about property owned by Dominic LaPierre and Laura Auerbach, at 200 Madison Street, has cost the village an estimated $15,000 in fees for attorneys and office staff.

The property in question has been the subject of at least two disputes, one of which pitted Trustee James Larocca against Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy and her allies on the board, Trustees Robert Plumb and Aiden Corish, last year. The dispute was over a permit for a curb cut onto the busy and problematic intersection at Jermain Avenue and Madison Street.

A second, more recent fight has erupted between Bayard Fenwick, who owns the house immediately to the north of Mr. LaPierre and Ms. Auerbach. Mr. Fenwick, who is running for village trustee in next month’s election, has questioned if his neighbors have been allowed to get away with code violations and live in their house without a valid certificate of occupancy because they are friends and campaign donors to Mayor Mulcahy.

The mayor has out of hand rejected his charges, and the village’s ethics attorney, Steven Leventhal, has agreed that Ms. Mulcahy did nothing wrong.

The FOIL request was filed by Peter J. Kiernan, an attorney with Venable LLP, one of the largest law firms in the country, which has offices in New York and across the United States. It sought “any and all communications, including without limitation letters, memoranda, emails, text messages, and other written, digital and electronic communications” from both village and personal computers between the mayor, other members of the Village Board, the Village Police, the Building, Code Enforcement, and Public Works departments, as well as the members of the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review dating back to January 1, 2017.

“FOILing is everyone’s right and a very necessary part of open government,” Mr. Corish said, “but I feel this FOIL was weaponized, and this was over a curb cut.”

In a brief interview on Friday, Mr. Kiernan said he had submitted the FOIL request “on behalf of a client, but the client does not want me to reveal his identity.”

He said his FOIL requests “didn’t produce anything at all,” while suggesting that the village government only released the bare minimum of information that was legally required.

Village officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they had assumed Mr. Kiernan was working at the behest of Mr. Fenwick, but on April 28 Mr. Fenwick filed his own FOIL request, seeking much of the same information.

Mr. Kiernan has had a long history of working in state government, as has Mr. Larocca, who said he knew Mr. Kiernan from that shared background. But Mr. Larocca, who lives down the block from 200 Madison Street, said he played no role in Mr. Kiernan’s effort to obtain information about it.

“This is not my request, no,” he said. “I don’t FOIL my own government,” adding that any one of a number of other neighbors could have hired Mr. Kiernan.

Mr. Larocca said the late Bob Hand, who lived across the street from 200 Madison, had brought the driveway to his attention in 2019. Mr. Larocca said the driveway, which was on a steep incline, posed an unsafe condition, placed, as it was, at an irregular intersection with a crosswalk nearby.

In January 2020, he asked the Village Board to hold a hearing on rescinding the curb cut permit because of safety concerns. His request was approved by a 4-0 vote, with the mayor abstaining because of her friendship with the property owners.

Police Chief Austin J. McGuire also weighed in with a memo, describing the intersection as confusing and potentially unsafe.

In the meantime, Mr. LaPierre and Ms. Auerbach hired Sag Harbor attorney Alex Kriegsman and threatened to sue the village because the curb cut permit allowing the driveway had been approved nearly a decade earlier and renewed regularly.

A major portion of their renovation project, which had also been approved by village regulatory boards, hinged on having that access point in place, even though their property extends through to Suffolk Street Extension, where there is another driveway.

With the threat of a lawsuit hanging overhead, Ms. Mulcahy said she was advised by village attorneys that even though she knew the couple and had received a campaign donation from them, she could not recuse herself.

“I was told in no uncertain terms that this was going to require a clear vote,” she said. Her account was supported by former Village Attorney Denise Schoen.

With the mayor allowed to participate, the board voted, 3-2, over the objections of Mr. Larocca and Trustee Tom Gardella, to allow the driveway to remain in place, provided that the sidewalk the driveway passed over was made level, thus settling the threat of a lawsuit.

The saga picked up again earlier this year when Mr. Fenwick made several complaints to the Building Department over alleged violations at the LaPierre-Auerbach residence. He said open ground-level window wells posed a safety threat and that lights on a side door shined in his own house just feet away.

He also complained that his neighbors had been allowed to raise the grade on their property to provide a level parking area, which required the construction of a retaining wall with a steep drop-off to his property.

The village’s senior building inspector, James Esposito, citing the potential for litigation, declined to speak for the record. But in an email dated March 30 obtained from Mr. Fenwick, he stated that there was a valid certificate of occupancy for the LaPierre-Auerbach residence and that the house was safe to occupy, but that the couple needed to complete paperwork to have the C.O. put in their names as required by the village code.

In a March 25 email, also obtained from Mr. Fenwick, code enforcement officer Garry Kenney stated he had visited 200 Madison Street and discussed both the window wells and the door lights with Mr. LaPierre, who he said, “agreed to resolve both of those issues.”

Mr. LaPierre did not reply to requests for an interview.

Ms. Schoen said the village code requiring property owners to upgrade a C.O. with the sale of a property may be unenforceable. “I don’t know how sympathetic a judge would be if we brought charges against someone who did not get a C.O. in their own name,” she said.

In an April 2 email to Mr. Esposito and Mr. Kenney, Mr. Fenwick asked whether he should “be concerned about campaign finance irregularities influencing the mayor’s stewardship of our village?”

“Again, this smells fishy, and we believe there’s a larger story to be unearthed,” he concluded.

In an interview last week, Mr. Fenwick continued his attack, urging a reporter “to take a hard look at the mayor’s involvement in all things real estate in the village.”

Ms. Mulcahy said she had received a $250 campaign donation from Ms. Auerbach and Mr. LaPierre, as well as a donation of $100 or $200 from Ms. Auerbach’s mother, Arlene Auerbach.

She said when she saw the charges Mr. Fenwick was making in his emails, she sent them to Mr. Leventhal and the village Ethics Committee.

Ms. Mulcahy said Mr. Fenwick’s accusation that she was somehow a conduit for real estate transactions in the village was ridiculous, adding that she had made $31 in commissions for sales in the village over the last year.

Mr. Leventhal, who is the former chairman of the Nassau County Board of Ethics and serves as attorney for the boards of ethics of two counties, four towns, and two towns, said he had reviewed Mr. Fenwick’s charges and found them baseless.

“The speculation that the mayor used her influence to benefit her personal friends and campaign contributors is unsupported by any evidence,” he concluded.

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