Judge tosses tree-clearing charges against Riverhead landowners

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | The Oxman land on Route 58.

A judge has thrown out all the charges Riverhead Town brought against a company it said illegally cleared 13 acres on Route 58 back in October of 2004.

Southampton Town Justice Deborah Kooperstein, in a decision dated April 1, ruled that Riverhead Town had “failed to prove their case against Larry Oxman beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The judge, who was on the case because both of Riverhead’s town justices recused themselves, ruled in favor of Mr. Oxman and dismissed the town’s case.

Mr. Oxman and Riverhead Park Corp, a company headed by Stanley Blumenstein of East Hampton, began clearing the 13-acre site adjacent to Riverhead Raceway just days before the  Town Board was scheduled to rezone the property to a use that permitted, less-intense development than what was the current zoning, and that didn’t permit agriculture. The clearing took place on a Sunday, when town code enforcement agents often didn’t work at the time.

The town later accused the men of clearing without a permit and disturbing freshwater wetlands. The town issued 51 violations and filed suit to stop the clearing. The case has been in court for close to eight years.

Mr. Oxman also filed a $10 million federal civil rights lawsuit against the town in 2007, and that lawsuit is still in the courts.

“Stress can do a number on you,” Mr. Oxman said in a release he issued about the court ruling this week. “I only wish that my partner and co-owner, Stanley Blumenstein, was still alive to share this uplifting news.” Mr. Blumenstein died in Nov. 2010.

Mr. Oxman is himself recovering from a recent open heart surgery.

Mr. Oxman claimed in 2004 that he had planned to use the 13 acres as a pumpkin farm, and that agriculture is exempt from the town’s clearing regulations, and as a result, he should not have been issued summonses.

During a six-month trial on the case this year, the town called 11 witnesses and Mr. Oxman was the only witness in his defense.

Judge Kooperstein, in her ruling, wrote that Richard Downs — the code inspector who issued the summons — in testimony during the trial, “stated he wasn’t sure if an agricultural use would require a clearing permit.”

When showed the section of the code dealing with this, “he stated he was aware there were exceptions for agricultural use but made no efforts to ascertain if (Mr. Oxman’s) use fell within an exception,” the judge wrote.

Judge Kooperstein also wrote that then-town senior building inspector Leroy Barnes “testified that he was not aware of any exemptions in the Town Code for agricultural activities,” and stated that “a permitted use doesn’t mean that certain activities are exempt, rather it means that it’s a use that requires a permit.”

The judge’s ruling stated, “The People have failed to prove their case against Larry Oxman beyond a reasonable doubt,” and dismissed the town’s case.

Mr. Oxman has since lost the 13-acre property in a foreclosure proceeding in 2011 and its new owners, a company called Saber-Riverhead LLC, have filed a site plan application seeking to build a 118,650-square-foot shopping center on the land. The new owners have posted a sign saying a store called “Christmas Tree Shops” is going to be a tenant.

Mr. Oxman has blamed the town for the foreclosure, saying “I lost a $12 million piece of property because of the town.”

“I believe Riverhead Town has spent close to $200,000 just on outside attorney’s fee” in this case, Mr. Oxman said in a release. “That doesn’t include all the salary hours put in at the Town Attorney’s office. What a waste of Riverhead taxpayer money.”

Mr. Oxman said his own legal fees have been “astronomical,” and said he’s been “consumed by the litigation” over the past seven and a half years.

“Who is going to give me and my family back all those years filled with stress and anguish?” he asked. “How do you put a price on that?”

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter declined to comment on the decision because the federal lawsuit with Mr. Oxman is still pending.

Mr. Oxman, in his release, noted that the current administration inherited the case from the prior administration, and that none of the town officials who were in office when the case was initiated are still in office.

“I don’t envy the current supervisor and Town Board,” he said. “They inherited this mess from their predecessors.”

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