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A. Thomas Levin Quoted in NY Times, "Town Takes Different Tack to Shut Down a Hotel"

Apr 22, 2007Local Government and Land UseProfessional Responsibility

Media Source: The New York Times


FOUR years ago, the Town of Hempstead began legal action to shut down the Courtesy Hotel in West Hempstead, claiming it was a public nuisance. But with the hotel's owners having won three court decisions, the town has come up with a different tactic: to declare the hotel and surrounding area blighted and seize it through condemnation.

But fearful that such a process could drag on for years, the West Hempstead Civic Association is pressing the town to expedite a proposed sale of the hotel to a developer instead. The developer, the Trammell Crow Company of Dallas, wants to demolish it and replace it with a four-story, 220-unit apartment complex.

Fast-tracking the sale is ''the only sure way this community can be guaranteed the hotel is demolished,'' said Rosalie Norton, the association's president.

Town officials, however, said they believed the condemnation process would be faster because erecting an apartment complex on the 2.7-acre property would require a yearlong environmental impact study before a zoning variance could be issued. The land is currently zoned for commercial use.

''We are on a very aggressive track with the blight study, and I'm hopeful about the prospects of redeveloping the entire area,'' said Kathleen P. Murray, Hempstead's town supervisor.

Members of the civic association have long complained that the Courtesy Hotel, which opened in the 1960s, attracts ''an undesirable element'' to the community. At the group's urging, and with the hotel in mind, the Hempstead Town Board adopted a public nuisance ordinance in August 2000 that allowed the town to close a business if the police made two arrests there for drugs, prostitution or similar crimes within a year.

But according to Joseph J. Ra, the town attorney, when the town went to court to enforce the ordinance in April 2003, after two drug-related arrests at the hotel, Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Bruce D. Alpert dismissed the motion ''on a technicality'' in September 2004. The town lost an appeal in October 2005, and on Feb. 28, 2006, Justice Alpert denied a motion to reargue.

Charles T. Theofan, the town's commissioner of planning and economic development, noted that in turning down the appeal, the Appellate Division in Brooklyn noted that the owners of the hotel were not involved in the criminal activity.

''They did not want to deny the owners their property rights based on what others were doing,'' he said.

As an alternative strategy, Ms. Murray said, while pursuing its court case in 2005, the town commissioned Saccardi & Schiff, planning and development consultants of White Plains, to study a 10-mile area surrounding the hotel to determine whether it warranted urban renewal. In January 2006, the consultants concluded that the area was sufficiently blighted to meet state standards for condemnation.

Mr. Ra said the town would now conduct a 60-day environmental assessment to begin the urban renewal process.

''At the end of June we'll adopt a condemnation map and have the town tell us to go forward with condemnation proceedings,'' he added. ''The hotel has 30 days to respond, and that brings us to the beginning of August. It then goes to the Appellate Division in Brooklyn. If it rules in September, the hotel could be down by November.''

But A. Thomas Levin of Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein in Garden City, the lawyer for the hotel's owner, BZRZ L.L.C. of West Hempstead, said he would fight the condemnation proceeding because his client wants to sell the property to Trammell Crow. He said that the rezoning and sale could be concluded within six months.

''If they try to go the condemnation route, I don't think they would finish in less than two years,'' he said.