Librett

“MammaFrancescaAd”

Iona College Lawsuit Against City of New Rochelle Reflects Souring of Town and Gown Relationship

Time to read
8 minutes
Read so far

Iona College Lawsuit Against City of New Rochelle Reflects Souring of Town and Gown Relationship

March 04, 2017 - 01:16

Hagan School of Business at Iona College

Rate Article: 
Your rating: None
0
No votes yet

NEW ROCHELLE, NY — Iona College’s decision last week to file a lawsuit against the City of New Rochelle culminates a nearly year-long dispute over attempts by the college to develop its business school. The college believes it is free to execute its plan without interference from the City; the City believes it has the right to require Iona College to seek a special permit following a public input process.

At is issue is whether the City Council of New Rochelle was within its rights last year to amend a particular ordinance to require educational institutions to obtain a special permit to merge tax lots for property adjoining their campuses and, if so, whether the City provided proper public notice of the proposed amendment.

Ordinance 91 was created in 2001 as a result of negotiations between the City of New Rochelle and Iona College to address the college’s expansion while providing for certain oversight by the city. As originally passed it reads:

A special permit shall be required for a new or the expansion of an existing university, college or private school campus in residential districts on property that had not been previously used for any purposes related to the university, college or private school.

In April 2016, James Staudt, a land use attorney for Iona College met with City officials including Corporation Counsel Kathleen Gill to discuss the expansion of the Hagan School of Business, Floor-to-Area rations (“FAR”) and the merging of tax lots. Gill was, to some extent, familiar with the college plans because after working for the City for 10 years she left to work as an attorney for Iona College from November 2013 to September 2015 then returned to work for the City of New Rochelle.

Within months of that meeting, the City Council adopted an amendment to Ordinance 91 so that it now reads:

A special permit shall be required for a new or the expansion of an existing university, college or private school campus in residential districts on property that had not been previously used for any purposes related to the university, college or private school Expansion shall include the merger of lots adjacent to the existing campus.

The lawsuit is complex and will be the subject of a future Talk of the Sound article in which we will break down the legal arguments made by Iona College. Events over the past 24 hours have moved ahead of our ability to fully review and comment upon the lawsuit. It is important to point out, however, that a recurring theme throughout the lawsuit are inferences and allegations of improper ethical conduct by New Rochelle Corporation Counsel Kathleen Gill which has enraged City officials who have strenuously denied these claims.

In its lawsuit, Iona argues that by amending the ordinance the City took away the College’s right to merge the tax lots “as of right”. The City believes the Council is free to amend ordinances at any time and that the amendment in his case was not specific to Iona College. While there are other elements to the case, Ordinance 91 is the core issue.

Earlier this week, the matter began to take a strange turn at which point events outran our ability to analyze the lawsuit.

The standard reply when the media or public inquire about “pending legislation” is for the parties to say “we do not comment on pending legislation”. That has hardly been the case in this particular lawsuit. Everyone seems to want to weigh in on the pending legislation.

At a meeting on Monday February 27 between Iona College officials and local neighborhood assocation leaders, an Iona official took the unusual step of commenting on the lawsuit.

On Wednesday March 1st, Michele L. Sampson-Nelson, Iona’s Director of Off-Campus and Commuter Services, went even further, commenting and expanding upon the statements made at the meeting two days earlier, going on to share, formally, an internal email communication shared among the leadership of Iona College. That email reads as follows:

Dear Colleagues,

I write to provide you with an update on matters related to the City of New Rochelle and the expansion and renovation of the new Business School building. As previously discussed in College Council, last November the City of New Rochelle unfortunately moved to curtail Iona College’s property rights in a manner we believe is inconsistent with the law and detrimental to the college. Consequently the College was forced to take action.

While the College does not generally comment on pending litigation, it is important to note that the College provided the City every opportunity to correct the matter and return the College's property rights.  When the City refused, regretfully the only remedy left for the College was filing a complaint under Article 78 to ask the courts to direct the City to follow the law and respect the College’s rights as a New Rochelle property owner. This complaint was filed last week.

While the College and City may disagree on some matters, the College remains supportive of important mutual goals for the betterment of both New Rochelle and Iona.  The College looks forward to a timely resolution and to continuing its efforts of revitalizing North Avenue, remaining a vital private sector employer and educating students in the values of peace, justice and service to the greater national and global community.

Late the next day, on Thursday March 2nd Victor Stanionis, the President of the Beechmont Association, the neighborhood most directly impacted by the proposed tax lots merger sent an email to Council Member Barry Fertel and New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson which reads:

Barry,

As our City Council representative, I would like to ask you to find out why the City would not negotiate with Iona on parameters that would support neighbor relations and quality of life of the residents? Iona was willing. It seems to me the City would be able to provide a security blanket for Beechmont that would be legal and satisfy all parties.

I hope that there are not egos or personalities that are involved. I hope it is not the City's legal counsel, who, I believe, was Iona's legal counsel at one time that may be problematic. I hope there is no conflict of interests. Let's work together and compromise for the benefit of the community and the City.

Maybe Noam can provide us with the facts we seek. I am not sure Iona is the villain.

Thank you.

Victor

In addition to being a New Rochelle resident, homeowner and taxpayer and President of the Beechmont Association, he is also a longtime professor at Iona College, occasionally muddling for others whose point of view he is representing.

The Stanionis email prompted a reply earlier today by New Rochelle City Manager Chuck Strome who took issue with some of the characterizations in the email, in particular remarks pertaining to Corporation Counsel Kathleen Gill, and more broadly the insinuations about Gill in the complaint filed by Iona College last week. In the email, Strome accuses Iona College of “threatening and aggressive conduct” as part of an effort to “coerce and intimidate the City”.

In the most inflammatory statement, Strome states “The College specifically threatened to disparage City officials if the merger was not granted administratively”.

These are extremely serious, perhaps even criminal, allegations.

The entire email reply to Stanionis reads:

Dear Mr. Stanionis:

I am replying to your email to Council Member Fertel below of which Mayor Bramson was copied.

The City has always recognized Iona College’s important place in our community and has valued and supported constructive dialogue about the College’s growth and development. With regard to the present matter, it is the City’s position that any merger of the lots on Beechmont Drive and Montgomery Place be subject to City approval pursuant to a public process and community input. The College insists that such merger be accomplished without City approval, public oversight, or formal community input. The City met with College officials on several occasions to discuss this issue, with the goal of achieving an amicable resolution. During those meetings and discussions, College representatives engaged in threatening and aggressive conduct in an effort to coerce and intimidate the City to allow the merger in clear violation of zoning law. The College specifically threatened to disparage City officials if the merger was not granted administratively. Based upon the conduct of the College, the City refused to participate in any further meetings on this issue. The City denied the administrative merger in accordance with zoning law, which resulted in the lawsuit that was filed last Friday.

I hope this is helpful.

Charles B. Strome, III

City Manager

Soon after this email was sent by Strome to Stanionis, New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson posted an article on his blog: Iona Sues New Rochelle

Bramson wrote:

While no one takes pleasure in legal conflicts, the City will vigorously and confidently defend its position in court. This statement from the City Manager contains more information.

He then linked to a document entitled Statement of City Manager Chuck Strome.

The attached PDF document was formatted as a formal press statement from the City Manager:

Statement of City Manager Chuck Strome

The City has always recognized Iona College’s important place in our community and has valued and supported constructive dialogue about the College’s growth and development. With regard to the present matter, it is the City’s position that any merger of the lots on Beechmont Drive and Montgomery Place be subject to City approval pursuant to a public process and community input. The College insists that such merger be accomplished without City approval, public oversight, or formal community input. The City met with College officials on several occasions to discuss this issue, with the goal of achieving an amicable resolution. During those meetings and discussions, College representatives engaged in threatening and aggressive conduct in an effort to coerce and intimidate the City to allow the merger in clear violation of zoning law. The College specifically threatened to disparage City officials if the merger was not granted administratively. Based upon the conduct of the College, the City refused to participate in any further meetings on this issue. The City denied the administrative merger in accordance with zoning law, which resulted in the lawsuit that was filed last Friday.

The Statement was not distributed by New Rochelle Communications Director Kathy Gilwit through the normal press channels as is always the case for these sorts of statements from the City Manager. Talk of the Sound is on the press distribution list for the City and no such document was sent to us or any other media outlet as best we can tell. It was not published on the City web site nor distributed on social media.

It appears that Bramson took Strome’s email, reformatted it as a formal press statement and then uploaded it to his personal blog. Bramson did not respond to an email sent late in the day on Friday.

Talk of the Sound reached out to Strome after the end of the work day and had a brief discussion with him about the statement. Strome did not formally release the statement he made but did not take issue with the statement having been made public and stood by the statement itself.

However it happened, Strome’s email to Stanionis became a public statement on the lawsuit by Strome prompting a formal reply by Iona College late on Friday:

In November of 2016 the City enacted targeted legislation to remove the College's property rights. While Iona College does not generally comment on pending litigation, it is important to note that the College, through its attorneys, worked in good faith over the past several months to provide the City every opportunity to correct their significant overreach, misjudgment and errors. When the City refused to return the College's property rights, regretfully the only remedy for the College was filing a complaint under Article 78 to ask the courts to direct the City to follow the law and respect the College's rights as a New Rochelle property owner. The statements made today by City officials, notably City Manager Charles Strome, are disparaging and simply not accurate. The College regrets the City's actions, looks forward to presenting the facts in court, and to a timely resolution.

While the College and City may disagree on some matters, the College remains supportive of important mutual goals for the betterment of both New Rochelle and Iona.  Iona College looks forward to a timely resolution and to continuing its efforts of revitalizing North Avenue, remaining a vital private sector employer and educating students in the values of peace, justice and service to the greater national and global community.

The statement is basically a re-working of the statement sent by Michele L. Sampson-Nelson two days earlier.

Parallel to the dueling public statements, Stanionis, on March 1st, called an emergency meeting of the Beechmont Association for Monday March 6 at 8 p.m.

Stanionis including a note from a Beechmont Association board member entitled “THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE FACING BEECHMONT IN MY 60+ YEARS OF LIVING HERE”

The note goes on to describe Iona’s attempt to merge 11 tax lots on Montgomery Place and Beechmont Drive and characterizes the results of Iona’s efforts as placing “the college campus buildings, roads, student housing, etc. in the middle of our neighborhood” adding that if they can do this the college can buy up more properties and “literally destroy our neighborhood forever”.

The Beechmont board member proposes a three-pronged approach to fight Iona College: (1) hire a land use attorney; (2) go en masse to the City Council meeting on March 14th; (3) send a delegation to the Iona College president to protest the action proposed by the college.

Talk of the Sound will have an analysis of the formal complaint next week.