Against all odds, a little group of homeowners in Bethpage rose up and slew the mighty GOP machine in a neighborhood zoning battle.
The residents of Evergreen Avenue staved off an attempt by a Town of Oyster Bay official who moonlights as a developer to plunk down a two-story house in the midst of their verdant, middle-class backyards. In the process, they proved that persistence and the threat of publicity can work miracles.
And they also proved that one picture of what appear to be town workers grooming the property in question is worth a thousand words.
In the aftermath of the stunning defeat, the official, Deputy Town Attorney Anthony Sabino, acknowledges that he’s starting to feel some heat emanating from red-faced Oyster Bay officials.
“Obviously, something like this is uncomfortable,” says Sabino. “I have a somewhat unblemished, if not impeccable, record. But the town doesn’t like to have its employees cast the town in a bad light.”
Sabino vehemently denies that he arranged for town workers to groom the property. He says, however, that he has been told by the property’s current owners that a landscaper they hired “may have used town workers.” Sabino adds, “Apparently, the landscaping crew did include some Oyster Bay people. I haven’t been able to track it down. Whether they were on or off duty, I don’t know.”
Next thing the residents knew, the Zoning Board of Appeals found in their favor. Despite having approved similar variances, the board ruled that this one “was not a good precedent.”
Did the pictures turn the tide? “That’s a good question,” says Sabino. “If it was creating a cloud over the project, perhaps. But there also was community opposition.”
What makes the battle even more remarkable is that none of the residents had any political clout in the town, which is firmly controlled by the GOP machine. All the members of the Zoning Board of Appeals are Republican contributors or party officials or both. Sabino, also a contributor, is a former GOP committeeman.
The intertwining of government business and jobs with party politics is so taken for granted that Sabino says of his campaign contributions to the GOP: “I really make the contributions because I’m an employee. The town is Republican-controlled, and I’m interested in seeing it stay Republican-controlled.”
The curious case started when Sabino proposed earlier this year to carve what’s called a “panhandle plot” out of property he purchased at 84 Evergreen Ave. so his entity called Colinwood Estates could build a two-story house in the rear half of the parcel. Panhandle plots— so named because they are connected to streets only by driveway-width corridors— are popping up like boils in this part of Bethpage, despite the fact that they need variances.
A stroll through the neighborhood reveals that panhandle houses have invaded numerous blocks. And they are lucrative. Sabino already had a buyer under contract for a two-story, $350,000 house he planned to build in the panhandle— and a buyer willing to pay $190,000 for the existing house in the front half of the property, according to documents submitted to the town.
But the neighbor on the other side of 84 Evergreen, a young mother named Ann-Marie Biggins, mounted the petition drive and pestered Town Hall with questions. She, Kevin Groom and other neighbors hired attorney David Gugerty, who practices in Forest Hills, to help them fight.
They figured that Sabino would have an edge because of his status as a town employee, but they didn’t even know the half of it. His attorney in the zoning matter, Judy Simoncic, works for Forchelli, Curto, Schwartz, Mineo, Carlino & Cohn in Mineola, one of the Nassau GOP machine’s main law firms. Partner Jeff Forchelli is a GOP executive leader; ex-Sen. Alfonse D’Amato’s brother Armand used to be a partner in the firm. People around Oyster Bay Town Hall can’t remember the last time Forchelli’s firm lost a zoning case.
In addition, zoning board chairman Jack Libert, a former member of the Forchelli firm, was Alfonse D’Amato’s campaign treasurer for his 1980 Senate race. Later, Libert was acquitted of federal income tax evasion in connection with a Mitchel Field lease approved by Nassau County while he was counsel to the old Board of Supervisors. Libert’s part-time job on the Oyster Bay zoning board pays $22,790 annually and dovetails nicely with his full-time work as a zoning attorney.
The zoning board’s other members are paid $18,550 each. The board’s executive secretary, Patricia Baranello (salary $69,950), is special-projects coordinator for Town Supervisor John Venditto’s re-election campaign. The relationship between the Nassau GOP and the town’s employees and appointees is seamless. Last April 15, the day taxes are due, Baranello and zoning board members Wayne Brown, Susan Cloninger and Jacqueline Watters each contributed $125 to the Town of Oyster Bay Republican Committee. Records also show that zoning board member Scott Guardino gave his $125 on April 13.
Which is the same day that Sabino, Oyster Bay’s highest-paid deputy town attorney, at an annual salary of $79,338, gave $250.
Which is the same amount that Jack Libert gave on April 20.
Which is the same day that Pequa Park Florists Inc., the business of the remaining zoning board member, Joseph Bordino, gave $125.
Which is the same amount that zoning board counsel Chris J. Coschignano’s law firm on gave March 25.
Which is the same day that the Forchelli firm gave $375.
But Forchelli’s clout didn’t matter. A decision on Sabino’s request was delayed until July 15. In the meantime, Biggins wrote to Venditto and other officials that the the proposed new house “would seem like a huge monster towering over the houses that are already here.” And a couple of days before the hearing, Gugerty sent photos that seemed to show workers in town uniforms clearing space on the Sabino property in the middle of a workday. Gugerty called it a “stark appearance of impropriety.”
As July 15 neared, the residents were told by Baranello that there was no need for them to show up because more testimony wouldn’t be allowed. But a cadre of the residents did show up, and, in a rare occurrence for a zoning board meeting, so did a cameraman for News 12 and a reporter and photographer for the Long Island Voice. If the board was going to go along with Sabino, it would have to do so in front of witnesses.
It didn’t. Three and a half hours into the meeting, only the Evergreen residents, the cameraman and the reporter remained. The board members whispered among themselves, and Libert acknowledged the presence of the Evergreen cadre. With minimal discussion, the board unanimously rejected the variance.
Gugerty and the residents, their shock turning into joy, embraced one another. “It was the mouse that roared,” Gugerty says. “They used their little Kodak camera to fight back against a larger system.”