MAHOPAC, N.Y. - The circumstances surrounding the town’s purchase of the Swan Cove property on South Lake Boulevard were called into question yet again last week and Supervisor Ken Schmitt said he will ask for a state investigation into the transaction in an effort to clear the air.
The town plans to use the property, for which it paid $1 million, along with land purchased from the adjacent Tompkins Mahopac Bank, to create a small public lakeside park and a municipal parking lot.
Bob Buckley, the former chair of the town’s Recreation and Parks Advisory Committee, who has been an outspoken critic of the way the land was purchased, went before the Town Board at its May 1 meeting and presented what he said was evidence that the previous owners of the property, Fran and Gina Cotaj, did not have all the requisite permits in place when they sold the land to the town in 2017.
During a real estate transaction, land that already has permits for things such as water and sewer connections is worth significantly more than land without those approvals. Consequently, Buckley contends, the town was duped into paying more for the property than it should have because those permits were not in place.
The exchange between Buckley and the board often turned heated and contentious. Buckley called out Councilman Mike Barile, a former owner of Swan Cove who championed the sale of the property before he was elected to the board in November 2017, for lying about what permits the property had secured.
Buckley alleged that in January 2009, when Barile and his business partners owned the property, they went before the Planning Board for site-plan approval for a 10-unit condominium development. In November 2012, Buckley said, Barile received Planning Board approval for that project contingent upon receiving water and sewer permits from the state Department of Transportation (DOT) and a sewer permit from the county Department of Health.
Buckley said that in March 2016, Barile sold the land to Fran and Gina Cotaj for $725,000, contending that the land had the all the requisite permits.
However, Buckley contends, all the necessary permits were not actually secured. He presented a copy of an email sent from Gina Cotaj to the Planning Board dated Oct. 3, which stated the property still needed some permits.
“As everyone at the…Planning Board and Building Department is aware, we have been delayed due to Department of Transportation water/sewer permits. As of today, Swan Cove has DOT permits for sewer; however, we are awaiting [a] water permit.”
Buckley also cites an Oct. 3, 2017, memorandum written by Richard Franzetti, the town engineer, as evidence that Swan Cove never had all the necessary permits, as Barile contended.
“This file does not contain documentation that the applicant filed a permit with the DOT to connect with a project water system,” Franzetti wrote in the memorandum. “It has received the DOT permit to connect to town sewer.”
“But don’t be misled by that,” Buckley said. “They still needed to go to the [Health Department] for [sewer] approval.”
Buckley noted that less than a month later, Barile-prior to being elected to the board-went before the Town Board and encouraged it to buy the land from Cotaj.
“[Barile] sold a lemon to Mr. Cotaj, who thought he could build 10 units of condos,” Buckley said at the May 1 meeting. “Cotaj found out it wasn’t fully approved. So, Mr. Barile had to figure out how to make this right. So, on Nov. 1, 2017, when he came before this board, he passionately told this Town Board how important is was for [the town] to buy it and demanded that you meet [with Cotaj] immediately.”
Buckley said the board then invited Barile-still not a board member-to take part in the Swan Cove negotiations.
“You invited a civilian to be part of the negotiations,” Buckley said. “Who knows what really happened there? This smells really bad. So, [the town] paid $275,000 more than Mr. Cotaj paid for it.”
Buckley attempted to question the Town Board members about the Swan Cove sale and whether they believed the permits were in place, but he was rebuffed. Board members said they declined to comment under advice from counsel.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. You can’t tell them not to answer public [inquiries] about stuff they voted on,” Buckley said. “This is ridiculous.”
Town attorney Greg Folchetti said board members were not obligated to answer Buckley’s questions.
“Their job is not to answer questions. They can choose to if they want,” Folchetti told Buckley. “But they consulted with me and my advice was as they stated.”
Still, Buckley did get Barile to respond to one question.
“When you sold Swan Cove to the Cotajs, was it fully approved?” Buckley asked.
“In my mind, it was,” Barile responded.
At one point, all the permits were obtained.
“I think it’s quite obvious they don’t have the approvals,” Buckley said. “They don’t have [the Department] of Health approvals. I have all the paperwork. I have all the documentation. They don’t have the DOT approvals. There are 24 questions from [the Health Department], intricate and detailed [questions], about the project, and Mr. Barile and his partners never responded to them; therefore, he has no approval. It died right there. When he sold that dream that he had all those approvals, it was an outright lie. We’ve been conned by Mr. Barile.”
The discourse eventually plunged into sophomoric name-calling as the exchange between Buckley and Barile grew heated.
“Your imagination and your ignorance and your lackey here with the camera who has no respect for women (referring to Journal News columnist David McKay Wilson, who was recording the proceedings on his phone) are unconscionable,” Barile said. “I would never dignify a person like you with a response. Any developer worth his salt knows what’s happened [with Swan Cove]. You are just a rabble-rouser and a troublemaker. I like seeing you every week for the entertainment value alone. Mr. Buckley, you should go home and take a nap.”
Buckley told board members they had been deceived by Barile and that they didn’t do their due diligence before buying the land.
“The property got assessed as if it was a fully approved project,” Buckley said. “[Barile] has said that Swan Cove has all its approvals so many times that you guys believed him without checking. You could have gone to the Planning Board, the Zoning Board, you could have called the engineering department, you could have called [building inspector] Mike Carnazza and asked if he ever gave a building permit, but that never happened.”
“Do you really believe nobody on this board asked anybody in this building [about Swan Cove]? Barile responded. “That is so insane in and of itself that they should be coming to take you away to a padded room.”
It was at this point that Buckley asked the board to call for a state investigation from the attorney general and/or comptroller’s office into the Swan Cove affair. Schmitt said he would do just that and Barile said he supported the request.
“I’d second that,” Barile said.