A letter to the editor that called into question the ethics of Yorktown Planning Board members was partisan and speculation-based but was not libelous, a State Supreme Court justice in White Plains ruled last week.
Elliot Krowe, co-chair of the Yorktown Democratic Committee, wrote the February letter, charging that the Planning Board had “rammed through [a developer’s application] without the usual oversight and involvement of other town advisory boards.”
The Planning Board members, who had sued Krowe, charging defamation, plan to appeal the court decision.
In the letter, which this newspaper published, Krowe asked open-ended questions about whether an application that financially benefitted two former elected officials, both Republicans, was fast-tracked by the Planning Board.
Such vague, rhetorical questions, said Justice Terry Jane Ruderman, can be characterized as neither true nor false.
The same can be said for other portions of Krowe’s letter, she decided, saying it contains “ambiguous and uncertain” language that “would be interpreted as a belief or opinion, rather than a provable fact.”
Letters to the editor, Ruderman noted, are “traditionally reserved for the airing of ideas on matters of public concern” and “represent the viewpoints of their authors and, as such, contain considerable hyperbole, speculation, diversified forms of expression and opinion.”
“When the letter is viewed as a whole, with its partisan overtones, the Court finds no actionable defamation,” Ruderman wrote.
Citing the decision of another case, she continued, “As would be expected in a letter to the editor, it is comprised of some facts, along with ‘accusations [that] are merely opinion and personal surmise built upon those facts.’”
The development in question is a two-story building on Underhill Avenue, which was built on properties formerly owned by Grace and the family of former state Sen. Terrence Murphy, who sold their properties to Unicorn Contracting.
The Planning Board approved the mixed-use building, which includes a medical practice, on Dec. 18, 2017, just as Grace was preparing to leave the supervisor’s office.
Krowe questioned the timing of the approval, but “a reasonable reader,” Ruderman said, “would recognize that the letter writer was engaging in speculation in suggesting that an abbreviated process had occurred…”
Asked to comment on the judge’s decision, Krowe said, “As I said from the beginning, the suit was baseless. The court agreed.”
Planning Board member John Kincart said an appeal will be made “immediately.” Kincart said he is upset about the lack of support his board has received from the Town Board in this matter.