Town poised to file suit over seawall erosion

In what is being called an unprecedented step, the town of Greenwich is poised to become a plaintiff in a lawsuit against a local land company.

The town has to deal with lawsuits filed against it every year but rarely is the plaintiff in a case. However, the Board of Selectmen unanimously authorized Town Attorney Wayne Fox to make that happen at its Dec. 17 meeting. The suit has not officially been filed against Greenwich Real Estate Developments 1 LLC as of the deadline for this week’s edition of the Post, but the pathway to do it has been opened. At issue is an ongoing dispute concerning property on River Road between two different land owners over a seawall that is eroding. The town is demanding that action be taken on it by the property owner due to a public boardwalk over the seawall, but no action, so far, has happened.

First Selectman Peter Tesei called this a “protracted dispute” and said that the land, which was first developed in the 1970s, was “quite an intricate parcel” and there were questions about who owned what part and therefore was responsible for concerns there. The seawall on the property has become deteriorated over the years, and since the boardwalk there is public access for the town, the selectman said, they are stepping in in the interest of safety.

There is no immediate safety concern in the area, but town officials said they are concerned about the future, as worries about public safety caused the boardwalk to be temporarily closed in the past. Mr. Tesei said the boardwalk has been “temporarily shored up” but he was concerned about exposure to the town if the problem gets worse. He said not only did he not want public safety to be jeopardized but that the town needed to protect itself from a liability standpoint.

“There seems to be an ineptitude on the part of the property owners to come to a resolution to this,” Mr. Tesei said. “Therefore, we are taking what really is considered unprecedented action to initiate litigation to insure we’re protected in the public’s interest. I think that’s the underlying issue here. It’s in the public’s interest because ultimately if something does happen, the town has exposure and has the deepest pockets. We’ve watched this thing go on, I think, approaching 10 years. It certainly predates my tenure.”

The town is checking the site every three months to make sure the repairs made are holding up for the boardwalk. But the permanent solution is supposed to come from the property owner, which is why the town authorized the suit.

Mr. Fox told the selectmen that his office has expressed the town’s concern over this but no resolution had been reached. He said the town had even attempted to work with the state’s attorney’s office to examine whether a criminal prosecution was possible to force the property owner to fix the issue, but that was not possible. However, under state statute the town has the power to be able to do this.

Mr. Fox added that the question of who actually owned the land and would therefore be subject to the lawsuit was something that could be challenged in court, given the ongoing dispute. He told the selectmen that the town’s research and statements and evidence presented indicated that Greenwich Real Estate Developments 1 LLC was, in fact, the owner. Along that line, Selectman David Theis confirmed with Mr. Fox that the company was paying the taxes for the property.

“It seems ownership and responsibility go hand in hand here,” Mr. Theis said.

Efforts to contact the owner of the property or its legal representation by the Post have been unsuccessful.

Selectman Drew Marzullo stressed that this was not a step the selectmen were taking lightly and noted it was the first time in his five years on the board that they had even discussed anything like this.

“We don’t do this where the town initiates a lawsuit,” Mr. Marzullo said.

Mr. Marzullo also said that since any potential litigation could take years, the selectmen needed to get updates from the Department of Public Works as to the seawall’s condition. He said the main issue to him was that it had to be fixed, no matter what the court found, especially if there was going to continue to be public access to it. The town has had to close access to the area before and might have to do so again if the issue worsens. The cost of fixing the seawall is expected to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, which could well be a reason why it has not been addressed yet.

Mr. Tesei said this was also being done to prevent damage to the town’s waterways. He noted that there had been a lot of focus on Greenwich waters lately and on dredging, and said the North Mianus Yacht Club had spent money to do some of the needed dredging in this area. Because the seawall is continuing to deteriorate, pieces are falling in and there is runoff into the waters which compromises the work being done.

“It’s somewhat foolhardy to just sit here and say we can wait until something bad happens,” Mr. Tesei said. “We don’t want to throw money away by letting the sedimentation build up as it runs off because this is so compromised.”

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