The city is gearing up to acquire a lot in Prospect Lefferts Gardens that is home to a community garden and the subject of a heated dispute, with the gardeners claiming developers acquired it by fraud.
Together, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and neighborhood Councilman Mathieu Eugene have set aside $1.25 million to "acquire the garden lot at 237 Maple Street for parkland to be placed under the Department of Parks and Recreation," according to capital budget documents for fiscal year 2017. Given that the titular owners, an LLC called Housing Urban Development (yes, like the federal agency), have spent two years fighting to retain the property and to remove the volunteers who run the Maple Street Community Garden, the city's effort to take over the property could require the use of eminent domain.
The Parks Department, Eugene, and Adams would not confirm that eminent domain is on the table.
"We are exploring our options to increase access to green space in this neighborhood," Parks spokeswoman Crystal Howard wrote in an emailed statement.
"The conditions facing the Maple Street Community Garden presented the opportunity to utilize $750,000 in capital resources toward the purchase of the land as a permanent open space in Prospect Lefferts Gardens," Adams said in a statement. "I look forward to working with all stakeholders to make the community’s vision a lasting reality."
The city would have to go through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure to acquire the property, and no one has yet filed to do so. A spokesman for Eugene said he was not available for comment.
To recap, Housing Urban Development's Michael and Joseph Makhani claim to have purchased the lot at 237 Maple St. for $5,000 from nephews of the deceased owners back in 2003. The house that once occupied the lot was abandoned after its owners' deaths, and burned down in 1997. The lot accumulated junk for 15 years until neighbors banded together to clean it up and turn it into a community garden—after they say a worker at the Makhanis' LLC refused to discuss the property.
In the spring of 2014, the Makhanis sued the deceased owners and the city, seeking to clear the lot's title. The gardeners stepped in, casting doubt on the validity of the developers' ownership, and the two sides have been doing legal battle on multiple fronts since.
Proposed state eminent domain seizures of the Maple Street Garden property stalled in Albany, but the city is now trying to acquire the property. How exactly is unclear. (Paula Segal)
Roland Brewster, a lawyer for Housing Urban Development, said this was the first he'd heard of a bid for the contested property.
"They’re open to all offers," he said of his clients. "Whether they take them or not, that’s to be determined. And if there’s an offer, I’m sure they’ll take a look at it."
Brewster said he also had not heard mention of the possibility that eminent domain was on the table.
"[The city has] to pay the reasonable cost of it, is my understanding of how that works," he said. "I’d have to discuss it with my client. They haven’t brought it to my attention."
As the litigation over whether the gardeners can stay and the Makhanis are the rightful owners has dragged on, gardener lawyer Paula Segal of the group 596 Acres has gotten a guardian appointed for the late owners' "missing and unknown heirs," and hired an investigator to look into whether the purported sellers were the "sole heirs."
The investigator found a grand-niece of the late owners named Carol Wilson in Georgia, who was not mentioned in the transaction, WNYC reported.
Segal welcomed the news that money had been allocated to acquire and preserve the garden.
"We're really glad our elected advocates have seen how important the Maple Street Community Garden is as a resource and are committed to preserving it," she said.
Segal added that she hopes the money set aside by the city doesn't become a windfall for the Makhanis.
"596 Acres has worked really hard to locate the heirs of [late owner] Germaine Kirton, and I hope that the heirs would be the ones to get the money," she said.
State legislators for the district that includes the garden introduced legislation last year proposing that the state acquire it by eminent domain, but the bills have stalled in committee in both the Senate and Assembly.