Dan Rattiner's Stories

For Fairness: High-Powered Lawyers Should Work Pro Bono for Hamptons Towns

Wealthy homeowners' fat-cat attorneys always beat our towns in court.

When a wealthy homeowner with a house in the Hamptons wants something done on his property that is likely to be turned down by the Town, he can get serious.

By that I mean he can hire a lawyer—not just any lawyer, but a fantastic corporate lawyer who charges $2,000 an hour and who can easily out-resource a Town lawyer. He files a lawsuit. The fantastic lawyer pores through all town ordinances ever written since 1640, all decisions ever made, and, after some law passed that makes hog rendering illegal in a particular section of town, finds the gem he is looking for. (By the way, Trump is a master at using lawyers of this quality to enhance his executive powers.)

The lawsuit is filed. The number of those named as defendants is vast. The Town puts up a defense and, in some cases, it’s only by the grace of God, and an alert judge, that the Town wins. At least in the lower court. The appeal is another matter. And a further appeal is still another matter if the earlier appeal fails. One outcome is the Town eventually gives up because of the cost.

The thing wished for is then presented on a silver platter to the wealthy homeowner with a pink bow tied around it, accompanied by a wry smile and a big fat bill. But all things are relative.

Through my long tenure running Dan’s Papers, I could give you example after example of this sort of thing. Once, about 20 years ago, an oceanfront homeowner tried to get a 200-yard dirt road—the only road that leads to an adjacent oceanfront acre owned by the Town—closed so the homeowner wouldn’t have to look out the window and see fishermen driving their Jeeps laden with fishing poles down to the beach. The road was not even on the homeowner’s property.

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The lawsuit was filed, the lawyers hired, and the homeowner won. How? The Town figured their local Town lawyer wasn’t good enough and so hired an outside up-island lawyer to handle the case—still not a fancy corporate lawyer but hopefully good enough—and both the Town lawyer and the up-island lawyer each thought the early fencing about the matter was being handled by the other. When the judge saw no paperwork coming in to reply to demands coming from the plaintiff, the corporate lawyer tightened the screws and asked for a default judgment. He got it. There’s a metal bar across the dirt road today.

I could go on and on with this, but the truth is that in the fight between a Master of the Universe and the Town Board, the Town needs to have a better sword in its sheath.

I propose that hardball $2,000-an-hour corporate lawyers set aside a small portion of the work that they do to for pay to do pro bono for the towns.

For those not familiar with that term, it means legal work done for free, often for the poor who cannot afford to pay the fees charged by a lawyer. Most lawyers do this. And they are proud to do it, as they should be.

Am I saying that the Town is poor? No, it isn’t. But the annual town budgets are all well under $90 million a year. That’s pocket change for a Master of the Universe. It’s money that, if it fell out of his pocket, he might not think twice before bending down and picking it up.

We all live here. There are the rich and the not-so-rich. What we share is the great natural beauty of the place: our parklands, windmills, town greens, ponds, beaches and dunes, our farms, views to the horizons, wetlands, fishes and birds both great and small, our glorious sunshine, giant oaks and foliage and our rain squalls and storms.

There’s lots out there beyond our hedgerows, and in magazines and websites that list the best lawyers in New York and elsewhere around the country, there should be a listing of the great attorneys doing pro bono work for our town boards to defend them against corporate predators, in order of preference.

I know this is a lot to ask. They will be the very same corporate lawyers who come in to tear up the pea patch for their wealthy clients. But as I say, we all have to live here. And these lawyers can point out to their wealthy clients that they intend to come to the aid of a damsel in distress, pro bono on occasion—to make sure that what is beautiful here now is beautiful here down the road. The Master of the Universe lives here, too.

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What got me thinking about all of this, by the way, was a recent lawsuit filed by attorneys for the man who has bought the historic Duryea’s Lobster Deck with the intention of re-creating it to become a full restaurant. As this is in Old Town, the location of the very first residential community ever built in Montauk (around 1870), with its only commercial business the Duryea’s take-out lobster bar, a potential leap in commercial activity is thought by some to be not a good idea. So the town has been negotiating, and lawyers for this Master of the Universe has been filing lawsuits.

Briefly, it seemed matters were close to being settled. Lawsuits were withdrawn. But then the deal fell apart.

Now there is a new single lawsuit—sort of like the single final firework that marks the end of the grand finale on the Fourth of July. This lawsuit seeks approval for a previously requested state-of-the-art septic system. It would replace an old system that leeches nitrogen and would be necessary for the future. The lawsuit claims that the Town has not yet approved this proposal but should have—based on their adopting an amendment to the code to encourage upgrades to septic systems and the exemption from zoning review that went along with that—and that it could be approved separate from the main application. The courts should order the approval of the septic system without delay.

The Town says it is just waiting for the Suffolk County Department of Health to issue its approval on the location and the arrangement of the septic system, and that they can’t do anything before that happens. It is a normal delay, they say, so they feel this is an unnecessary lawsuit.

Hmm. This could be a job for Pro Bono Man. He’ll get everything straightened out. Everybody will be happy.

Where is he? Send up the light beam. Who will be first?

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