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Controversy lingers as Caroga accepts donation of park

Controversy lingers as Caroga accepts donation of park

The Caroga Town Board this week officially accepted the donation of Sherman’s Amusement Park to the
Controversy lingers as Caroga accepts donation of park
Sherman's Amusement Park in the fall of 2013. Photo courtesy of Richard Nilsen.

The Caroga Town Board this week officially accepted the donation of Sherman’s Amusement Park to the town, despite lingering questions of the contract’s legal standing and financial ramifications.

The agreement to transfer about 81⁄2 acres of land was first signed Dec. 29 by town Supervisor Ralph Ottuso and property owner George Abdella, without a vote by the Town Board.

The former amusement park, once a booming summer destination, was built in the 1920s and purchased at a foreclosure auction in 1989 by Abdella. He and his wife, Ruth, owned and operated or leased the park until they decided to donate it to the town late last year.

The park, with its original carousel inside a 12-sided pavilion, Ferris wheel and 1,000 feet of beach on Caroga Lake, was appraised at $3.1 million, according to the contract.

The Town Board voted unanimously Wednesday night to accept the donation.

“All agreed for the town to move forward and get this done, and appreciate the fact that the Abdellas are being so generous in donating this,” Ottuso said Thursday. “And we wanted to move ahead so that we can get activities going there with the park.”

Ottuso’s initial acceptance of the offer without a Town Board vote was the first in a series of legal questions surrounding the donation, including accusations of illegal subdivision, incorrect and unclear parcel mapping on the deed, and potential burdensome demands by the donor regarding the operation and maintenance of the property.

A committee appointed to review the agreement was formed in February and “pretty much dissolved” after the board accepted the donation this week, according to committee member Jeremy Manning.

The committee’s report and recommendations — “the result of a month of research and countless hours of preparation” — were largely ignored at the meeting, he said.

“There were lots of people who were very, very upset that the committee’s report was effectively not listened to by the Town Board, that they never had a chance to even go over it or discuss it,” he said.

Based on its findings, the committee recommended essentially wiping the slate clean and starting again by deeding the property back to Abdella, clearing up questions of parcel mapping, subdividing the property properly and hiring an outside attorney to help draft a new donation agreement that could then be voted on by the Town Board.

Failing a full rewrite, members also suggested some new wording to avoid what they see as problems in some of the contract’s provisions.

Ottuso said he would bring the committee’s recommendations to Abdella, “and if he likes a couple different verbiages that were put in there, then we’re going to add that to the donation agreement.”

Abdella did not respond to requests for comment Friday, but Manning said in a meeting with the committee on Monday that Abdella was “not receptive” to the changes.

“He thought he had a done deal,” said Manning.

Concerns about the donation were first raised in February by town resident Barbara Lee, an attorney with offices in Schenectady, in a letter to the Town Board in which she pointed out several procedural missteps and legal questions, including a potential violation of the Rule Against Perpetuities by requiring the town to “never sell” the property.

Responding to the letter Thursday, Ottuso called it “just her opinion.”

“We consulted [Town] Attorney David Jung, everything was good, so we moved forward to accept the donation,” he said.

Contacted Wednesday, before the Town Board voted on the agreement and the committee publicly presented its findings, Jung denied any knowledge of questions about the contract’s legality.

“There shouldn’t be any questions about that,” he said. “Everything has been done legally.”

He did not respond to further requests for comment after the meeting.

In a letter to committee members after the March 11 meeting, Lee called the problems with the donation a result of “the rush to accept this property without even a cursory investigation of the massive legal and financial ramifications to the town and its residents,” and accused those behind it of “falsehoods, end-runs, and unilateral actions.”

The committee was particularly concerned by a provision in the contract that potentially ties the town to maintaining a wastewater treatment system for two adjacent parcels, about 40 acres total, retained by Abdella’s real estate company Balboaa Land Development.

The contract states that the town “shall make capacity available in the [wastewater treatment] system to any future use of the two parcels,” which it specifies as “including but not limited to a recreational vehicle camp/park.”

In her letter, Lee warns that by accepting those terms, the town may be authorizing Abdella to “utilize, and demand expansion of, the wastewater treatment system without paying for it.”

The committee also questioned the town’s ability to take on the financial burden of restoring, maintaining and operating the park as laid out in the contract, which includes opening a public beach and maintaining the park to “the highest standards.”

Town Budget Officer Lita Hillier said the town would likely be looking to grants to develop the property and that it was too early to know if the agreement could lead to tax increases. She said she was not involved in discussions of the financial ramifications prior to the signing of the contract.

Ottuso has said he wanted to act quickly on the opportunity to take ownership of the park.

“We’re in a positive mode,” he said. “We’re looking to move the town forward.”

Members of the committee are now gathering signatures on a petition to bring the issue to a public referendum.

“This is like the iconic piece of property here in the town,” said Manning. “It’s definitely a truly historic act of philanthropy on the part of the Abdellas, but it’s all about the strings, it’s all about the conditions, it’s all about what’s in that contract. That’s what people are most upset about.”

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