Yacht Club sues city over pier site

A file photo from the 1980 Oswego Yacht Club regatta.

OSWEGO, N.Y. – The Oswego Yacht Club has filed a legal challenge to the Port City’s termination of a lease agreement between the two parties, with the club claiming the city’s justification for ending the lease was flawed.

The lawsuit, filed Sept. 23 on behalf of the Oswego Yacht Club (OYC), claims the city violated the club’s lease rights with its August lease termination. City officials at the time cited a clause that allowed for the lease termination if the property were partially destroyed — which the city argued would occur via the impending redevelopment of the International Pier the building is located on — but the Yacht Club’s challenge points out the property is “not currently demolished” and claims the city is eyeing the premises for future voluntary demolition.

The city’s efforts to oust the Yacht Club from the International Pier were spurred by a $6.5 million grant awarded to Oswego as part of the state’s Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative (REDI) to transform the pier from its current status as a gravel drive to a “pedestrian-oriented boardwalk.”

Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow on Friday called the lawsuit “disappointing but not surprising,” and claims members of the Yacht Club have been unwilling to negotiate a reasonable resolution. Yacht Club members have taken issue with this characterization and claimed at an August council meeting the pier was large enough for them and the public to co-exist, but Barlow claims those concessions came too late.

City officials voted to break the lease because the use of the pier and the building has “drastically changed,” Barlow said, and it’s “no longer sensible to use the building as a private club.” Barlow has continually called the International Pier underutilized, with a revamping of the parcel an important aspect of the city’s waterfront redevelopment plan.

“This community has no asset more important than our waterfront, the marina and the pier,” Barlow reasoned. “There is no project more important to our waterfront than the marina improvements and the pier improvements.”  

Barlow previously said ousting OYC from the building was necessary to accomplish the goals of the city’s multi-million dollar waterfront redevelopment.

The Yacht Club in its court filing contends the city’s justification for breaking the lease is inapplicable, as the destruction of the premises has not yet occurred and would be voluntary, further noting the city plans to restore the structure. OYC in its filing also notes the club satisfied all conditions of the lease, both monetary and non-monetary, and asked for preliminary and permanent injunctions to stop the city from blocking access to the property.

A message left for attorneys at Syracuse-based Costello, Cooney and Fearon, who are representing the Yacht Club, was not immediately returned. OYC Commodore Phil McBrearty told councilors in August the organization did not believe there is “legal justification for termination of the lease,” and other Yacht Club members reiterated that stance before the council.

The city, which has yet to file a response to the Yacht Club’s action, could instead take possession of the property through eminent domain proceedings, officials said.

City Attorney Kevin Caraccioli told the Pall-Times whether or not the city has a right to terminate the lease is still an open question, but the city plans to start an eminent domain proceeding in order to take back its “own property” and continue with the construction and development of the International Pier.

“We have the right to take back our own property,” Caraccioli said of the city, noting the International Pier and the structure the Yacht Club occupies are both owned by the city.

The city Administrative Services Committee, which voted to terminate the lease in August, is expected to consider a request from Caraccioli to hire Syracuse-based law firm Barclay Damon to file the eminent domain action, which city documents call “highly complex.”

In an eminent domain proceeding, the issue at hand would be the valuation of the lease, or what, if anything, the Yacht Club might be owed in compensation.

The Yacht Club, in the Sept. 23 filing, says “monetary damages are not an adequate remedy for the city’s breach” of the lease, claiming the property “offers unique access to Oswego’s only deep-water marina” and the “location is critical for maintaining OYC’s public presence and recruiting new members.”

“OYC’s monetary damages from the city’s unilateral attempt to terminate the lease are difficult, if not impossible to calculate,” the filing states.

Barlow said the lawsuit is “a simple money grab” and noted the Yacht Club was offered other waterfront space. The Yacht Club, Barlow said, did not take him up on that offer.

“They want to be compensated for having to move and that’s all this is about,” he said.

The legal proceedings, according to Barlow, would not hold up the impending redevelopment of the International Pier, which is expected to undergo demolition in the coming weeks and further construction next year. The pier will be under construction and transformed regardless of the legal proceedings or outcome, Barlow said, noting the suit is only related to the building and not the pier itself, which is publicly owned and accessible to the public.

“Their lawsuit is only about the building itself and we will continue to do all the work we need to do all the way around that building,” the mayor said, adding the “avoidable lawsuit” would not slow, stop or change the project.

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