ITHACA, N.Y. — The Maguire Family of Dealerships has filed an Article 78 lawsuit against the city of Ithaca over the city’s Temporary Mandatory Planned Unit Development (TM-PUD) zoning for the Carpenter Business Park.

Under New York State law, an Article 78 lawsuit is filed against communities or public bodies when the plaintiff believes that arbitrary or capricious decisions have been executed, inappropriate of governmental powers. Named in last Friday’s court filing with the Tompkins County Supreme Court were the city of Ithaca, city planning and development director JoAnn Cornish, all ten members of the Common Council and Mayor Svante Myrick.

Lawyer Anthony Elia III of Miller Mayer LLP, who is representing dealership president Phil Maguire in the lawsuit, argues that the city’s TM-PUD zoning put in place for waterfront and near-waterfront properties is illegal, and unfairly discriminates against Maguire’s dealerships. The lawsuit seeks to nullify the TM-PUD, which would allow the Maguires to move forward with their original plans for a $12 million trio of dealerships at the Carpenter Business Park site.

Maguire purchased six parcels of land at the Carpenter Business Park through an LLC back in August and September 2015 for just over $2.7 million. Maguire applied for a building permit in February 2016, and the Ithaca Common Council enacted the TM-PUD the following month, forcing any potential developments to earn not just planning board approval, but Common Council approval.

This extra layer of approvals was created because the zoning of the properties Maguire acquired is in flux – at the time of purchase, the parcels were zoned for industrial uses, which also allows commercial retail properties such as car dealerships as long as they are two floors. At the same time, the city was just finishing work on their new Comprehensive Plan at the time of Maguire’s purchase, which calls for a walkable, mixed-use approach to the waterfront vicinity.

Over the past 18 months, city planners have been developing new waterfront zoning codes based off of the Comprehensive Plan. When the TM-PUD is set to expire this September, the city wants to have new waterfront zoning regulations fully written and already passed into law by the Common Council.

Maguire had attempted to navigate the TM-PUD with its 50,000 SF dealership proposal last year, but with acknowledgement of significant public opposition to the plan, the Common Council voted against the proposal in an 8-2 vote last November. The dealership chain is now working with the city on a plan that would allow the company to buy vacant city-owned land behind Wal-Mart on Southwest Park Drive, and build its dealerships there.

In a phone call, Phil Maguire downplayed the lawsuit. “The filing is really only so that we retain the right to pursue the Article 78 if necessary. There are some time constraints for us as landowners. If we choose to challenge the TM-PUD, we have certain time frames in order to take action. We’re working with the city to potentially move to Southwest Park, we’re excited about that conversation, and divest out of Carpenter Business Park.”

“We’ve been meeting with Common Council and city government to find a collective solution, to be mutually beneficial is our goal, and what we need to achieve. We’ve had very positive conversations with the city, they’ve been aware of this, we’ve been transparent. It’s not intended to be adversarial in any stretch, everyone’s been helpful, and we want a mutually beneficial solution. {This lawsuit} reserves the option for us to debate the legality of the TM-PUD.”

Maguire explained that there has been interest in the Carpenter site from other businesses and from developers. Some are interested in exploring the idea of a partnership in developing the site, some want to buy some or all of the property for their own plans, and others would prefer to be tenants. He says the lawsuit is unlikely to deter business opportunities. “We reserve the right to remove the action {lawsuit} at any point, and hopefully we’ll be able to get in a more solid position on a new location within a reasonable time period.”

City councilman and planning committee chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd) was optimistic that the lawsuit would not move forward. “I think what Maguire is trying to do is keep their options open with challenging the TM-PUD. They’re having conversations with the city on Southwest Park, the early conversations have been positive, and everybody seems to be a consensus to move in that direction. Southwest Park is their plan A, this lawsuit is their back-pocket option B.” Murtagh added that if the lawsuit did proceed, he was confident the TM-PUD would be upheld in court.

“It’s a little awkward obviously, but what I’ve heard from Maguire, everyone’s committed to finding an agreement. I expect they’ll be coming back to the Planning Committee to discuss Southwest Park further at future date.”

Phil Maguire does plan to continue pursuing Southwest Park, but he noted that it has its challenges. “Our last conversation that we left off was the introductory conversation about Southwest Park, and we’re kinda in a holding pattern with the city for a timeline on how it would all work. I don’t know when it will go before the planning board, a number of things probably have to happen with Common Council and the city first. Our time frame is nine months to put something forward, have it reviewed and have it be something that the city is comfortable with.”

“We’ve been here for 40 years, we provide a service to the community, we generate more sales tax than any other entity in the city and county, and we want to invest a lot to continue that growth and upgrade our existing facilities. The city wants to helps us grow. They would just prefer it not be Carpenter Business Park, but we have to go somewhere. Southwest Park could be that new home for us.”

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.