Hold the McMansions: Fieldston’s Nasty Land War

For sheer exclusivity, privacy and prestige, there are few neighborhoods that can rival Fieldston, a bucolic sliver of Riverdale in the northwest Bronx. Tranquil in a country-lane kind of way, tucked away from the whoosh of traffic on the Henry Hudson Parkway and the commercial tawdriness of Broadway, it’s a place to die for.

Or at least to fight over, to the bitter, ugly end.

That’s what it seems to be coming to in the ongoing struggle between Charles Moerdler, chairman of the Bronx Community Board 8 land-use committee, and John Fitzgerald, a would-be developer of the last large parcel of open land in the Fieldston area. The fight between the two men, both lawyers, is growing more intense by the moment.

On June 27, the City Planning Commission is scheduled to vote on whether Mr. Fitzgerald can move ahead with plans to build 13 large houses on property he owns in Fieldston. Mr. Fitzgerald, a personal-injury lawyer with offices on Riverdale Avenue in Yonkers, bought the 16 acres that made up the Chapel Farm Estate in 1990 and has been trying to develop the land ever since.

Standing in his way has been Mr. Moerdler, a former city building commissioner under John Lindsay who founded the litigation practice at the prestigious firm of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. A friend of Alfonse D’Amato, and a man whose clients have included Time Warner, the New York Post, some of the city’s biggest unions and Bank Austria (for whom he helped negotiate a settlement with Austrian Holocaust survivors), Mr. Moerdler lives in Riverdale but not in Fieldston. Nonetheless, as land-use chair, he’s established himself as Mr. Fitzgerald’s nemesis.

On April 4, the two men faced off at a Bronx Board 8 meeting, held in the Wave Hill mansion against the backdrop of a Hudson River sunset. The hushed audience was composed of grim-faced men and women, many dressed in tailored gray and blue business suits.

“If I were buildings commissioner now, I would never have allowed the City Planning Commission to certify this application, and I have told them so,” Mr. Moerdler said. Dressed in a dark suit, barrel-chested with thick-framed glasses, the 66-year-old Mr. Moerdler spoke in a voice that built to a crescendo, then dropped dramatically.

But there was a way to block the project, Mr. Moerdler said. Fieldston’s residents have special legal rights not available to most other New York City residential neighborhoods. Because the Fieldston Property Owners Association owns its own streets, residents there could shut down Mr. Fitzgerald’s development by denying him access to his property over their private roads, Mr. Moerdler said. No roads, no way to move in the bulldozers first and the residents later.

Mr. Fitzgerald, in response, has threatened to challenge the property owners’ right to control their private streets. For Mr. Moerdler, this appeared to be a transgression greater than the floods, earsplitting blasts, sewage overflows, collapsing foundations and the specter of endless construction perils he saidMr. Fitzgerald’s project would bring.

Mr. Moerdler pledged the services of his white-shoe law firm to defend Fieldston’s rights in court: “On a pro bono basis, I would do anything to reject and to oppose unscrupulous development, and I believe this is it.”

Board 8 ultimately voted to recommend against Mr. Fitzgerald’s request for a special permit to build.

Rocking back and forth on his heels, his thinning white hair standing up straight and his eyes popping, the 61-year-old Mr. Fitzgerald couldn’t contain himself. He kept interrupting Mr. Moerdler, jabbing his finger at him and accusing him of, among other things, promoting the “special issues of the Fieldston elitists.”

The meeting was so contentious that Mr. Fitzgerald later sued Bronx Board 8 and Mr. Moerdler in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, charging that they acted illegally and denied him his Constitutional rights to speak on his own behalf.

Suburban Overtones

The Chapel Farm fight appears to be a classic New York real-estate battle, pitting an upstart developer-a small-time lawyer whose firm, Fitzgerald and Fitzgerald Inc., advertises in the subways-against the old, established homeowners of an exclusive community whose right to remain exclusive is being defended by a member of the city’s old guard.

In some ways, however, like the neighborhood itself, the dispute has a suburban flavor. The same battle-of old-time homeowners versus developers of so-called McMansions-is happening in communities all across the country. Developers want the right to build expensive homes and reap the huge profits due them as owners of precious open land. Old-time residents-like those in Fieldston-may complain about traffic, sewage, water drainage and trees, but they’re really furious about losing the last vestiges of open space.

Fieldston is a 1920’s planned community of approximately 250 mansions and large homes that resemble fanciful knockoffs of neo-Georgian estates and Italian villas. Some of the country’s most elite private schools, including Riverdale Country, Horace Mann and Fieldston, are located there, nestled into pockets of the hilly ground.

Stone pillars mark the entrances to the community, and signs everywhere remind visitors that they are on private property. The Fieldston Property Owners Association polices its neighborhood fastidiously: Park your car on one of the neighborhood’s winding streets, and within minutes a private security car will roll by and a hired guard will request that you leave if you don’t live there.

A pamphlet published in 1955 by the Fieldston Property Owners Association Inc. called the neighborhood “a dream come true through [the] constant vigilance, cooperation, time and money of many of its residents …. May it long remain a community of neighborly self interest and a residential park.”

But then along came Mr. Fitzgerald.

In 1990, as a partner in Chapel Farm Estates Inc., a family-owned real-estate-investment company that he heads, Mr. Fitzgerald bought the undeveloped property for “a significant seven-figure sum” from Manhattan College. The property, located just east of the Henry Hudson Parkway at West 253rd Street, comprises about 16 acres of old-growth forest and rocky outcroppings that include the highest point in the Bronx.

The 13 houses Mr. Fitzgerald wants to build would dwarf neighboring mansions and would occupy lots bigger than an acre on average, making them exceptionally large even by Fieldston standards. Mr. Fitzgerald had estimated that it would take only about a year and half before he received the necessary approvals to go forward with the development.

A decade later, he’s still waiting to clear the last hurdles. “I’ve been pulling my hair out [over] the way that they make me dot the T’s and I’s,” he said in a recent interview. Most of his troubles have to do with the unique nature of the area.

Even Fieldston’s flora and fauna have special rights. Because Fieldston encompasses a significant portion of one of New York City’s four Special Natural Area Districts, Mr. Fitzgerald has had to endure a seemingly endless land-review process that he said has added millions of dollars to his development costs. There are strict regulations on how many trees can be cut down, and Mr. Fitzgerald has had to engage in complex negotiations over “tree credits” with city officials.

Mr. Fitzgerald was also required to pay for a study documenting what kind of bird species nest at Chapel Farm. In addition, evidence that the property was the site of a prehistoric Indian rock quarry triggered a mandatory archaeological study to determine whether the site merited protected status on the National Register of Historic Places.

Then there were those mapped city streets on Chapel Farm that run right through the plots where Mr. Fitzgerald wants to build his mansions and his private road. The streets were never actually built, but because they are on the city’s map, Mr. Fitzgerald needs City Council approval to remove them.

Even if he gets City Planning Commission approval, there’s a good chance he’ll have to face a City Council vote-and the Riverdale Council member, June Eisland, has vowed to block the project.

Tenant Troubles

As if those weren’t enough obstacles, there is also Jerry Galuten, the colorful president of the SGD International Corporation, who must be the second-most-unpopular man in Fieldston. Mr. Galuten is the sole resident of the Chapel Farm property, holding a 99-year lease to a mansion on the site.

The mansion was built by a previous owner, Order of the Living Christ Inc., an Episcopalian organization. Rumor has it that the immense Tudor-style mansion was built because the order intended to invite Jesus to live there after He returned to earth.

The mansion appears fit more for a robber baron than the Son of God: marble fireplaces in every room, two-story bay windows and a library that once held more than 30,000 books.

In 1969, the religious order sold the property to Manhattan College, which in turn granted a 99-year lease on the mansion to Mr. Galuten. It’s not clear what offends refined Fieldston sensibilities more: Mr. Galuten’s appearance (he weighs hundreds of pounds) or his business. Mr. Galuten’s world-wide “countertrade” or barter business has involved highly complex multi-party deals in which cash, Czech farm tractors, tires, palm oil for Nigerian soap, 868 humidifiers and 80,000 non-functioning prepaid phone cards have changed hands.

With the property, Mr. Fitzgerald has inherited Mr. Galuten. He has filed at least four suits against his unwanted tenant, for everything from illegally conducting a business on the property to chopping down trees. Trees are a serious matter to Mr. Fitzgerald because of his valuable “tree credits,” which affect his prospects for getting the development approved.

Mr. Galuten, in turn, has seen that Mr. Fitzgerald was given the status of co-defendant in a lawsuit stemming from the day a U.P.S. delivery man tripped on the mansion’s unusually steep driveway.

In this one area, at least, Mr. Fitzgerald has the sympathy of his Fieldston neighbors, who are incensed by Mr. Galuten’s steady stream of delivery-truck traffic and want him out.

With all these encumbrances to the property, the years have dragged on and Mr. Fitzgerald has yet to break ground. He has since bought out his partner, Robert Kahn, and continued to plug away to secure the necessary releases to build.

Finally, in February, the City Planning Department certified his revised development plans. The certification freed Mr. Fitzgerald from preparing an even more cumbersome and costly environmental impact statement. It also gave him permission to start the application process to build four mega-mansions, and also to start on the drainage ditches and utility lines for nine more on the steep Chapel Farm slope.

But there are yet more hurdles facing Mr. Fitzgerald. The Bronx borough president’s office has recommended that city authorities require a full environmental impact statement and that it reject the project until it is further revised. Councilwoman Eisland is also an obstacle (Mr. Fitzgerald has requested that she recuse herself from any Chapel Farm actions).

Then there’s Mr. Moerdler.

“Moerdler has assisted Fieldston throughout this,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “They don’t want to talk to us about the project; they just want to ambush us.”

On April 27, Mr. Fitzgerald struck back, slapping Mr. Moerdler and Board 8 with a lawsuit asking the court to annul the community board’s resolution against his development.

Mr. Fitzgerald also threatens to challenge Fieldston should it deny him access to his property. “What gives them the right to selectively exclude Chapel Farm traffic?” he said. “Are they going to set up checkpoints?”

Tattletales

All of these issues came to a head on May 9, when the City Planning Commission, presided over by chairman Joseph Rose, held its final hearing on the Chapel Farm development.

It was a clash of two cultures. Testifying for Fieldston and Bronx Board 8’s resolution were more than a dozen well-dressed and articulate Fieldston residents and their allies. Prominent Fieldston supporters, such as Martin S. Baker, a land-use attorney with the international law firm of Salans, Hertzfeld, Heilbronn, Christy & Viener, delved deeply into such issues as segmentation and other procedural aspects of the city’s Uniform Land Review Process.

Testifying for Mr. Fitzgerald were a motley crew of supporters: potbellied men in cheap-blend blazers and a paralegal in Mr. Fitzgerald’s law office. Yet the team was well-prepared and deftly used diagrams and blowups of the project to rebut many of the criticisms.

But Mr. Fitzgerald’s supporters also sounded at times like a bunch of aggrieved schoolchildren tattling on the neighborhood bully. One man, Andreas Spiker, who identified himself as “having strong family and social ties in the Riverdale section in the Bronx” (and who happens to work for Mr. Fitzgerald), lambasted the absent Mr. Moerdler. “Chairman Moerdler called the Chapel Farm development ‘unscrupulous,'” said Mr. Spiker. “He also took a cheap shot at this Commission and its staff of professionals by suggesting that they were not sober when, after 10 years of strict attention to detail, the City Planning Commission certified Chapel Farm’s application.”

Another Fitzgerald supporter referred to the actions taken by Mr. Moerdler and Bronx Board 8 as “chilling and repugnant to Americans.”

And, surprisingly, it seemed to work. After years of suffering, Mr. Fitzgerald finally found a sympathetic ear in Mr. Rose, the planning commission chairman.

“This Commission is well aware of the fulminations and overblown rhetoric of the land-use chair of Community Board 8,” said Mr. Rose. He also encouraged Board 8 officials to engage in a “more civil dialogue with this Commission, and one that is constructive …. ”

The Commission will issue its final say on the project on June 27.

Mr. Rose’s remarks did not seem to deter Mr. Moerdler. “No good deed goes unpunished,” he said in a written statement to The Observer. Mr. Moerdler maintained that Mr. Fitzgerald’s proposed development does not adequately address the serious environmental and safety concerns of the community board.

As for the lawsuit, it is, according to Mr. Moerdler, “without legal merit, and is nothing more than part of a campaign to intimidate honest citizens who are acting in good faith … on behalf of their community.”

June 6: Board 4, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, 1000 10th Avenue, between 58th and 59th streets, second-floor Conference Room, 6 p.m., 736-4536; Board 10, State Office Building, 163 West 125th Street, at Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, second floor, 6 p.m., 749-3105.

June 13: Board 6, New York University Medical Center, 550 First Avenue at 30th Street, Classroom A, 7 p.m., 319-3750.

June 14: Board 5, Fashion Institute of Technology, 227 West 27th Street, between Seventh and Eighth avenues, eighth-floor Employee Dining Room, 6 p.m., 465-0907. Hold the McMansions: Fieldston’s Nasty Land War