May 26—WATERTOWN — Developer Michael E. Lundy has taken the first steps to sue the city of Watertown, after the City Council voted in February to eliminate a make-shift parking lot used by his golf club in Thompson Park.
In a press release issued Thursday, Mr. Lundy announced his business, The Watertown Golf Club Inc., has filed a notice of claim against the city of Watertown and City Councilors Lisa A. Ruggiero and Cliff G. Olney.
The notice of claim is the first required step in the process of bringing a dispute to the court, alerting the parties involved that they may soon have to defend their position in state Supreme Court.
The notice states that Mr. Lundy and the golf club are prepared to ask the court for an immediate injunction that would pause the decision to close the grass and gravel lot to parking. The company intends to seek $500,000 from the city for damages sustained to its business practice by the decision to close the parking lot.
In an interview Thursday, Mr. Lundy said he believes the issue stems from personal attacks on the club from Councilors Ruggiero and Olney. In February, they and Councilor Patrick J. Hickey voted in favor of a resolution to bar parking at the makeshift lot, while Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith voted against it. Councilwoman Sarah V. Compo Pierce was not present for that vote.
In the notice of claim, Mr. Lundy argues that the change to parking rules in Thompson Park, specifically shutting down the nearby overflow lot frequently used by golf club patrons, has forced those patrons to park elsewhere or forego visiting the club. He argues the unique arrangement between the club and the city, in which a private business exists on and is surrounded by publicly owned parklands, means city actions like the parking rules have placed outsized burdens on his business.
"This has been going on since the moment I bought the place," he said. "We all know what's behind this, it's a personal attack on the club. It's anything they can do to disrupt its operation."
Mr. Lundy declined to accuse Councilors Ruggiero and Olney of anything specific.
"I think everybody can read between the lines," he said.
Councilor Olney on Thursday rejected Mr. Lundy's allegations of a personal vendetta, and said his vote to close the overflow lot was only done to save the park from potential closure.
He explained that the original deed bore a clause that stated the city may never allow use of the land for a commercial purpose. If broken, the original owning family's descendants would be able to retake ownership of the land and close Thompson Park.
"That makes it entirely different from any other parking the city provides," he said.
Mr. Olney said he believes allowing for parking, specifically for patrons of the golf club, violates that noncommercial use clause and puts the city at risk of losing all of Thompson Park in the process.
Councilor Ruggiero echoed Mr. Olney's concerns about the deed that gives the city ownership of Thompson Park in a statement sent Thursday afternoon.
"(Watertown Golf Club) has received special treatment by using parkland that isn't theirs for its business, a direct conflict to the deed covenants of the parkland," she said. "The majority of City Council recently voted to right a wrong and end this special treatment of the Watertown Golf Club. Yet Watertown Golf Club has now filed a notice of claim against the City because they don't want their special treatment and free use of city property to end. It's a shame that Watertown Golf Club's claim will cause the city to incur legal fees to defend the city against this claim at the expense of taxpayers."
Both Mr. Olney and Mrs. Ruggiero said they think it's inappropriate to name individual city council members in a suit over a decision they made as city officials. Both said they are well within their rights to vote however they decide on resolutions that come before council. City and state laws state that public officers generally cannot be sued for actions taken within their normal job duties, and their municipality will defend them against any such suits.
Mr. Olney said he believes Mr. Lundy must have some agreements in place with the city that cause him to believe he has rights to use the land for parking, and wouldn't sue without some sort of agreement in place to support that use.
Mr. Olney said there is no resolution providing such assurances to the owners of the golf club, but he has been concerned of extrajudicial directives issued by the mayor.
"Former Mayor (Joseph M.) Butler had a big concern to keep that parking lot open," Mr. Olney said. "When Jeff Smith got in the race, Mayor Butler was adamant at getting Mr. Smith elected. I think it's a curious question, you can ponder it all you want, you won't know anything until the documents come out."
Mayor Smith did not return a request for comment Thursday.
Mr. Olney said he was instructed by the city's attorney not to talk about the potential lawsuit, but was surprised to see Mr. Lundy issue a press release announcing the notice.
He said he also finds it curious that a major part of the resolution closing the parking lot has yet to be completed. When council members voted to close the lot, they also voted to cover the gravel with topsoil and grass, returning it to parkland. That has yet to be done, and Mr. Olney said he thinks city leadership decided to hold off on covering the area because they were aware the lawsuit would be coming forward. Some of the lot has been altered, with streetlights removed and equipment on site to clear the lot.
Mr. Olney said his vote was not to penalize or hurt Mr. Lundy, only to save Thompson Park from potential closure. He said he believes Mr. Lundy only named him and Mrs. Ruggiero in the notice of claim as a form of intimidation. Mr. Olney said he has calculated Mr. Lundy is saving about $1.6 million in taxes and rent because of the favorable agreement the golf club has to rent parkland for the golf course.
"He has benefited, or at least the club has, and he has during the time he's owned the club with a subsidy from the taxpayers in the city of Watertown," Mr Olney said. "And now he turns around and wants to sue us for half a million dollars. I think that's rich, no pun intended."
Mr. Lundy said he regrets that the issue has come to the point of a lawsuit, but at this point he has little choice.
"I've been in business for 38 years. I have to stop and think about the number of time's we've filed a lawsuit, and there may be just a couple," he said. "I don't work in that world. I like to resolve things with a handshake, that's how we get things done. I hate wasting everyone's time and effort going through the courts."
Mr. Lundy said the Watertown Golf Club has about double the amount of parking required by code enforcement, even without access to the overflow lot. But now, with that overflow lot eliminated, he's had to come up with new ways to get customers into the club without parking nearby. Especially when events for local nonprofits or companies are hosted at the club, Mr. Lundy said parking can get extremely scarce.
"We're looking into buying a shuttle cart, so people can park out on the roadway and we'll shuttle them back and forth," he said. "They make limo carts, those cost like $18,000. We're incurring costs, it is changing how we do our operation, it's changing where people come into the club."
Mr. Lundy said he wishes the city wouldn't have to bear the costs of the lawsuit and damages he's seeking, and that he would rather that be covered by Councilors Ruggiero and Olney themselves.
After filing the notice, Mr. Lundy and the Watertown Golf Club have 30 days to bring the case before the state Supreme Court in order to pursue action. Mr. Lundy said he's prepared to do just that, if no last-minute concessions come from the city.
"If the city is willing to sit and talk with us and come up with a solution, then we don't need to go to court," he said. "Unfortunately, we've offered to do that a couple of times and nothing came of it."