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Greenport man’s arrest brings decades-old parking debate back into spotlight

For decades, ownership of a sliver of land at the south end of Main Street in Greenport has been in dispute. Or so the story goes in the village.

The owners of Claudio’s Restaurant say the land is not in dispute, and is theirs. And an examination of the tax map for that part of Main Street shows that most of that land does, in fact, belong to the restaurant owners.

The map also appears to show a sliver of a state-owned road in the vicinity of the parking spaces outside Preston’s.

The owners of Claudio’s maintain that parcel is also theirs. The state road ends at the fire hydrant in front of Claudio’s, near the walkway across Main Street, said Jan Claudio.

“When the state paves, they never pave past that point,” Ms. Claudio said, adding that Claudio’s has a survey showing that their property extends to Preston’s front door.

Those parking spaces currently have signs indicating that they are for Claudio’s customers only. Claudio’s charges a redeemable $20 fee for parking in its lots, and that fee gets refunded with a purchase at any Claudio’s location.

But the ownership issue may not be so black and white. Some people, including some village officials, say the area around Preston’s has been disputed and that in the past the village has done its own study on the question of ownership. Village officials would not discuss that study for this story, however, and the study itself could not be located by a reporter.

Preston’s owner Andrew Rowsom said, “I just go by the survey, and the survey says it belongs to Claudio’s.”

The parking spots are labeled ‘Claudio’s parking only.’ (Credit: Kelly Zegers)

The issue of the parking spots near Preston’s arose again recently when Robert Lehmann of Greenport, 65, was arrested for painting over some of the signs that said the spaces were Claudio’s. He was charged with criminal tampering, a misdemeanor. He pleaded not guilty in Southold Town Justice Court July 7 and is due back in court in the fall.

In an interview, Mr. Lehmann acknowledged painting over the signs and said he has painted over them before and been arrested for doing so.

“I know those parking spaces are public and I want [Bill Claudio] to know I know,” Mr. Lehmann said.

The area where Crabby Jerry’s is now was at one point the landing site for the North Ferry, which now docks at Third Street. North Ferry began leasing the Main Street site from the Greenport Wharf Company in 1943 and moved to its current site in 1958, according to Stella Lagudis, general manager of the Shelter Island Heights Property Owners Corporation, which owns North Ferry.

To the Claudio family, the painting over of signs is no small matter.

“We have been subject to three graffiti attacks by this man,” Ms. Claudio said. “The cost he has put on this company is ridiculous.”

An Oct. 24, 1967, ruling by state Supreme Court Justice Arthur Cromarty stated that Claudio’s had legally acquired the property from the Greenport Wharf Company.

After the village removed a barrier the Claudios erected on the property in 1964, Bill Claudio Sr. took the village to court claiming that, in 1954, the state Legislature had authorized the state’s “Commissioners of the Land Office” to convey the property to the Greenport Wharf Company, which conveyed it to Greenport Realty Management Company two years later. The land was conveyed to Mr. Claudio Nov. 19, 1958, according to the court ruling.

The village had stated in court papers that it owned the land in question, arguing the statute that authorized the conveyance was unconstitutional. Judge Cromarty disagreed and awarded the land to the Claudios.

However, the question of why tax maps show the land in front of Preston’s as state-owned remains unanswered. A spokesman for the state Department of Transportation was unable to find the answer to that question by presstime.

Village attorney Joseph Prokop told The Suffolk Times he would look into the ownership of those parking spaces, but added that tax maps are not for determining ownership. He was unable to report anything back to The Suffolk Times by presstime.

Following his arrest, Mr. Lehmann filed a handwritten $2 billion notice of claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, against various people and officials in Greenport Village and Southold Town. A licensed boat captain, Mr. Lehmann described himself as a 32-year volunteer with the Greenport Fire Department, an Army veteran and a member of the Merchant Marine since 1979.

He says his battles with Claudio’s, Greenport Village and North Ferry date back to 1998, when he attempted to operate a passenger-only water taxi in the village and ran into opposition from all three.

The notice of claim lists as defendants the Southold Town Police Department; the Village of Greenport; North Ferry; William Claudio Jr. and the late Jerry Tuthill; Joe Angevine, a former Greenport harbor master; Richard Sledjeski, whom he describes as a “dock boy”; and former Greenport mayor Dave Kapell.

The allegations made in the notice include false arrest, illegal imprisonment, assault by police officers and verbal assault.

Both Mr. Kapell and current Greenport Mayor George Hubbard Jr. declined comment.

When asked for comment, Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said by email, “Obviously, that’s not one we would be looking to settle … Perhaps if he cuts his claim to only $1 billion, then we could talk.”

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Top photo: The parking spots next to Preston’s in Greenport, pictured in the background, have been in dispute for nearly half a century. The owners of Claudio’s maintain the space is rightfully their property. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)