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Brinkmanns file federal lawsuit against Southold Town over eminent domain

Southold Town’s attempt to seize a Mattituck property through eminent domain will be challenged in federal court.

The dispute centers on the wooded lot at Main Road and New Suffolk Avenue owned by Brinkmann Hardware Corp., which has plans for a 20,000 square-foot hardware store at the site.

The project was halted by a series of six-month building moratoriums first enacted in 2019 and the town voted 4-2 to initiate an eminent domain proceeding against the property owners last September in order to create a community park.

“The town hasn’t been able to find a legal way to stop our hardware store, so now they want to just take our land,” co-owner Hank Brinkmann said in a statement. “From the beginning we’ve tried to fit into the community and follow the rules, but the rules keep shifting under our feet.”

According to a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York Tuesday, Mr. Brinkmann and his brother, Ben, are seeking a judgment by the court that the town’s claim about establishing a park is a “mere pretext for the illegitimate objective of halting an entirely lawful use of property by its owners” that violates the Fifth Amendment.

“This is a sham,” the filing reads. “The town had never previously considered putting a park on this land; the only reason it is doing so now is to stop the Brinkmanns from opening a store on the land it owns.”

The Brinkmann family purchased the lot for $700,000 in 2016 and argued that Southold Town made no attempts to purchase the land when it came up for sale in 2011 or 2016.

The family, which operates four hardware stores across Long Island, teamed up with Virginia-based Institute for Justice to fight the eminent domain proceeding.

Jeffrey Redfern, an attorney with Institute for Justice, described the town’s actions as “unfair” and “unconstitutional” and that they represent a threat to property owners nationwide.

“The Brinkmanns’ hardware store is an entirely legal business, and Southold has no valid reason to stop them from earning a living on their property,” Mr. Redfern said.

Council members Jim Dinizio and Sarah Nappa cast the two votes against the eminent domain proceeding, each arguing that the town should have sought to acquire the land earlier.

“The time to use such draconian measures as eminent domain was when the property was not for sale,” Mr. Dinizio said at the time.

The latest legal challenge comes nearly two years after the Brinkmanns first filed an Article 78 proceeding in response to a six-month moratorium first approved in February 2019. In that petition, they argued the moratorium was implemented “solely to frustrate and delay” their project.

The town however contended that the moratorium was implemented in order to allow the board to review projects in the context of a pending traffic study and comprehensive plan.

Since the town voted to extend the moratorium again in July 2020, both the comprehensive plan and traffic study have been completed and adopted by the board.

The Brinkmanns have argued that the town “selectively” enforced the moratorium, noting in their lawsuit that the town has granted variances from the moratorium to three other property owners in that time frame.

Last summer, a Suffolk County Supreme Court judge denied a motion by Southold Town to dismiss the lawsuit.

The town had argued that the Brinkmanns “failed to exhaust their administrative remedies” by merely demanding the Planning Board process their application instead of first applying for a variance from the moratorium, according to court documents.

In his decision, Judge William G. Ford disagreed and noted that applying for a hardship variance would be “an exercise in futility.”

Town supervisor Scott Russell declined to comment on the federal lawsuit Wednesday morning, citing the ongoing litigation. He deferred comment to town attorney Bill Duffy, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The constitution requires any eminent domain “takings” to be used for a “public use” to be valid—a key element that will be explored in the case.

“Taking our land by eminent domain would not only deprive us of the property we invested in to grow our business, but also would take away the opportunity to earn an honest living that the new store represents,” Ben Brinkmann said in a statement. “That is why we are keeping up this fight.”