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Judge tosses Brinkmann case in federal court; family plans to appeal

A federal judge has thrown out a suit brought by the Brinkmann family to block Southold Town’s pursuit of eminent domain on a Mattituck property where they hope to build a new hardware store. 

Eminent domain is the right of a government to seize private property for public use with payment of compensation. A Sept. 30 ruling grants the town’s motion to dismiss the suit filed by brothers Ben and Hank Brinkmann, who allege the town has violated their Fifth Amendment rights.

U.S. District Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall writes in the ruling that the Brinkmanns do not allege their property was taken for private benefit; that the Town Board failed to follow state law; or that a public park does not constitute a public use. 

Judge Hall also highlights flaws in precedents used to support the Brinkmanns’ case and dismisses an argument that “requiring a plaintiff to plead a private benefit here would allow the government to use eminent domain to punish political opponents or unpopular minorities.” 

“They write at length regarding the story of Willa Bruce, a Black woman, whose successful business in Manhattan Beach was taken through eminent domain for a public park during the era of Jim Crow,” Judge Hall wrote. “While Plaintiffs’ [Brinkmanns’] concern for Black women is admirable, they can take solace in the fact that the Fourteenth Amendment provides sufficient protection of their right against a discriminatory state action, including a taking.”

The judge further determined that the plaintiffs lack of knowledge about town plans to build a park and a statement from town Supervisor Scott Russell that nothing would be built on their property “do not amount to anything more than the Town’s desire to leave the plot of land undeveloped” and “do not support an inference of a nefarious, improper motive necessitating ‘closer objective scrutiny.’ ”

Hank Brinkmann told a reporter that the family plans to pursue the case in appellate court. 

“The ruling was at our request,” he said. “We asked the judge to proceed so we could take the case to the Appellate Division, which is what we plan on doing now. We’ll never give up our property and we will fight it right to the end. It’s unfair what the town’s been trying to do.” 

Mr. Russell declined to comment on pending litigation and referred a reporter to town counsel. The town attorney did not respond before this article was published. 

The Brinkmanns have been engaged in a lengthy land dispute with Southold Town for the past few years, as the family has attempted to expand their hardware business with a 20,000-square-foot store on a wooded lot at Main Road and New Suffolk Avenue. 

The family, which owns four other hardware stores in Suffolk County, purchased the property for $700,000 in 2016. The proposed 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 the following year to create a community park. 

At that time, council members Jim Dinizio, who has since retired and relocated, and Sarah Nappa cast the two votes against the eminent domain proceeding, arguing the town should have sought to acquire the land sooner. 

The Brinkmanns have argued the town made no attempts to purchase the land when it was put up for sale in 2011 or 2016 and maintain the town never previously planned a park at the site, only pursuing eminent domain in an effort to prevent them from developing the land. 

An outside attorney hired by the town had argued in opposition to the preliminary injunction that the town properly followed the state’s eminent domain procedure and the Brinkmanns had failed to challenge the town’s findings in state court, calling in a court filing their motion for a preliminary injunction “a meritless attempt by [the Brinkmanns] to halt years of Southold’s work” to create the park.