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May 6, 2017 12:30 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

East Hampton Town Votes To Evict Country School From Airport After Lease Expires

Deena Zenger at the Children's Country School on Monday. KRYIL BROMLEY
May 9, 2017 2:19 PM

The East Hampton Town Board will evict the Country School preschool and summer day camp from the Wainscott airport property it has occupied for 18 years, because the town and the school have not been able to reach an agreement on a new lease for the land.

The founder of the school, Deena Zenger, said on Friday that town officials have told her the original lease contract from the late 1990s, which gave her the right to renew the original 15-year lease for another 15 years, and to buy the property if she wanted to, was never renewed—and that a new lease would have to be signed at a much higher rent.

She said the planned eviction, which was approved by the Town Board on Thursday night, May 4, included notification that she cannot, in fact, purchase the property as the original lease allowed, and that she now also has no ownership claim to the 6,000-square-foot school building, which her husband constructed, and for which she just last month finished paying the mortgage.

She has vowed to challenge the eviction in court and has said the school and camp, which is attended by between 60 and 75 children daily, will remain open at least through the coming summer and next school year.

“They gave me what I guess was an illegal contract to begin with, with the right to buy the property, without getting approvals from the [Federal Aviation Administration]—which they’re now saying we don’t have the right to do,” Ms. Zenger said. “So now they are covering themselves by saying my lease wasn’t renewed—I have the letter I sent them asking to renew—and they’re saying my rent will be $76,000 a year, and that I can’t buy the land. I would never have spent all that money to build a building if I wasn’t going to be able to buy the land it was on.”

Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said on Friday that the town would not seek to forcefully close the school in the foreseeable future. “She is entitled to due process,” he said. “But the town is under orders from the FAA for leases that are expiring to be brought up to actual market value rents. There is not a choice here.”

To date, the school has been paying just $3,000 per year for the lease agreement—an amount consistent with many of the early leases for properties along Daniels Hole Road and Industrial Road, on the fringes of East Hampton Airport.

But in the last 18 months the Town Board has aggressively cranked up rents for new leases. The board has said it was ordered to do so by the FAA, in the wake of lawsuits filed against the town by aviation industry companies. But the move has also boosted annual revenues for the airport by more than $400,000 in the last year.

One of the renewed leases, with the Hertz car rental company, leapt from just $7,000 per year to more than $100,000 per year. The town last year signed new annual leases with two landscaping companies totaling more than $250,000 per year, and on Thursday night the town announced a new lease with the PODS container rental company, for $90,000 annual rental of a 2.5-acre property at the airport.

The town has been using the money to bolster the airport’s operating fund, as it tries to set a course for the long-term maintenance of the airport without needing to turn to FAA grants and the federal operational oversight they bring with them.

But Ms. Zenger says that her original agreements with the town, inked after years of wrestling over a Route 114 property she had planned to build her school on, should have protected her from the enormous hikes. She said that having just finished paying the mortgage on the building, she had planned to take out a new mortgage to purchase the land, as her original contract appeared to have given her the right to do.

Ms. Zenger said that other lessees on properties neighboring hers had similar arrangements in their initial leases and are now being told their right-to-buy agreements were illegal and unenforceable.

“These leases were constructed so people could get their businesses up and running and then buy the land,” she said.

Mr. Cantwell said that the there have been other properties that have tried to exercise options to buy in their leases and that the town has had to refer those offers to the FAA for review. The federal agency has yet to respond, he said.

But, he added, the town sees Ms. Zenger’s option to buy as no longer valid because her original lease has officially expired.

Ms. Zenger said she has offered to accept a substantial increase in rent. She offered to pay $13,000 a year for the first year of a new lease, with significant annual increases that would allow her to more gradually bring her rent up to the levels the town says it should be getting for the property.

The lease must negotiated at the bargaining table, the supervisor said.

“The bottom line is, the Country School needs to come to the table and negotiate in good faith,” he said. “We want her to stay as a tenant.”

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Hasn't the airport had enough negative press lately??
By razza5350 (1910), East Hampton on May 7, 17 12:47 AM
Thousands of local kids have benefitted from the wonderful programs and teachers at the Country School. The blowback will be fierce if something equitable can't be negotiated. Do the right thing.
By harbor (401), East Hampton on May 7, 17 9:34 AM
...gave her the right to renew the original 15 year lease for another 15 years and to buy the property if she wanted to...

Can you spell "L-A-W-S-U-I-T"...
By bird (808), Sag Harbor on May 7, 17 10:12 AM
But they have no problem giving the store away to LTV which is also on town-owned land. Weird.
By fire11 (276), east hampton on May 7, 17 5:47 PM
Wish the town was as tough on the illegal housing...oh wait, forgot East Hampton was a sanctuary town.
By Preliator Lives (423), Obamavillie on May 8, 17 6:49 AM
EH town has a rental registry which is used to curb illegal housing. LOL what a joke. It has been very effective in colleting more tax revenue (fees) though.
By razza5350 (1910), East Hampton on May 8, 17 2:41 PM
NO NO NO. I support the Country School and our children. Please work this out and support education and East Hampton's children and families. Don't make them pawns in the pissing match between FAA and the Town over the airport.
By jackiemay (23), east hampton on May 8, 17 9:28 PM
Too late.
By Preliator Lives (423), Obamavillie on May 9, 17 6:58 AM
1 member liked this comment
To be clear, the airport itself has nothing to do with raising the lease price. This is entirely the town board being greedy and padding their own surplus. The town decided to stop taking the free maintenance and operation funding provided by the FAA and instead decided to raise the rents of everyone who had leases on the adjacent airport commercial property create sufficient revenue. However, none of that money is going towards the airport either. In 2015, the airport directly generated over $2.5M ...more
By localEH (419), East Hampton on May 9, 17 3:14 PM
1 member liked this comment
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