Iona College is suing the city of New Rochelle for changing a zoning law so as to require more oversight of campus expansions.
Iona claims that the city misled the public with a confusing notice for a public hearing on the law. And the college accuses the city’s corporate counsel, who had once worked for Iona, of unethically using privileged information against the college.
City Manager Chuck Strome responded that Iona had tried to coerce the city into approving a land-use request. The conflict of interest charge and all other claims are baseless, he said, and the city will vigorously defend the lawsuit.
The law in question goes back to the late 1990s, when the city and college began negotiating oversight of future expansions, according to the lawsuit filed Feb. 23 in state Supreme Court in White Plains.
The law passed in 2001 and requires any college, university or private school in a residential district in the city to apply for a special permit to expand outside of its campus.
Iona interpreted the law to mean that it could expand in any manner it deemed necessary, within its existing boundaries, without asking for a special permit.
That notion was tested in 2002, when the college petitioned the city to merge 24 pieces of campus property into one lot. City Attorney Kathleen Gill notified Iona that its application had been approved and it did not require a special permit.
Iona’s interpretation was tested again last year.
The college had begun planning in 2015 for a renovation or expansion of its Hagan School of Business, next to Mazzella Field in the middle of the campus. By then, Gill had left city employment and was working for Iona as in-house general counsel.
She had participated in discussions at Iona about whether the college needed to merge several properties so that the size of the business school building would be proportional to its piece of land, in accordance with zoning requirements.
Gill left Iona later that year to work again with the city, as corporate counsel.
Last year she met with Iona’s land-use attorney to discuss the business school expansion. She advised the college that it did not have the right to merge lots without getting a special permit, the lawsuit said, and that failing to get the permit “would be problematic.”
Gill then helped draft an amendment to the 2001 law. A phrase that had excluded existing property from the rule was deleted. A clause requiring a special permit for merging lots adjacent to a campus was added.
No other types of property are required to get a special permit to merge lots, Iona said. The purpose of the amendment can only be seen as “depriving Iona of its property rights.”
Iona said Gill should have recused herself from any matters she had been privy to when she worked for the college. The lawsuit accuses her of breach of ethics.
She continued to have discussions with Iona’s land-use attorney, Iona said, but never told him that the ordinance had been revised.
Last July, New Rochelle issued a notice for a public hearing on several zoning proposals. The page one summary of the 17-page notice identifies more than a dozen zoning proposals but makes no mention of the law that applies to Iona. The Iona amendment is listed on page 10 but is misidentified under a code used for a different district.
State law requires municipalities to give the public the opportunity to be heard on proposed laws, Iona said, and the notice failed to do so.
New Rochelle was also working on a law to require landlords to give the city addresses of students living off campus.
The law passed and New Rochelle asked Iona for a list of all off-campus students. Officials implied, according to the lawsuit, “that without Iona’s cooperation Iona could have issues with its zoning application for the expansion of its business school.”
Iona did not provide the names, citing privacy and safety issues. During a meeting in September a city official allegedly said that Councilman Barry R. Fertel, sponsor of the student housing law, was upset with Iona and that he was an important person for an approval the college would need for the business school.
Iona petitioned the city in November to merge several pieces of property. Five days later, the City Council unanimously approved the zoning amendment.
Five weeks later, the city denied Iona’s application to merge lots, citing the need for a special permit.
Strome responded to requests for comment that were made to Gill and other city officials.
He said college representatives had reached out directly to Gill to discuss their plans. She raised the conflict of interest issue and college representatives expressed no concern.
“In fact, Iona wanted our corporation counsel to remain involved,” Strome said. Only after it became clear that the city would require council approval and formal community input did the college raise the conflict issue.
He said college representatives “engaged in threatening and aggressive conduct in an effort to coerce and intimidate the city to allow the merger in clear violation of zoning law,” and threatened to disparage city officials if the merger was not granted.
Fertel said Monroe College and The College of New Rochelle provided student names and addresses. He was disappointed and unhappy with Iona for refusing to do so, but “the city was not being heavy-handed.”
The problem, he said, is that “Iona does not want public scrutiny of any development.”
“I think their petition is fully without merit and should be dismissed,” Fertel said.
Iona is asking the court to declare the zoning amendment invalid and to make the city approve the land merger. It wants an order directing Gill to recuse herself from Iona matters while she works for the city.