When Hurricane Sandy slammed into Verplanck in 2012, pummeling homes in the northern Westchester hamlet, flooding roads and tossing around cars and boats, the enormous forces of wind and water were not enough to permanently dislodge a few steadfast mobile home residents.
But Sandy gave the town of Cortlandt a good reason to evict several residents from arguably one of the most precious, underdeveloped Hudson River waterfront properties in Westchester County.
Cortlandt has been developing a park along the river since the 1980s, and it wanted to expand at Riveredge Trailer Park and the old Peekskill Seaplane Base. The 23-acre property had been owned by James Martin, a Greenwich resident who operated a flight school and air-tours business there. Reportedly owing the town $45,000 in property taxes, Martin in 1992 deeded his land to Cortlandt as a gift for recreation and park use upon his death.
A lease noted a proviso: Residents of the mobile homes could continue living there for 10 years after his death.
Forty-five trailers, mobile homes and recreational vehicles, many old and scruffy, dotted the property when the deal was struck. Today, nine trailers still stand.
Martin died in 2006, triggering the 10-year clock. Cortlandt officials offered residents an incentive in 2008: $6,500 apiece to move out right away but $1,000 less for every year they delayed.
The buyout seemed paltry to people paying some $200 a month in maintenance fees and no rent while enjoying million-dollar views of the Hudson. Few residents took the deal, according to a New York Times account.
The trailer park had been there since 1950 side by side with the seaplane base. Nine aircraft were based there, and Martin ran a flight school and sightseeing tours of the Hudson all the way down to the Statue of Liberty.
The town built Steamboat Dock near the Martin property. An overlook and historical marker were installed at Kings Ferry, where Washington crossed the Hudson on his march to Yorktown in 1781.
Town officials and Verplanck citizens discussed how best to use the Martin property once every trailer was gone. The top three ideas were extending the riverwalk trail, opening a waterfront restaurant and building an environmental education center.
Frank LaForgia was one of the residents who had no interest in a buyout. He owned four trailers and a Winnebago on the seaplane property. He and his brother, Lucio, lived in two of them. He achieved a bit of local fame in April 2012, when he rescued one of his tenants, Nora Jean Young, from a fire.
Six months later, Sandy struck.
Residents were evacuated. Steamboat Dock was under water. Many trailers had taken on water and several were destroyed, including some that the town said were parked there illegally by squatters.
Town officials inspected the property and disconnected the electrical mains.
New York Electrical Inspection Services advised the town that the seaplane property was hazardous, the electrical system would have to be replaced and the underground feeders should be tested for safety. “This is a life safety situation,” the inspector wrote.
Ken Hoch, the town code enforcement officer, declared the property uninhabitable and issued an eviction notice on the same day. Trailer residents who lived on the seaplane base were given three days to vacate.
Cortlandt set up storage units for their belongings. Officials offered vacating residents $1,500 disaster relief, relocation assistance and Federal Emergency Management Agency housing assistance, according to court records.
LaForgia did not accept the deal. Two of his trailers were destroyed, he said. But his home and his brother’s home never lost power during the storm. They had reconnected the electrical system and continued living there.
A week after eviction notices were posted, the town formally ejected residents from the seaplane base. Lucio LaForgia was getting dialysis treatment, his brother said, and begged officials for more time to move his personal belongings. By the time Lucio returned, the brothers’ homes had been bulldozed.
Frank LaForgia claimed he never received compensation. Cortlandt officials said he received FEMA assistance and was given opportunities to file claims. Lucio did file a claim, but did not show up for the hearing.
After Sandy, 22 trailers remained at the trailer park.
In 2015, the LaForgias sued the town and a half-dozen officials in U.S. District Court in White Plains, claiming that their civil rights had been violated. The condemnation and evictions, they said, amounted to an illegal eminent domain proceeding.
Their lawyer argued that Sandy was “a mere ploy for the town to remove residents who still had 44 months left on their leasehold terms. The whole situation reeks of bad faith, self-dealing, deception and the town’s taking official action for the sole purpose of obtaining benefit to itself.”
The town maintains that the trailers were taken solely out of concern for public safety and not for public use.
Lucio LaForgia died last year. Last month, federal judge Kenneth M. Karas rejected the LaForgias’ legal claims and all but dismissed the lawsuit.
“Plaintiffs have no surviving claims,” he ruled. But he afforded a last chance to file an amended complaint within 30 days.
That deadline was Aug. 11, and an amended complaint was filed. But on the same day, Frank LaForgia delivered a letter to the court. He had fired his attorney over failures of communication and he was asking for time to find another lawyer.
Three days later, he was pessimistic about his chances when he spoke with a Business Journal reporter. But on that very day, the last remaining residents of Riveredge Trailer Park picked up the fight. They filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court in Westchester to stop the town from evicting them.
Why had he bothered to fight over this location? LaForgia was asked that question as he stood by a friend’s trailer. It seemed to astonish him.
“Where else can you live in Westchester County?” he asked, as he pivoted toward the Hudson and swept his arms out in a panoramic embrace of the trailer park and river. “It’s crazy! Look at this!”