To Prevent “Commercial Misuse” of Property
By Robin Jovanovich
Last September, the Planning Commission renewed Wainwright House’s permit to hold ten weddings a year under a tent. It is in great part the revenue from weddings that have enabled the 70-year-old nonprofit on Milton Point to keep its doors open for spiritual and educational programs and community gatherings.
On December 23, 2021, five of Wainwright’s neighbors filed a lawsuit against the City of Rye on the grounds that the Planning Commission failed to follow due process in granting the permit.
Joe Eriole of Veneziano & Associates, attorney for the neighbors, told the paper the basis for the Article 78, petitioning the New York State Supreme Court to annul the Commission’s decision, is that Wainwright House is neither following its mission as a non-sectarian, holistic learning center, as Fonrose Wainwright intended when she created an endowment and donated the property, nor did the City ask them to put forth evidence that they are indeed a nonprofit religious institution before renewing the permit.”
The neighbors recently formed the Stuyvesant Avenue Neighborhood Coalition “to sustain a series of legal actions to resolve years of Wainwright House mismanagement and misuse by its board of directors.”
They engaged a communications professional, Kimberly Spell, who reached out to the paper on behalf of the neighbors. One of those neighbors, Robert Alexander, wrote us last week to explain that he and his wife Libby have made repeated efforts to work with Wainwright to ensure their survival.
“We offered to purchase the Fonrose Cottage and property at fair market value and then immediately donate that land to conservation, so it would be left as open space in perpetuity,” explained Alexander. “It was conditional on that money being used to start an endowment with the principal off-limits to spending; the mission had to get back to what it was when Fonrose created it and before it became an event/wedding space beginning in the 2000s; the weddings did not have to stop cold turkey, but they needed to taper down to zero; and during the taper the
neighbors offered to donate $30,000 a year to Wainwright.”
In lengthy conversations with Wainwright board members, they said that with the goal of a pathway forward, they spent hundreds of hours discussing a conservation easement on the Fonrose parcel with the Alexanders. “It did not work out, because we could not satisfy their demands. We invited them to join our board but never received a response. They sent their attorney to every one of our meetings with the Planning Commission. In the end, we determined that if we requested a three-year permit to hold tented events, rather than the five-year permit we were granted and received in 2011 and 2016, that it would satisfy the neighbors.” They added, “The neighbors’ response was a lawsuit.”
The neighbors filed an additional legal complaint this week, seeking a permanent injunction on Wainwright House’s “flagrant disregard of the covenants on their deed specifying intoxicating beverages cannot be sold on the property.”
When asked for comment on the first lawsuit, the City’s Corporation Counsel, Kristen Wilson, said, “The City is going to vigorously defend the Planning Commission, which diligently and thoughtfully did its job in reviewing the permit application from Wainwright.” She added, “The neighbors are going to have a hard time challenging the board.”
This week, the Wainwright board released a statement noting that weddings “have always been a happy component of Wainwright House’s mission as sacred unions, and our benefactor Fonrose herself was married on the premises. A third of our annual operating revenue comes from these weddings.”
The board emphasized that it has been their goal “to have a harmonious existence with neighbors, the community, the environment”. It was “while we were in discussions with neighbors, and revised our request down to three years, that the lawsuit was filed by our neighbors.”
Like the City, the Wainwright board said it will defend itself against the lawsuit, “as well as inaccurate and damaging comments being made about a volunteer board of individuals who work hard every day to drive and preserve Fonrose’s vision.”
In a follow-up phone conversation, attorney Eriole said, “We’re well aware that there is a perception this is a David and Goliath story. It’s simply not true. The neighbors tried desperately to come to an agreement with the Wainwright board. We’re disappointed we got here.”