The owners of the house believed to have been owned by Pyrrhus Concer filed a notice of claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, against Southampton Village on Monday, seeking $10 million in damages.
On Monday afternoon, attorney David Gilmartin filed the notice with the village and said his clients, David and Silvia Hermer, are seeking actual and punitive damages from the Village Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review. According to Mr. Gilmartin, the damages include the loss of property value, the loss of investment and violating his clients’ constitutional rights.
With the notice of claim filed, Mr. Gilmartin must wait 30 days before filing the lawsuit in New York State Court.
“Let there be no doubt,” he said. “The village has harmed my clients financially, and it is my intent to return the favor in multiple.”
The filing comes less than a week after the ARB denied a request for a certificate of appropriateness to demolish the house to make way for a two-story single-family home on the property at 51 Pond Lane. The ARB voted 3-1 against the proposal to demolish the house, with Christina Redding opposing. Board member Esther Paster was not present at the vote.
Since the hearing opened to the public in September, there had been a heated debate between the owners, through Mr. Gilmartin of the Water Mill law firm Farrell Fritz, and those who oppose the demolition, who maintained that the house is an integral part of African-American history on the East End.
Mr. Concer was born a slave in 1814. He was freed and went on several whaling expeditions. During one of them, on a boat captained by Mercator Cooper, he became one of the first Americans—and the first African-American—to dock in Japan. The whaling boat he was on rescued Japanese sailors in distress, going on to dock in Tokyo. Upon returning to Southampton, Mr. Concer launched a ferry service on Lake Agawam.
Opponents of the proposal say the property would not be in jeopardy if it had been included in past historical references—but they noted that information related to African-American history, particularly where property ownership and residency are concerned, were often left out of such records.
The date of the house’s construction is unknown; it has architecture consistent with the early 1900s, but it is unclear whether the structure dates to the time when Concer might have lived in it, in part because records related to African-American-owned homes are incomplete.
According to Mr. Gilmartin, the decision by the ARB goes against the purpose of the board and violates the constitutional rights of his clients, who were given no indication that demolition would be a problem when they purchased the house earlier this year. He went on to say he has never had a case where a board “tortured the interpretation” of its own code so much.
“In many ways, it is a surprise, because it is an outrageous decision,” Mr. Gilmartin said. “The board clearly bowed to public pressure and ignored the plain meaning of their own statute.”
Last week, Mr. Gilmartin said the lawsuit will focus on the idea that the village is placing the burden of preserving the house on the owners, which he said violates the Fifth Amendment.
“Let the village be forewarned: The Fifth Amendment prevents the government from forcing private homeowners, like my client, from bearing public burden,” he said. “That will be a huge part of this lawsuit.”
This week, Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley said he was not surprised that a notice of claim had been filed. As of Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Epley said the village had not had a chance to review the notice with legal counsel, but that he hoped the village and the property owners could reach an agreement.
“It is a no-win situation here,” he said. “I am hoping we can come to some kind of resolution, but we are going to wait to get feedback from our lawyers.”