A Man’s Beach Bungalow Is His Castle, Under
Siege by Developers
By COREY KILGANNON
Richard George lives in a charming little beach bungalow just off the ocean on the eastern end of the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens.
Like the homes of his neighbors, his small, three-bedroom shack is cooled by the salty breeze and surrounded by wildflowers and the sandy walkways leading to other lovely old wooden homes that form a beach colony, parts of which look more like Fire Island than New York City.
Mr. George’s home on Beach 24th Street has cotton bedspreads, quaint tablecloths and kitschy artwork. But don’t be fooled by the surroundings: it’s really a war bunker from which he defends his ever-shrinking seaside neighborhood.
At the table in his galley-size kitchen, he assembles legal briefs used to sue developers and city agencies to ward off efforts to demolish the bungalows for newer, bigger housing.
Back when the Rockaways was still a popular ocean resort for New Yorkers, these bungalows were abundant, with many built in the 1920’s. Groucho Marx is said to have invested in 24 of them. Now the largest remaining patch of the historic shacks are the roughly 120 that line three city blocks leading to the dunes in Far Rockaway.
passing year, more of the bungalows along Beach 24th, 25th and 26th Streets
between Seagirt Boulevard and the boardwalk are demolished by developers
building new housing. So far, Mr. George has not been able to get the city to
declare the bungalows, many of which are abandoned, landmarks. So he fights
local development by filing lawsuits claiming that the projects violate federal
coastal regulations by illegally diminishing public access to the waterfront.
He is in court against a 130-unit condominium project being built between Beach 25th and Beach 26th Streets. Mr. George is arguing in State Supreme Court in Queens that the bigger project blocks an easement to the beach written into the bungalows’ deeds and titles.
State conservation officials ordered work stopped at that project, citing a lack of proper permits. Now the site, which has been idle for several months, looks as if the crew just went on a coffee break, with tools and brick piles strewn about and the iron framework gathering rust.
“These developers knew when they bought the property that their project was in violation,” said Mr. George, who bought his bungalow in 1982. He now owns a handful of other bungalows, which he rents out, and heads the Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association of Far Rockaway.
Gary Rosen, a lawyer for the project, Metroplex on the
Atlantic, said the legal easements to the ocean expired in 1930. He said that he
was certain he would defeat Mr. George in court but that the delays alone might
ruin the project.
“My client has a $14 million loan out on this, and it is costing him $3,000 each day the project is delayed,” Mr. Rosen said. “This could bankrupt the project. He’s already cost my client more money than those bungalows are worth.”
Even when ultimately unsuccessful, Mr. George’s lawsuits have often managed to frustrate and delay developers until costly delays and legal fees have forced them to abandon their projects.
The most powerful weapon in his arsenal is an obscure regulation known as the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, enacted by Congress to help local governments preserve access to waterways. Mr. George claims that the city and state mainly ignore the regulations despite receiving federal funds to enforce them.
“The right to have waterway access maintained is protected by the U.S. Constitution and goes back to ancient Rome,” he said recently, sitting in his bungalow and surrounded by piles of documents that he says support his case. “It costs taxpayers millions of dollars a year to enforce this program, which benefits all city residents, and no one enforces it. They’re handing the waterfront over to developers and it’s breaking federal law, basically because nobody knows or seems to care about this law.”
He is suing the city in federal court, claiming it violated federal access laws in approving the huge Arverne by the Sea project, which will create thousands of units over 117 acres. Mr. George says the project will eliminate 46 streets that lead to the ocean.
The suit is one of at least seven Mr. George currently has against the city, said Gabriel Taussig, a city lawyer. Although judges may issue temporary stop-work orders against developers, Mr. Taussig said that in the end, the judges consistently reject Mr. George’s claims.
Federal and state officials say the federal coastal act offers a general guideline for projects, which are evaluated case by case. City Planning Department officials say waterfront development projects are stringently reviewed to ensure that access is preserved.
Mr. George sat in his kitchen showing old wills and deeds from landowners in the 1800’s stipulating that an easement to the ocean must be maintained. He thumbed through a heavily annotated, underlined, highlighted and Post-it adorned copy of the federal act, with his own bookmarks and footnotes. He flipped to Section 306, Part 1455, which encourages “public participation in the permitting process,” in order to “ensure compliance by government.”
Mr. Rosen accused Mr. George of protecting the bungalows simply to preserve his income as a landlord.
“He buys these bungalows for dirt cheap, and he’s lining his pockets by running the biggest scam,” he said. “Here you have developers bringing millions of dollars into the neighborhood, and he’s killing their projects and making them want to walk away.”
He said he was suing Mr. George for “malicious prosecution of my client.”
“I’ll take all the bungalows if I win,” he said. “Most of them are garbage anyway. They’re shacks.”
Mr. George dismissed Mr. Rosen’s claims.
“If money was my motivation, I’d want the project built because it would increase my property value,” he said. “I’m not antidevelopment; only when it discriminates against everyone else living around it.”