In the Ransom Oaks community of Amherst, the raging neighborhood argument isn’t about schools, suburban sprawl or crime.
It is about a golf cart trail.
A 4-year-old lawsuit over the trail is causing turmoil in this community of about 1,100 residents next to the Glen Oaks Golf Course.
Neighbors are taking on the Ransom Oaks homeowners’ association over the lawsuit it filed against the golf course and two homeowners – a fight over a path that golfers use that winds through the backyards of several Ransom Oaks properties.
The legal question is whether property owners there must get permission from the community before selling off any part of their land.
But it’s the lawyers’ bills that are piling up that are angering some.
Since 2013, Ransom Oaks has spent $121,000 on lawyers – money that comes out of residents’ yearly association fees – prompting some to demand to know why it is taking so long to resolve the dispute.
“We have a right to know these things,” said one particularly vocal resident, Mary Ellen Sanfilippo. “We’re paying the bill.”
A small group of Ransom Oaks residents say board officers aren’t providing enough information on why the suit has not been resolved. When they ask questions, they say their concerns are dismissed by an insular community board.
Board members and the attorney representing Ransom Oaks say the suit is moving at a moderate pace and they have kept residents as well-informed as they can, given that they don’t want to divulge their legal strategy. They say last month’s overwhelming re-election of two incumbent members of the board shows general satisfaction with the status quo.
The fight over the lawsuit also exposes a clash of personalities within the massive East Amherst development, full of single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and patio homes. Ransom Oaks borders the golf course, near Smith Road, and is roughly bounded by New Road to the west, North French Road to the south and Transit Road to the east.
The golf course and the residents peacefully coexisted for decades when it came to shared use of the path in question. The course allowed residents to walk on the portion of the path that meandered through the course, and residents allowed golfers to trek onto their lots.
That changed in 2008, when Glen Oak closed off its portion of the path, after a deed provision ensuring residents’ access to the golf course portion expired. Negotiations failed, and in 2011, the Ransom Oaks board advised residents whose properties include the path to post warning signs telling golfers not to trespass.
After one resident, Andrea Weissenburg, put up a sign and a children’s playground set to block off the path, Glen Oak sued, and Weissenburg relented. She took down the play equipment and, in exchange for $12,000, in 2012 turned over to the golf course a quitclaim deed for her portion of the path.
When the residential community board found out about what Weissenburg had done, it sued her and the golf course, saying Weissenburg didn’t have the right to transfer control of her property to the golf course. That was in 2013, and little has happened since then as the case has made its way through State
Supreme Court. Just two people, a couple, have given depositions in the case.
Craig R. Bucki, Ransom Oaks’ attorney, said this isn’t unusually slow, nor is the case moving rapidly through the court system, either. A settlement is possible but Ransom Oaks and the golf course appear to have hardened their positions. The golf course is going to defend its right to use the cart path, even where it crosses residents’ lots, said James I. Myers, the course’s attorney.
Sanfilippo said when she and other residents – who pay $350 annually in association fees – try to find out what’s going on with the lawsuit, board members freeze them out.
“They don’t want to be questioned,” said Sanfilippo, who described the nine-member, all-male board as “very condescending, very intimidating.”
She said she called Bucki directly, and they spoke briefly before Pete Calinski, the board president, called and told her never to call the attorney again.
“Then he accused me of being a spy for the golf course,” she said.
At a board meeting Monday night, Calinski revealed the board has spent $121,407 to date on attorneys’ fees on the lawsuit. But $73,413 of the total, more than half, came in 2013 and just $2,902 was spent last year, he told The News.
The board is simply defending its legal interests, Calinski said, and he wonders why residents aren’t directing their frustration at Weissenburg or the golf course.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit shows no sign of ending. A court appearance scheduled for Tuesday was postponed when Weissenburg’s attorney got ill. It’s now set for the end of March.
“We just want to know how is this ever going to end?” said Liz Arnold, a townhome owner in Ransom Oaks.