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Judge denies county former zoo land

A judge squelched Niagara County's efforts to take title to the former Oppenheim Zoo this week, but he urged a negotiated settlement that might have the same result.

State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. denied the county's claim that the terms of the original deed for the zoo property gave it the right to the land if the zoo went out of business, which it did in 1988.

The rival contender for the property is the Kiwanis Activities Corp., which filed a separate lawsuit in February to enforce its claim to the land.

The late Max M. Oppenheim, a farmer after whom the zoo was named, was a member of the Kiwanis Club of Niagara Falls.

He gave land on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Wheatfield to the Oppenheim Zoological Society in 1944. Fourteen years later, the society deeded about 80 acres to the county for what became Oppenheim Park.

Kiwanis attorney Mary E. Maloney insists that the 1944 deed gives the zoo land to the Kiwanis Club if it is no longer used "for zoological or park purposes."

"Our position is, the land already is ours," Maloney said.

Assistant County Attorney R. Thomas Burgasser insists that the subsequent deed gives the county first crack at the roughly 15.5 acres of land that once hosted the zoo.

Burgasser disclosed in court that Kiwanis had offered to sell the land to the county for $300,000.

Maloney charged that the county's counteroffer was a payment of $20,000 and an agreement to allow the Kiwanis Club to keep the Oppenheim Zoo's old trust fund, which was set up with Max Oppenheim's money.

"That's totally wrong," Burgasser said.

He wouldn't disclose the county's counteroffer, and said it's up to the County Legislature to decide what to do.

Robert O'Toole, attorney for the zoological society, said the trust fund contains about $225,000.

O'Toole was in court to get Kloch's permission to formally dissolve the society, but Kloch denied it until the county and the Kiwanis either settle or have their argument decided in court.

"We can't transfer any property until the judge tells us," O'Toole said.

Maloney said Oppenheim's will specifies that if there was no zoo, half of the money in the trust fund should go to Temple Beth El, a Niagara Falls synagogue to which Oppenheim belonged.

Maloney said the Kiwanis was to receive 20 percent of the trust fund, with the Salvation Army, Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center and the now-defunct Beeman Foundation to receive 10 percent each.

"It's a lot of money to us," Maloney said. "This year, we've had our lowest fundraising ever because our city is so poor. This is a lot of money we could do good with."

The Kiwanis Club's charitable focus is aid to needy children.

Burgasser said the county believes the trust fund goes with the land -- in other words, to the county, as far as he's concerned.

Maloney said the Kiwanis will sell the land if its title claim is upheld. "We'd talk to the county about selling it to them," she said.