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Judge postpones settlement in dispute over Oppenheim estate

Niagara County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III thought the dispute over the future of the former Oppenheim Zoo property was going to be settled Friday, but no deal has been made.

"Both parties need to obtain approval," Assistant County Attorney R. Thomas Burgasser said after a huddle with attorneys for the Niagara Falls Kiwanis Club and other beneficiaries of Max M. Oppenheim's will.

Murphy gave the parties until Aug. 10 to make a deal or fight it out in the courtroom.

Oppenheim, a Niagara Falls real estate man who died in 1956, deeded land on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Wheatfield to the Oppenheim Zoological Society in 1944. Fourteen years later, the society transferred 80 acres to the county, which created Oppenheim Park.

The zoo next door, on 15.3 acres, closed in 1988. The zoological society is now defunct in all but name, but it was sitting on the zoo's old trust fund of $225,000.

The county and the Kiwanis Club have been battling over the property's ownership, with each side citing clauses in the deeds or Oppenheim's will to bolster its position.

Oppenheim was a member of Kiwanis and of Temple Beth El in Niagara Falls. According to previous statements by Kiwanis attorney Mary E. Maloney, the temple is in line for half the money in the trust fund.

Kiwanis was supposed to receive 20 percent, with 10 percent each going to Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, the Salvation Army and the now-defunct Beeman Foundation, whose assets have been transferred to the United Way of Greater Niagara.

In a brief appearance in open court Friday, Burgasser said he needs approval from the County Legislature for a settlement.

"Although I may know beforehand, the next Legislature meeting isn't until July 31," Burgasser told Murphy. "I've already had two meetings [with legislators] in executive session, and I think I need one more meeting."

Terms of the settlement have yet to be disclosed, although the Legislature won't be able to vote on them without revealing them. In the meantime, Murphy has imposed a gag order on the attorneys in the case.

In February, Murphy allowed the disbursement of $100,000 from the trust fund to the various charities.

William Maldovan of the state Attorney General's Office sat in on Friday's court session. His office has the job of making sure charities are treated fairly and that not-for-profit groups, such as the zoological society, are dissolved in an orderly way.