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County soon to take over site of former Oppenheim Zoo

WHEATFIELD – The site of the long-defunct Oppenheim Zoo is expected to be taken over soon by Niagara County, nearly 2½ years after a judge ruled it would be all right for that to happen.

The Oppenheim Zoological Society, which operated the zoo until it closed in 1988, is planning to dissolve itself, with the county ending up with the 15.3 acres of land right next to Oppenheim Park, a 70-acre county park that is to be enlarged.

Attorneys on both sides were tight-lipped about why the transfer has taken so long, and approvals still are needed from a judge and from the state Attorney General’s Office, but it seems that the move is to come sooner rather than later.

Assistant County Attorney R. Thomas Burgasser said last week, “Now the zoological society is ready to file the petition to dissolve, and then (the land) can be conveyed to the county, but it has to be used for park and recreational purposes.”

“We are working on it,” said Roberta J. O’Toole, the society’s lawyer. “We have to get approval from the New York State Attorney General. There was some delay because the attorney in charge of the not-for-profit bureau died.”

Expenses connected with the dissolution of the society are to be paid by the county, it appears.

Burgasser said, “There will be a recommendation put before the Public Works (Committee, recently renamed Infrastructure and Facilities) for some compensation to help them with their dissolution.”

O’Toole said, “I think we’re talking about $5,000.” The county won’t pay for the land itself, she added.

The zoo and the park both are named after Max M. Oppenheim, a Niagara Falls real estate agent who in 1944 donated land on the boulevard to the newly formed Oppenheim Zoological Society. In 1958, the society deeded most of the land to county for park use, keeping the 15.3 acres for the zoo.

There was a court fight from 2011 to 2013 between the county and the Kiwanis Club of Niagara Falls over the disposition of the zoo land. The club insisted that a clause in the 1944 deed by Oppenheim, a Kiwanis member, allowed the land to go to the Kiwanis if it was no longer a zoo. But the county claimed the 1958 deed gave the county the first opportunity to acquire the zoo site.

In March 2013, County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III ruled that the 1944 deed’s provision giving the land to Kiwanis was unenforceable. He said it still belonged to the zoological society, whose board voted in 2010 to give the land to the county. The Kiwanis Club tried to get Murphy to change his mind, but in September 2013 Murphy reaffirmed his earlier ruling. Although Kiwanis filed an appeal notice, the appeal was not actually pursued, O’Toole said.