A bitter 4-year-old legal fight over a golf cart path in East Amherst has come to an end, but tensions linger in the Ransom Oaks housing development.
The parties on Wednesday agreed in State Supreme Court to settle a pair of lawsuits spurred by the dispute that has pit neighbor against neighbor.
The Ransom Oaks homeowners' association agreed to withdraw a lawsuit filed four years ago against the nearby Glen Oak Golf Course and Ransom Oaks resident Andrea P. Weissenburg. In exchange, Weissenburg agreed to withdraw a libel lawsuit she filed last month against the board of the Ransom Oaks Community Corporation.
Though the lawsuits are settled, a core group of 20 or so residents who have grown increasingly critical of the association's leadership said they will continue their efforts to force out the board's top officers.
"We still feel our board did a terrible disservice and injustice to the residents by squandering our money," said Mary Ellen Sanfilippo, who was escorted out of the board's raucous March meeting by Amherst police.
Wednesday's settlement followed months of negotiations among attorneys for the association board, Weissenburg and the golf course.
The Ransom Oaks homeowners' association represents residents of about 1,100 single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and patio homes next to the Glen Oak Golf Course.
The association filed suit four years ago against the golf course and against Weissenburg, who turned over control of a portion of her property to Glen Oak so that golfers could use the golf cart path that wound through some residents' backyards. The parties were fighting over whether property owners in Ransom Oaks must get permission from the community before selling off any part of their land.
Ransom Oaks also was seeking repayment of its legal costs – more than $121,000, since 2013 – money that comes out of residents’ yearly association fees.
The 4-year-old conflict became a topic of conversation when residents in the massive East Amherst housing development met at the mailbox, at the swimming pool or at their homeowners' association board meetings. The tension came to a head at the March board meeting. About 20 residents attended, many there to express their concerns over how the Ransom Oaks board has handled the lawsuit over the golf cart path. Amherst police were called to restore order.
The community's April newsletter attempted to provide highlights of the March 13 meeting, but said the summary was incomplete because residents repeatedly interrupted.
Without naming Weissenburg, the newsletter said her family had misinterpreted a letter from the association board and she had gone off on her own "to extort thousands of dollars" from the Glen Oak Golf Course, ultimately winning and keeping $18,000.
Weissenburg sued in May, contending the newsletter falsely accused her of committing the crime of extortion, an act that she said constituted libel.
She and her husband, Jamie, did not respond to messages seeking comment. Peter Calinski, the president of the Ransom Oaks board who was sued in his official position and individually, did not respond to a message seeking comment.
"Since being elected to the board in 2010, I have had to make many decisions for Ransom Oaks," he wrote in a section of the newsletter called President's Corner. Calinski said it is the board's job to act on behalf of residents. "And many were tough decisions. And I stand by them to this day."
The libel lawsuit also named as a defendant Terry Collins, the news editor and designer of the Ransom Oaks News publication.
Wednesday, at a conference with Justice John L. Michalski in State Supreme Court, the attorneys and parties representing the sides in both lawsuits agreed to settle everything.
According to James I. Myers, the attorney for Glen Oak, and Craig R. Bucki, the attorney for the homeowners' association in the original lawsuit, the terms of the settlement are:
- The homeowners' association drops its lawsuit against Weissenburg and the golf course.
- Weissenburg drops her defamation lawsuit.
- The golf course deeds the land it bought from Weissenburg back to her. But she agrees to grant the golf course an easement allowing its patrons use of that property, which is a portion of the golf cart path.
- Ransom Oaks residents receive notices reminding them they can't go onto the portion of the golf cart path that is on golf course property. Residents had a right to do that prior to November 2008, when the provision granting them access expired.
- Each side in the original lawsuit agrees to pay its own attorneys' fees.
The homeowners' association also agreed to pay Weissenburg $12,500 to settle the defamation lawsuit, according to a source familiar with the terms.
"We are pleased to bring the litigation to a close," Myers said. "Whether we own the property or have an easement on it, the important thing is just our ability to use the cart path, which has always been part of the golf course."
Bucki said the settlement upholds the principle the homeowners' association was fighting for, that homeowners must get the association's permission before subdividing their land.
"That's what this lawsuit was all about," he said.
Sanfilippo said she and her allies plan to continue their push to remove a majority of the board. They have collected more than 300 signatures on a petition to try to force a special meeting of the association board to remove Calinski and four other board members. The association's bylaws require residents to collect signatures from 10 percent of the Ransom Oaks community, while this group has collected more than double that.
They want a special meeting called by the end of July, Sanfilippo said, and are awaiting a response from the board.