BP swings for the fences at Mount Manresa (editorial)

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BP swings for the fences at Mount Manresa (editorial)

Staten Island Advance Editorial By Staten Island Advance Editorial Staten Island Advance
on June 28, 2015 at 12:21 PM, updated June 28, 2015 at 12:47 PM

Jim Oddo is a pretty good ballplayer, probably the best you’ll find among all the elected officials in these parts. He’s also a savvy player, and knows that a good hitter is patient and just tries to put the ball in play.

But he also knows that every once in a while, when things look desperate for your side, you’ve got to swing for the fences.

That’s pretty much what the second-year borough president is doing with his threat to withhold new house numbers from the units in the Savo Brothers’ emerging 250-unit townhouse development on the grounds of the former Mount Manresa retreat house in Fort Wadsworth.

In so doing, he’s taking a page from his predecessor, James Molinaro, who, in 2003, arranged to have Department of Buildings officials in City Hall hold up on issuing house numbers for new residential construction in Port Richmond whose developers, he said, played fast and loose with the regulations.

A stalling tactic

It was a stalling tactic, designed to make the developer build his project by the book, but it’s perfectly within the city rules. The borough president’s topographical bureau is the agency that issues new house numbers, and acquiring house numbers is the first necessary step toward completing a development. Only after that can all the other necessary paperwork be filed with various city agencies, including the Buildings Department, which each issuing necessary approvals. No house numbers, no permits, no sales.

Mr. Oddo’s threat stems specifically from the 36-count criminal indictment a grand jury handed down this week against the father-and-son team who were contracted with by the Savo Brothers to do asbestos testing at the site of the former Jesuit retreat house in preparation for demolition and construction.

But it also grows out the enormous reservoir of ill will that proceeds from the perception that all parties involved in the project, including the Jesuits who sold the property for a bundle and very much on the QT, have been thumbing their noses at the community all along.

False reports alleged

According to the charges, Gaspare Santoro and his son Paul filed required Department of Environmental Protection forms with the borough Buildings Department in April 2014 that declared three buildings on the Manresa site were asbestos-free. But when demolition commenced several days later, asbestos was found in one of the buildings and work was temporarily halted. The city fined the Santoros $67,400 for asbestos-related violations in October. Demolition resumed at the site in February, apparently with the fine viewed merely as a cost of doing business that was insignificant when stacked against the millions the massive townhouse project will net.

Charges filed in December

Along the way, prosecutors filed criminal charges against the pair in December. Now the indictment charges the Santoros with falsifying reports about five of the buildings on the Manresa site as well as filing similar false reports concerning multiple other Staten Island properties in which they were involved.

Acting District Attorney Daniel Master pulled no punches, saying: “These men had a professional, ethical and legal responsibility to accurately report the presence of toxic asbestos at the former Mount Manresa site and seven other locations where they had been contracted to conduct such inspections. Instead, they falsified their reports and lied about the presence of asbestos.”

He added, “Their callous actions put the health of the public, several homeowners and other construction workers at risk, and that will not go unchecked.”

City Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters, whose agency was asked in to probe this matter by Mr. Oddo, said, “Falsifying important safety information is no way to do business in the City of New York. DOI joined with the Staten Island district attorney’s office to investigate this significant crime and will continue to expose and stop those who circumvent the city’s environmental and construction regulations.”

‘Old-school lunchpail guys’

Of course the defendants’ attorneys, just doing their job properly, insist that a gross miscarriage of justice has taken place against a hard-working veteran and his son — “old-school lunchpail guys” — who, they claim, got no benefit from falsifying the reports.

They said their alleged offense is “negligence at best.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Oddo spoke for a lot of Staten Islanders when he said on Thursday, “There has been a stench surrounding every aspect of this project from the beginning, and the smell keeps getting worse.

He added, “I have refused to issue and will not issue house numbers until the conclusion of this criminal case and any other investigations that may or may not be taking place.”

Of course, the gambit may only be a holding action at best, so those who have been insisting on dramatic government intervention simply because they hate the idea of development on the grounds of this once-holy tract, probably should hold off on dancing in the street.

After all, back in 2003, the builder whose house numbers Mr. Molinaro withheld sued and eventually the city Corporation Counsel ordered the case settled and the house numbers issued, primarily because the city would ultimately be liable for any funds if the developer were to win his suit.

Could the same happen here?

Probably, but Mr. Oddo is clearly determined to use every arrow in his quiver to stop or at least delay a outsized project this is clearly wrong for the community and which should never have gotten this far.

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