After a seven-year-long struggle and in opposition to community outcries, City of Poughkeepsie Mayor Rob Rolison signed a closing agreement on March 29, transferring ownership of Wheaton Park to Pelton Partners, the company of Hudson Valley real estate developer, Steven Tinkleman, and business partner, Wayne Nussbickel. Rolison’s deal marks a turning point in the battle between the prospective apartment complex developers and local residents’ movement to preserve the historic mansion and property for public use.
The controversy stems from Pelton Partners’ option to buy Wheaton Park in 2016 from the City of Poughkeepsie, with the contingency that the developers obtain approval from the Historic District and Landmark Preservation Commission (HDLPC). Pelton Partners filed a lawsuit against the Common Council, the City, and HDLPC after repeated failure to obtain HDLPC approval of the apartment complex designs, which the HDLPC concluded did not meet historic preservation standards. After months of litigation, the developers recently requested to purchase the property by waiving the contingency.
There appear to be several discrepancies between the recent closing agreement and the original purchase contract, none of which seem to have received legislative approval. The original purchase contract of sale, in paragraph 32, states Pelton Partner’s contingency for obtaining HDLPC approval lasts for 24 months upon delivery of the 2016 contract, with the option for an additional six-month extension. Because that contingency expired in 2018, the waiving of the contingency – upon which the closing agreement has been justified by Rolison – casts a shadow over the validity of the closing agreement.
The agreement also states that Pelton Partners has until March of 2023 to obtain an IDA PILOT (Industrial Development Agency, Payment in Lieu of Taxes), a term not approved by the Council. Section 13.01 of the City’s Code on the disposition of property states that a contract must be approved by having a two-thirds vote of the elected common council, yet the most recent closing agreement and the substantive changes it contains did not receive legislative approval. The closing agreement has further been billed by the administration as a means to settle the recent lawsuit by Pelton Partners, yet that legal settlement has also not yet been legislatively authorized as has been customary in other cases.
At the April 18 council meeting, Councilmember Evan Menist asked Mayor Rolison his reasoning for signing the closing agreement. Rolison stated, “When it became, you know, known to us that was going to be asked, and we talked about this previously, you know long before the actual official ask was made, what was our legal obligation? And I asked the corporation council for an opinion, and their opinion was if they asked to close, they needed to close.”
At the same Common Council Meeting, several residents voiced their frustration with the sale, including City of Poughkeepsie resident Peter van Aken. “Why is the sale of Wheaton Park and Pelton Mansion, which was actually designated a park over one hundred years ago, for the benefit of children, why was it handed over to satisfy a previous administration’s favor to a preferred developer?” Mr. van Aken stated. Another city resident, Sean Hemmerle, stated, “You know that this deal is crooked, you know that it benefits very few people and you know that it’s at the expense of the children of the City of Poughkeepsie – my children, your children.”
Most of the public comments on Wheaton Park noted the low sale price of $600,000 from the original contract and Mayor’s Rolison’s lack of transparency. Paragraph 3(6) of the closing agreement states that “In the event any condition is not fulfilled by that deadline as established by this paragraph, then Pelton shall not be bound by its promise and shall have the right to develop or sell the property in any manner consistent with the law.” If this clause allows Pelton Partners to sell the property, the developer could sell Wheaton Park at a likely profit. Another prescient point made by residents during public comment is that the future of the site will be determined when Pelton Partners must again appear before the HDLPC, with all of the commissioners being solely appointed by the mayor and no appointments granted to the Common Council as is the case with other city boards and commissions.