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Land conservancy files suit against seller; current buyer speaks out

Fri, Sep 25th 2020 12:00 pm

Michael DePietro

Interim Tribune Editor

The story surrounding the sale of a former farmland site in the Town of Niagara took a number of interesting turns this week. The Town of Niagara Farmland Conservancy says it will file a lawsuit against the George Mannoe family, the former owners of a 26-acre parcel located on the east side of Miller Road after they decided to sell to another buyer, Alexis Johnson.

At the same time, Johnson and her partner, Kyle Schmelzle, have charged the conservancy with spreading “rumors and misinformation” about the couple’s intentions for the property.

To recap, the Town of Niagara Farmland Conservancy says it entered into a contingency agreement with the Mannoes in January 2019. The group was to purchase the land for $90,000, with an agreement that payments would be made after the conservancy received grant funding from the Niagara Greenway. However, the agreement also allowed the Mannoes to continue listing the property until the deal was closed.

Due to a number of delays, the conservancy didn’t receive its first round of Niagara River Greenway funds until August of this year. The initial funding payment they received was for $146,000 with another $295,000 already approved by the Greenway Commission.

Unbeknownst to the group, the property’s owners made an agreement in July to sell the property to Johnson. The conservancy’s vice president, Terry Lasher Winslow, said the group tried to broker some sort of deal with the Mannoes and Johnson but, ultimately, the sale went forward.

Now, with the Greenway funding in jeopardy, the conservancy is filing a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the Mannoes. The group has set up a GoFundMe page to help cover its legal fees at www.gofundme.com/f/ad9gb-nature-preserve-needs-help.

Lasher Winslow clarified that, “Absolutely no Greenway funds can, or will be used for legal funds. That’s why we’re doing the GoFundMe. We have to account for every penny spent and we have a separate account for Greenway money. It’s important the public knows that.”

However, Johnson and Schmelzle are accusing the conservancy of slander for claims that the couple is planning to turn the property into a housing development, which they adamantly deny.

At Tuesday’s Town of Niagara board meeting, the couple insisted it was merely building a single-family dwelling and intends to farm the rest of the acreage. They also denied there was any sort of underhanded deal going on behind the scenes.

“I never thought that the Town of Niagara Farmland Conservancy, whose mission statement even states on their website that it was, ‘Founded to preserve and protect the increasingly scarce open spaces that give our community a rural feel that we all love,’ would try to stop farmland from being used as just that: farmland,” Schmelzle said. “We were accused of knowing someone with ‘pull’ to be able to acquire this property. We didn’t know anyone that has ‘pull.’ This was a straightforward land purchase. We did nothing wrong. We saw a ‘For Sale’ sign and submitted the bid to a real estate agent not knowing anything about a nature preserve.”

Schmelzle said that because of the accusations, the couple has been under harassment from individuals who oppose a housing development, including an alleged incident where Schmelzle says Town of Niagara Board member Richard Sirianni gave him the middle finger as he drove by the councilman’s home.

Sirianni vehemently denied the charge, calling it a “total lie” and challenged Schmelzle to take a public polygraph test alongside him.

“I don’t know how I can believe that you’re not going to develop (the site) after your opening statement with me, which I know is false. Anything that comes out of you is going to be totally false. You just ruined your credibility to me,” Sirianni said.

During her time to speak, Johnson offered evidence to demonstrate that the couple had no intentions to build anything beyond the single-family dwelling.

“Just to state (Schmelzle’s) credibility, he did go to the Town Hall so that we could get layouts of the property and we were told to draw up a sketch of where the house would be and how big it would be and he handed those in,” Johnson said. “It showed 2,000 square-feet where we plan to put the house. So it didn’t show any development or anything like that.”

Town Building Inspector Charles Haseley was in attendance and confirmed the claim.

After the meeting, Johnson was asked how the rumor regarding a housing development might have gotten started. Saying she had no idea, she added that neither she, nor Schmelzle were housing developers. Johnson says she is currently a manager of a local Dairy Queen.

When asked the same question, Lasher Winslow said, “(The conservancy was) told by someone in Town Hall, the potential buyer wanted to know about developing the 20-plus acres. Maybe it was speculation on that person’s part, but that’s when our panic began.” She went on to add that she thought it may have been someone in the building department but couldn’t say for sure.

Lasher Winslow also says that the claim came up during discussions with the Mannoes' Realtors, Park Realty, though she admits there could have been confusion there as well, noting “We had four people on our side talking to three people on their side. ... I didn’t speak directly to the Realtor about that.”

On Wednesday, Todd Vanderlip said, as he was not representing the buyers (Johnson) in the deal, he knew nothing of any possible developments and therefore wouldn’t have speculated on the matter.

In response to Johnson and Schmelzle’s public statements, Lasher Winslow on Thursday said the conservancy was removing all language that referred to a potential land deal from its website, social media, and GoFundMe pages.

When asked about Schmelzle’s point of why the conservancy would fight the decision if the couple was using it to farm, Lasher Winslow said – aside from the possible breach of contract – it was due to the amount of time, effort and stress the group endured during the process. Members couldn’t simply walk away from the project.

She noted that after the group found out about Johnson’s bid, they approached the seller and were told if they could have the cash in an escrow account within two weeks, they could purchase the property. With the Greenway funds still a few weeks away from being delivered, the group scrambled to raise funds from family members and neighborhood residents, eventually raising $95,000, which they offered to the Mannoes. Lasher Winslow said the seller’s never responded to the offer.

She said the ordeal caused some who donated to take out advances on credit cards, incurring hundreds of dollars in subsequent fees. Elsewhere, the short notice caused arguments with some of the group’s family and friends who were apprehensive.

“It’s just ridiculous they made us go through all of these hoops. ... ,” Lasher Winslow said. “After thousands and thousands of hours of planning, and meeting with the public – we had four public meetings, and (conservancy president Joan Johnson, no relation) and I went door-to-door and talked to everyone along Miller Road and Garlow Road, as many as we could. … And we got the money! That’s the thing! … For two weeks we begged and borrowed and we got the cash. We sent them the bank statements; they didn’t even respond.”

The second reason Lasher Winslow said the group will take the issue to court is because there’s simply no certainty what could happen to the land in the future.

“Anytime in the future, if they decide to sell the property, they could sell it to the next guy and the next guy could develop it. If it goes to the conservancy, it’s forever public land,” she said.

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