SUNSET PARK — A CBS-owned building in Sunset Park has caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage to an adjoining VFW post, as well as racking up thousands more in building code violations, according to a recent multimillion-dollar lawsuit.
Edward F. Lukoski VFW Post 709, located at 804 Third Ave., is seeking $5 million in damages from CBS Inc. and four of its outdoor advertising subsidiaries, alleging that the network's deteriorating three-story building next door supporting two large billboards spread water and termites to the veterans' lodge.
"It's a building that really was allowed to go completely derelict. Beyond derelict," the post's attorney, Patrick Johnson, said in a telephone interview. "Not only does it lean to one side, it had issues with its roof, and the way it hangs, water got inside into the post and destroyed property."
Johnson and the VFW post allege that since CBS bought the property in 1983, it essentially abandoned the building, returning only to update displays on the two billboards. Until about 2009, the building was actually hollow, without floors, interior walls or stairs. Left unattended, its exterior cracked, the gutters clogged, the roof caved, and the building canted to one side, spreading water and termites from the CBS building into the post, according to the lawsuit filed last month in Brooklyn Supreme Court.
The damage ultimately caused roof beams and a portion of the post's ceiling to collapse, as well as sheetrock walls to split and rot, the suit charged.
The post, which has about 100 veterans spanning World War II to Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, could not afford to replace the ceiling and sheetrock. Instead, it hung a black plastic tarp from the rafters to hide the roof beams and painted its exposed brick walls a dark maroon.
"All I really wanted from them was to do the right thing, pay for the damage and fixing the post," said post commander Kenneth Dunn, 60, a Vietnam veteran and retired corrections officer.
"They said, 'We're not paying for anything.' They didn't even have the decency. We couldn't get anybody from CBS, so we hung our flag upside-down," a signal traditionally sent by a ship or fort in distress.
The flag caught the eye of Johnson, who said he spent time volunteering with the New York National Guard.
"When I heard the story, I had to get involved," he said. "They're trying to take advantage of old and weary soldiers. That's not going to happen on my watch."
Johnson said he sent a letter to CBS about a year ago, notifying the corporation of the post's concerns and complaints. The corporation, in its reply, reiterated that it would not compensate the post, he claimed.
That's when CBS took things a step further.
For years, the post had leased its air rights to CBS, Johnson said. In exchange for a fee, the post guaranteed that it would not build above one story, therefore ensuring it would not block CBS's billboards.
But CBS, in its reply to Johnson's letter, insisted that it actually now owns the post's air rights, and therefore would stop paying the lease, Johnson stated.
CBS Inc., contacted by telephone Monday, referred questions to its subsidiary, CBS Outdoor, which was one of the five defendants named in the post's lawsuit.
"We have the utmost respect for our neighbors," CBS Outdoor said in a statement Monday. "This seems to be a property dispute between neighbors. We have been working with them in good faith for sometime and will do our best to make sure it continues that way."
CBS has not filed a response to the post's lawsuit, court records show. The corporation has about two more weeks to do so, Johnson said.
Dunn, a former Marine, called the entire experience "very frustrating."
"If they really cared, they wouldn't have let this happen," he said.
By demanding $5 million, Johnson said he hopes to force CBS to take him and the post seriously.
"That's in there so that somebody over there can pick up up the papers and say, 'Why are we trying to hurt these people?'" he explained of the amount sought. "In the worst-case-scenario, I'll demand it. But to be frank, that's not what we're looking for."
Ultimately, Johnson and Dunn said they hope to win just enough money to compensate the post for the repairs it has been forced to make, the income it has lost from not being able to rent its hall, and to help restore the building to its prior condition.
"I'd like to get the post back to where it was," Dunn said.