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Deed for Disputed Maple Street Community Garden is 'Dubious,' Judge Says

By Rachel Holliday Smith | November 13, 2015 3:57pm | Updated on November 15, 2015 8:26pm
 The Maple Street Community Garden is located at 237 Maple St. in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens.
The Maple Street Community Garden is located at 237 Maple St. in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens.
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Facebook/Maple Street Community Garden

PROSPECT-LEFFERTS GARDENS — The hunt is on for the heirs to a local community garden lot after a Brooklyn judge questioned the ownership of the Maple Street property in a decision — and appointed a guardian to find its rightful inheritor.

In a decision filed in Brooklyn Supreme Court on Nov. 6, Judge Mark Partnow dismissed the ownership claim of "Housing Urban Development LLC" at 237 Maple St. — an empty Prospect-Lefferts Gardens lot planted and maintained by the Maple Street Community Garden. Partnow wrote in his decision that the deed claiming the company bought the space in 2003 from the “sole survivors” of the previous owners for $5,000 “is of dubious validity."

The deed says the LLC, which is controlled by brothers Joseph and Michael Makhani, bought the property from “Alexander Kirton and Alan Kirton as sole survivors for the estate of Oscar and Germaine Kirton,” who owned a home on the lot that burned down in 1997, the gardeners and their advocates have found.

A tax lot photograph of 237 Maple St. shows the home that used to stand on the lot before it burned down in 1997, according to advocates of the Maple Street Community Garden, which plants and maintains the empty lot. (Photo credit: NYC Department of Records/596 Acres)

However, the decision from Partnow points out, no address, phone number or attorney is listed for either Alexander or Alan Kirton on “the deed at issue.”

To clarify the rightful owner of the garden space, Partnow ordered an independent legal guardian to make “diligent and exhaustive efforts” to find Alexander, Alan or any heirs to the Kirton estate. The judge did not specify a deadline for that investigation.

He also ordered that, until that process is complete, the LLC cannot eject the garden from the property, interfere with their activities, develop on the property or file new applications for building there; the Makhanis filed permits to build a five-story building on the garden lot in December of 2014, records show.

The decision is the latest in a long fight between the Maple Street gardeners and the Makhanis. The trouble began in earnest in the fall of 2014 when the brothers tried to rip up the garden before police ordered them to stop because they couldn’t prove they owned the lot.

Since then, the gardeners and their attorney, Paula Segal of 596 Acres, have been in and out of court fighting the Makhanis, who were convicted of filing false deeds in Queens in 2008 and pled guilty to bid-rigging foreclosure sales in 1999, according to the New York Times.

“We are really happy with the decision,” Segal said in a statement. “Judge Partnow took care to weigh the impacts of potentially illegal development on the local community and to consider the entirety of the record before him.”

The Makhanis' attorney, Michael Leon, said in an email that his client, the brothers' LLC, "never gave consent to these trespassers" to use the property and promised that the company will continue to pursue its rights to eject the gardeners.

“The gardeners allege they are benefitting (sic) the community, but in fact they are performing work on the property causing hazards without insurance and creating a nuisance. It is Housing Urban Development who is the victim in this matter and is planning to develop the property with affordable housing for the community," he said in a statement.

The decision came days after a New York Times report revealed the rising prevalence of “shell companies,” or LLCs, taking homes and property from city residents by falsifying deeds or other property records. The practice has become especially common in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant where “profits in the hundreds of thousands of dollars” can be made from quick sales, the report said.

While the search for an heir to the Maple Street garden goes on, another attempt to preserve the green space is being made by a local state senator. Last month, Sen. Jesse Hamilton introduced legislation to seize the garden by eminent domain to turn it into state parkland.