BUSHWICK — A treasured community garden that's become a gathering space for the community was sold out from under a local non-profit in a $800,000 land-swindle, according to a lawsuit filed in Brooklyn Supreme Court.
The suit asks a judge to void a 2014 sale of the Eldert Street Community Garden, which is already being investigated by the State Attorney General's Office, claiming that the woman who signed off on the sale had no legal claim to the land in the first place.
"The property wasn't sold legally," said Paula Segal a lawyer for 596 Acres, an organization that advocates for communal green spaces. She's representing the community garden who are named as defendants in the suit because they're the current tenants of the land, though they're working alongside the former owner Alianza de Damas Unidas, an inactive nonprofit.
"This is fraud," she said. "The sale of the property was never approved by the board that actually represents this organization."
Up until the fall of 2014, the beautified patch of green at 315 Eldert Street, belonged to Alianza, according to the suit. It ran a daycare on Knickerbocker Avenue until 2004 and had been donated the vacant lot in 1998, according to the lawsuit and property records.
After sitting empty for years growing nothing but piles of trash, the nonprofit gave the green light to two neighborhood residents, Kim Anderson and Rodrigo Gonzalez to use as a community garden, according to court papers.
And for seven years, the two led the charge in transforming the lot, renting out garden beds to neighbors who wanted to grow their own plants and vegetables, hosting open-air concerts and communal dinners in warmer months.
"It's one of the only places where you can actually co-mingle with people from other walks of life...people who are on various parts of the quote unquote gentrification spectrum," Anderson said. "It's a level, even, communal playing ground where people can eat together."
But the happy arrangement hit a rocky patch, when the locks were changed and junk was dumped on the gardens carefully tended beds, Anderson said.
Property records later showed that the land had been sold, but the papers were signed by a woman named Elba Roman who hadn't been a board member of Alianza de Damas Unidas for decades, according to most recent tax documents from the nonprofit, blind siding actual board members like Heriberto Mateo, the organization's president, who swore in an affidavit last year that the Alianza knew nothing about the sale.
The sale also hadn't been pre-approved by the Attorney General, whose office is required to approve some property sales by nonprofit organizations. The Attorney General's Office began to probe the sale last year, according to court filings.
A spokeswoman for the AG declined to comment on the status of that investigation.
The sale had been brokered by someone who is referred to as both "Aron Herczl" and "Ari Hertz," the middle man for the sale, who owned the property for about a day before flipping it to an LLC called Eldert Bushwick House LLC, according court filings from the Attorney General's office.
Hertz was also listed as the buyer for the property on behalf of the LLC, according to the 2014 deed.
Roman got around $300,000 for the property from Herczl, and a day layer he turned around and sold it to an LLC at an increased price, just under $500,000, according to those court filings.
Realizing that the Attorney General's investigation into the sale might drag on for months or longer, Mateo said he and Alianza's actual board decided to take matters into their own hands and sue.
"We decided we had to take action," Mateo said, in Spanish.
Now, a state judge will ultimately decide the future of the treasured piece of communal green space on Eldert Street.
Roman's attorneys didn't return an immediate request for comment. Herczl's attorney couldn't be reached for immediate comment.