By Dan Hust
WHITE LAKE Bethel couple Roy Howard and Jeryl Abramson won the latest battle with the Town of Bethel.
A rare Bethel Town Court jury trial ran much of Thursday at the justice court in White Lake, with the six-member jury declaring the couple not guilty of all nine charges against them.
The township had accused them of eight violations of temporary camping permits it had issued them for the Memorial Day weekend last year, coinciding with the Phish concerts at Bethel Woods.
Four were against Howard and Abramson; the other four were against their corporation, Yasgur Road Productions (YRP).
The town had also alleged Howard and Abramson had erected a sign without a permit.
There had been a tenth charge for allegedly installing electrical wiring without a permit, but Judge Kevin Rhyne dismissed it on technical grounds before the trial started.
The jury followed suit, rendering a “not guilty” verdict on the remaining misdemeanor counts because of what town attorney Jacqueline Ricciani deemed a “typo” in the permit language.
“We just couldn’t make any sense of the wording of the code,” affirmed jury foreman Ronald Colla of Smallwood.
The regulation pertaining to the temporary camping permit said the town would allow “no more than four or more” campsites per property parcel.
Howard and Abramson’s attorney, Russell Schindler, pointed that out to the jury, who agreed it appeared to set no limit.
“If that’s the case, why issue a permit at all?” noted Ricciani, arguing that such an infinite amount was obviously not Bethel’s intention when it crafted the rule.
Still, she agreed that the jury interpreted the language as it was presented.
“They [the defendants] relied on a strict reading of the words in the permit,” Ricciani said. “... Had that typo not been in there, I think I would have prevailed.”
“There’s not a doubt in my mind,” he said, saying the jury did believe there was evidence the Bethel couple had hosted more people than they had permits for.
“They took advantage of the code,” he stated. “... We [the jury] felt the only good that will come out of that is the town will change its code.”
As for the sign, Colla termed it “not really important” to the jury.
The 32-square-foot wooden sign was painted to resemble the Max Yasgur farm, which the couple owns, and stated, “No Admittance by Town of Bethel Court Order.”
“We argued it was a political statement,” Schindler explained, “and thus protected under the political sign exception.”
Abramson and Howard declined to comment on the jury’s decision, but Schindler called it a vindication for a couple that has attempted to be proactive.
“I believe Roy and Jeryl tried to help the town in a situation where the town had a need to accommodate thousands of people who came for the Phish weekend,” he related. “It’s one of those situations where ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’”
Bethel Supervisor Dan Sturm felt just the opposite.
“It’s cost the town a lot of money because of their actions, not ours,” Sturm said Friday. “To me, they’re rogue property owners. ... They’re just con artists trying to cash in without regard to the laws here.”
Schindler replied that such comments are “defamatory and unjustified,” pointing out that had Howard and Abramson wanted to take advantage of the permit’s language, they would have hosted far more people and not turned anyone away.
“Town officials were well aware of the wording and attempted to prosecute Roy and Jeryl on a baseless charge,” Schindler stated. “... My clients didn’t write the code, they didn’t draft the permits, and they didn’t take advantage.”
He did add, however, that his clients took the “rogue property owners” accusation “as a compliment.”
The town’s zoning, Schindler charged, “has evolved to a point where small-town politicians use zoning laws to control constitutionally-protected activities on private properties.”
Sturm disagreed, but he did acknowledge that Bethel officials have some work to redo.
“We’re going to review the code,” he affirmed. “Without question, the ‘four or more’ is wrong and has to be fixed.
“Our sign law might have to be revisited also,” he added, “just to make sure it’s clear.”
Sturm did not yet have a firm estimate of what this latest round of legal battling with Howard and Abramson will cost the township, though he defended the trial as necessary.
“We have to enforce the code,” he pointed out.
He has hope that the appeals court will agree with a lower court which ruled last year that Bethel can collect $25,000 from the couple for violating the terms of an injunction both sides agreed to an injunction that bans unpermitted events on Howard and Abramson’s property.
The appeal may be heard as soon as this month.
“Hopefully, the court will rule in our favor again and offset some of our [legal] costs,” Sturm remarked.