For the past few years, Yale and the Franco-Camachos have labored for hours on end in court, arguing over a strip of walkway, a back door and a shed.
The small parcel of land came to the fore again yesterday in Connecticut housing court, where University officials said their property rights to the area behind Suzette Franco-Camacho’s “Bespoke” restaurant have not been rightfully acknowledged by Franco-Camacho and her husband Arturo. But the Franco-Camachos said they also have access rights to the area because previous tenants have had similar access for decades.
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Though both parties say the small property is theirs, they entered into a settlement 14 months ago to share the realty.
But shortly after a judge confirmed the settlement, the University backed out, unhappy because the deal did not mention Yale’s property rights to the area and because the Yale lawyer who negotiated the agreement did not have the authority to do so in the first place, the University said. Yale later refused to renew the Franco-Camachos’ lease on their other restaurant — Roomba — and effectively forced the eatery to shut down in June.
“They’re not being fair,” Franco-Camacho told the News in June. “The sad irony of the situation is we just won Best Mex Restaurant in the Advocate … We have an eight-year track record, and our problems with them have nothing to do with Roomba, but with a legal dispute that they’ve caused.”
Suzette Franco-Camacho could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
According to testimony heard today at the state housing court, former University Properties Director David Newton and attorney Tom Sansone were required by University bylaws to seek approval from officials such as University President Richard Levin or Vice President of New Haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander when they entered the University into the settlement with the Franco-Camachos in August 2006.
“Otherwise, [without these bylaws] every attorney in the state of Connecticut would be authorized to settle any lawsuit the way he or she wants,” a Yale attorney pointed out during cross-examination.
But Sansone and Newton did not receive approval from their superiors, which University Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson characterized as an “egregious lapse.”
“We’re just very perplexed at how he believed he had authority to enter into the stipulated agreement or why he thought the stipulated agreement would be acceptable, when it left Yale with an impaired property right,” Robinson testified.
Aside from whether Yale’s lawyers legitimately executed the settlement, Suzette Franco-Camacho said her restaurant deserves access rights since former property owners at the same location have used the walkway area for years.
Joel Schiavone, a developer who used to own the property now occupied by Yale next to Bespoke, said in a 2003 affidavit that tenants and owners before Franco-Camacho’s time had used the back door and walkway since the end of World War II.
The Franco-Camachos may therefore be entitled to “squatter’s rights,” in which the law bestows ownership rights upon individuals if they have been using a property long enough.
The walkway, which leads directly from Bespoke’s back door to the parking lot, is used by four other businesses besides Bespoke. In 2005 the University constructed a metal gate in front of Bespoke’s back door, along what the University said was their property border.
The gate could only unlock from Yale’s side of the door and was placed so close to the back door that the door could only open partially — potentially posing a fire hazard, Franco-Camacho’s counsel said yesterday.
Yale has no immediate plans for developing the disputed property, University spokesman Tom Conroy said, but the University has made a concerted effort to delineate its property rights so that if and when the University chooses to use the area, they can do so uncontested.
The University has offered the Franco-Camachos free use of the property behind Bespoke as long as they acknowledged Yale as the owner, Conroy said. The Franco-Camachos said they found this to be an unfair arrangement — losing the back area diminishes the property value, and their bank has asked for another $200,000 on their mortgage.
As another alternative, the Franco-Camachos have requested monetary compensation in return for acknowledging Yale’s property ownership.
But Conroy said because the restaurant is currently in business without the back property, Bespoke does not need the land to have a functioning restaurant. Yale’s property rights to the parcel are solid, he said, and he is confident that the University will win the case.
“Yale, however, chooses not to pay for property that it already owns,” he said. “That would not be a good use of Yale resources. If Roomba’s owners had wished, they could be operating Roomba and operating Bespoke, for which they don’t need to use the Yale property in the rear. That was not their choice, so now they are operating one restaurant in place of another.”
Both sides will deliver their closing arguments Oct. 30 in state housing court, after which the judge will have up to 120 days to reach a verdict.
-The Associated Press contributed reporting to this article.