Backlash against Erskine Street land grab - City authorities decide to get tough with businessman after more than a decade

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When it comes to city-owned property, that old patriotic ditty should be changed to: “This land is our land, this land ain’t your land.”

An area entrepreneur learned this the hard way last week when he was arrested for building a million-dollar business on city and state property behind Gateway Plaza on Erskine Street near Vandalia Avenue without anyone’s consent – a venture that thrived for 13 years before the city decided to take back the four acres of fallow land.

Officials said that 47-year-old Darren Miller, who used the site as a junk yard, an illegal chop shop and a rental space for area trucks and heavy machinery, is now facing a slew of criminal charges, as well as a civil suit intended to recoup the money the city will need to clean up the area before they can go ahead with their plans for constructing affordable housing on the site.

Prosecutors charge that Miller operated the business without any city or state permits and “allowed hazardous automotive fluids to leak onto the soil in the unpaved, dirt lot.”

Miller had allegedly fenced off the land and was making more than $168,000 a month to rent the space to truckers needing a lot for their 18-wheelers and other equipment.

Another portion of the yard was used as a dump for construction debris, discarded car parts and the husks of stripped automobiles, officials alleged.

When it was determined that the city was going to use the land for affordable housing, the city’s Department of Sanitation (DOS) tried to run Miller off the land, but he wouldn’t budge, officials alleged.

Instead, the Queens resident went to court in 2005, claiming that his 10 years on the property made the land his by law.

A judge has yet to hear the case.

Once the city filed a lawsuit of their own to oust Miller from the land, detectives from the Kings County District Attorney’s office executed a search warrant on August 12.

Investigators recovered 560 vehicles, 1,000 tires, hazardous waste, dismantled auto parts, construction debris and other solid waste.

Miller is charged with Illegal Vehicle Dismantling, Criminal Trespass and Contempt, as well as multiple violations of the Environmental Conservation Law, the Administrative Code and the Vehicle and Traffic Law.

“Illegal dumping and the use of publicly owned land for private gain and illicit activity will not be tolerated in Brooklyn, and people who house or dismantle stolen vehicles will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” District Attorney Charles J. Hynes said during a press conference outside Miller’s shuttered business last week.

As this paper went to press, Miller had been released on his own recognizance and was awaiting his next court dates – one in civil court, the other in criminal court.

Officials said that the Kings County DA, the DOS’s Environmental Police Unit, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, the FDNY and the city’s law department all played a role in removing Miller’s business from the publicly owned land.

Bridget Eichinger, New York City Law Department’s lead attorney on the civil case, said that the city would “continue to pursue recovery of environmental clean-up costs.”

“We look forward to developing this property in a way that will benefit the community,” she said.

Yet this story has a fair share of victims – namely the dozens of truckers who rented space from Miller.

When told of his arrest, truckers told reporters that they no longer have anywhere to park their rigs.

Updated 3:44 pm, October 19, 2011
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