Frank Lovece in Board Operations on June 1, 2012
Christopher Toole, the shareholder in 14B, is an urban farmer who runs the Society for Aquaponic Values and Education (S.A.V.E.). That commercial and educational venture, which teaches how to home-grow fish for eating, does have space at The Point, a nonprofit organization devoted to the cultural and economic revitalization of the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx. But, as Toole conceded to WPIX-TV this week, he keeps in his apartment "a couple of 140-gallon tanks, with about 20 or 30 fish or so."
The co-op board believes he has more, and has complained of water leaks, noise and a fishy smell in the hallways. Toole, 47 — whose resume includes a 2005-2010 stint as a vice president at Sovereign Bank and education at Tufts University, Northeastern University and the University of Melbourne — told WPIX he's moved about a dozen tanks out of his apartment at the co-op board's request. "But we have no way of confirming this," says Brett, "because he won't let us in the apartment."
The board, says Brett, is bringing an action in Supreme Court in Bronx County "seeking an injunction from his breeding fish; that he comply with the floor-covering rules; and other equitable relief."
Toole's telephone number is not listed. He did not respond to an e-mail sent to an address listed for him at The Point's website.
Well before the lawsuit made news, Toole's urban aquaponics — a hybrid of aquaculture (the farming of aquatic organisms including fish) and hydroponics (growing plants in water, without soil) — had been covered in a number of media. The New York Post, for instance, described how at The Point, Toole and his girlfriend, Anya Pozdeeva, "raise fish in a colony of 55-gallon tanks and plastic recycling bins," and the website City Farmer News talked his aquaponics classes for children.
His co-op neighbors, however, say that his using his apartment for part of his venture is a nuisance. Roch McDowell, in his 60s, who lives directly below, told the Post in a later story that his apartment has been drenched with water containing fish waste and that "you hear noise all the time. It's 3:30 in the morning, and you hear him dragging his aquarium or whatever it is across the floor. It has changed my life."
Another neighbor, Jennifer Wray, told WPIX, "People are really disturbed that live below [his apartment] because it leaks, and the people that live on the floor with the tanks say that it smells pretty fishy."
"There's a legal phrase: chutzpah," Brett jokes. Toole, he says, "showed up at the annual meeting Tuesday night and nominated himself to run for the board of directors." The results are not yet in yet, but Brett says that given the widespread antipathy of other shareholders it was highly unlikely Toole would be elected.
Yet though Toole "is close to becoming another David Pullman" — the highly contentious co-op shareholder whose extreme behavior led to an eviction upheld by the landmark 2003 case 40 West 67th Street vs. Pullman — the co-op board is not seeking an eviction, says Brett. It simply wants to end the home business. "Noxious odors covers it," says the attorney, referring to a standard proprietary-lease provision. "Four goldfish swimming in a tank don't disturb anyone, but tanks of two-foot tilapia is something else entirely."
Toole, who was scheduled to have been served notice of the suit yesterday, will then have 20 days to put in his defense.
"I've had something close to this before," veteran attorney Brett jovially recalls "A co-op on the East Side where a woman had 300 hummingbirds in her apartment."
Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim — just not in your co-op if you're breeding them as agricultural livestock.
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