Op-Ed: New Castle’s Manhood

By Lee Seham
November 30, 2007

A female client once strenuously objected to my sexist observation that acceding to the other side’s position on a particular issue would leave us “emasculated” in the course of further negotiations.

When I suggested, as an alternative, that we stood to lose certain spherical reproductive organs via incision, she liked it no better. I am still searching for a gender-neutral term that creates a comparable visceral impact. For us men, these expressions carry with them a certain homely eloquence.

On Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007, I attended a New Castle Planning Board meeting that addressed a modified proposal to re-zone the Reader’s Digest property for increased residential use. Board Member Robert Anesi presided and politely explained that the board was not interested in presentations or speeches from either side. Rather, the stated purpose of the meeting was to allow the planning board to pose questions to the developer’s representatives so that, with the information thus garnered, it could advise the town board.

Nevertheless, the developer was permitted ample opportunity to pitch its plan as an altruistic project that benefits teachers, firefighters, and childless senior citizens. The developer also had the opportunity to lay out the elements of what I consider a threat to our municipal manhood.

“We will bury you”

To the clear alarm of at least one planning board member, the developer asserted that it could substantially increase the square footage of commercial space that currently exists on the property “as of right.” The developer also expressed the view that the current zoning restriction limiting it to four commercial tenants would “not survive review.”  Thus, we were grimly advised, the developer’s proposed residential re-zoning would better serve the citizens’ interests than the developer’s potential maximization of commercial use at the site. What leapt to mind was Khrushchev banging his shoe on a United Nations’ podium yelling: “We will bury you.”

When it was finally our turn, Anesi firmly admonished the gathered citizens that their comments were to be phrased as questions to the developer’s representatives for the purpose of eliciting additional information that might be useful to the planning board. Those citizens who failed to heed this warning, and merely expressed their own views, were thereafter interrupted by the Board. I got it.

I rose to present a three-part question that went something like this:

1) Would you agree that, with respect to a project of such magnitude, it is important for the town to be able to rely on the professional and moral integrity of the developer?
2) Didn’t you, tonight, threaten to vitiate the land use provisions which you yourselves had sought from the town?
3) Is such a threat consistent with the professional and moral integrity that this town should be demanding from a developer?

In tones of tired exasperation, the developer’s legal representative asked Anesi for permission to not respond to the questions. Permission was granted.

Utterly frustrated, I yelled out my opinion: “We are being threatened.” I was subsequently threatened with removal from the meeting by one of the planning board members. I probably deserved that. No need to yell when you reach a larger audience by writing.

Now I remember. My female client suggested, as an alternative, that we were about to have our legs cut out from under us. She felt that going through negotiations in a legless condition conveyed weakness and pusillanimity in a gender-neutral manner. I angrily commented on her gross insensitivity to the disabled and turned my back on her (to deny to her the obvious targets of a retaliatory kick).

Male, female or disabled, when you get pushed, you better be prepared to push back. Otherwise, you will end up wherever they want you.

Lee Seham is a labor, employment and immigration attorney who has lived in Chappaqua for over eleven years.