The brewing battle over the 103-year-old Miele’s Greenhouse and the potential to turn it into a condominum complex is a fight that began as a family feud long before last week's Clark planning board meeting.
Louis Miele, who owns the property on Lake Avenue, claims he built the family business to what it is — or was, he says — before renting the property to his niece Mary Ellen Brennan. Since Brennan took over running the business in 2002 with her business partner Chris Shimko, Miele says the century-old family nursery “has been run into the ground.” He says his best workers quit, that Brennan doesn’t show up to work until late in the day, that they’ve cut corners and lost the quality product he sold, and that the business is closed far too often.
Miele, 77, lived on the property and worked there his entire life before retiring to the Catskills 10 years ago. A year ago, Miele entered into negotiations with Clark developer George Sangiuliano to sell the five-acres of land. Sangiuliano intends to build 39 condos on the property, pending approval by the Clark planning board. Miele says he's selling to Sangiuliano for $2.5 million.
"I'd rather not discuss numbers," Sangiuliano said when asked the price.
"My grandfather and father ran it and it was a truck farm," Miele says. "I took over when I got out of high school and built it up to what it was. I was up every morning at 5 a.m. and went until 7 at night. Now I have customers calling me up here and complaining to me about how bad their stuff is. Mary took over the job of growing and she really has not had any experience in growing. If I was younger and had my health, I’d take it over again and have it back to where it was within two or three years."
Miele's health deteriorated when had a stroke in 2003. He's since had open-heart surgery and requires 24-hour care, according to his wife Pat.
Brennan, however, paints a different picture. She says her uncle “has always been about the almighty dollar,” calling him greedy and saying that his own daughter doesn't speak with him. She also believes Miele "isn't fully there" since his stroke. Brennan claims that the rent her uncle charges (it was $24,000 a month, before they renegotiated) is astronomical compared to the profits to be made.
"We’ve been really overpaying for this property since day one," says Brennan. "The rent was just a number he had in mind."
Miele says he had a good relationship with Brennan – who worked for him since 1992 – for the first seven years that she was renting even though they differed on how to run the business, and that he made the three-hour drive down from the Catskills once a week to consult and advise Brennan. "I was always willing to help them but they never took it," says Miele.
"The one thing I’ll give him is that he did take it a step further," says Brennan. "He definitely built up the business. Without a doubt, I can't take that away from him."
Trouble started between Miele and Brennan when she stopped paying rent two years ago, according to Miele – a claim that Brennan disputes. He says he feels he has to sell the property, though he wishes it would stay in the family or as a greenhouse, because no one would take over a struggling business.
"The property is the only thing that’s worth something now," Miele says. "If it isn’t sold for this project, it’s going to be sold for something else. Everything doesn't last forever."
“When he was running the business it was grossing over $2 million a year and now they aren’t even doing half that,” adds Miele’s wife Pat.
Brennan believes that business isn’t what it was because times have changed.
"When we took it over it was antiquated," says Brennan. "The heating systems never worked properly. That's one of the reasons we didn’t grow poinsettias this year."
Brennan argues that gardening is a luxury and these are tough times, people can buy plants at places like Home Depot and ShopRite, plus, with the sale, customers think Miele’s is already closed or are angry they sold, and so she’s lost business.
"I can establish that there are many people in this business that are suffering," says Brennan. "In order to be profitable, you have to diversify. A lot of the things he was insisting I do weren’t cost-effective, and if I didn’t do what he wanted he’d scream at me. He’s out of the loop. He’s thinking back 20 years ago. The last good year Miele's had was in 1999."
"She claims people aren't planting, and that's bologna," Miele counters. "People are planting, but they're not going to buy from you if the quality isn't there."
Brennan also feels the sale was underhanded and that her uncle gave her no opportunity to buy the property.
“They called to tell me they were in a contract,” she says. "He strung me along since 2002 about being able to buy it."
Brennan says her uncle also blames her for ruining an earlier deal to sell the property. "They wanted to put in assisted living and he claims he could have gotten five million dollars," she says.
Miele insists he gave Brennan plenty of opportunities to buy the property from him.
"They could’ve got farm credit," he says. "I was even going to co-sign for them. Then when they said rent was too high, I brought it down to almost half as much and they still can't pay me."
“They had a wonderful opportunity," he says. "How many people get to take over a thriving business for nothing? Now they just want me to hand it over to them for nothing, and I bought the property from my parents and paid them true value."
According to Brennan's records in the greenhouse's office, Miele bought the property for $68,000 in 1973. (The Clark clerk's office couldn't confirm this by Thursday afternoon.)
"I’ve already given him almost the full dollar amount of what he wanted for this property," says Brennan. "And I have made payments on the rent since we were struggling. I paid them $120,000 last year and about $60,000 this year. And when I was unable to pay the $24,000 a month I let him know instantly that in this economy that was not doable."
Miele says he is in discussions with his lawyer about filing suit to get two years worth of back rent. He also claims that his niece is in cahoots with neighbors who are opposed to the condo project and that she has gone to other measures to stall the sale of the property, including telling an assessor that the soil was contaminated on certain areas of the farm.
For her part, Brennan says she is in no way involved with Clark Neighbors, the group most vocal about opposing the condo project.
"As far as contamination, I personally saw my uncle knock over a whole drum of gasoline," Brennan argues. "He dumped oil in one section for years. At that time people didn’t know you couldn’t do that."
Furthermore, she’s upset about the turmoil she believes her uncle has caused within the family.
"I’m very hurt by the whole thing," Brennan says. "My poor aunt who lives in Clark is embarrassed to go places and have people know that she knows she's a Miele."
Brennan also says that her uncle gave little consideration to the fact that she was dealing with a personal tragedy when they began fighting over the rent.
"My husband drowned in August 2009, and to think knowing what happened he would continue to try to hurt me..." says Brennan. "He’s heartless."
“We have less product because there’s no business, and it’s even more impossible to make money when people know we’re sold,” she says. “If they put up some sort of 'Coming Soon' advertising the condos, we’re toast.”
Brennan has her own concerns about the condo plan: “He’s not going to be able to sell all those units and then he’ll be renting and there will be transient people in and out,” she says. “It could also overload the school system. There are teachers that come to store and they say Hehnly School is already at maximum capacity.”
Brennan says it’s been heartbreaking to hear customers so upset about the idea of condos in Miele’s place. “It’s everyday — ask the cashiers,” she says. “It’s almost too much. It wears on you."
This is the first post in our series. Check back tomorrow for our story on the Clark Neighbors and their objections to the Miele's condo application and next week for interviews with George Sangiuliano, Mayor Sal Bonaccorso and others. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to catch the next installment.