Judge rules against Yale in property dispute with restaurant

By JOHN CHRISTOFFERSEN

Associated Press Writer

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) -- Yale University produces presidents and Supreme Court justices, but it just lost a battle with a popular restaurant that produces chorizo-encrusted cod and lobster cassoulette.

A judge has ruled that the Ivy League school, which has a $22 billion endowment, cannot back out of an agreement it reached in 2006 that was supposed to resolve a long-running property dispute with the owners of Bespoke restaurant.

"It's clearly a David vs. Goliath case," Hugh Keefe, the restaurant's attorney, said Tuesday. "Sometimes David wins, which happened here. I think the judge saw through the hocus-pocus."

A telephone message was left Tuesday for a Yale spokesman.

Yale purchased the vacant lot behind Bespoke in 1999 and says it owns an area that includes a walkway and storage shed. But the restaurant owners, Arturo and Suzette Franco-Camacho, claim access rights to the area.

Yale, which owns dozens of storefronts and is New Haven's largest retail landlord, at one point blocked Bespoke's back door by building a fence along what it says is its property line, inches from the restaurant's back door.

Without an agreement on the issue, Yale refused to renew the lease on Franco-Camacho's signature restaurant, Roomba, which was popular among Yale students and promoted in the book, "1,000 Places to See Before You Die." Roomba closed in June, shortly after the book was published.

After four years of negotiations, the two sides reached a settlement that gave Bespoke access to the disputed area for at least two years. But Yale wanted to back out, saying the agreement did not acknowledge Yale's ownership of the property and arguing that its own attorney did not have authority to enter into part of the agreement.

New Haven Superior Court Judge Juliett Crawford ruled Friday that Yale failed to prove its attorney lacked authority.

The city tried unsuccessfully to mediate the dispute.

The Franco-Camachos said they've spent more than $2 million buying and renovating the building that houses Bespoke, which serves such dishes as Moroccan spiced shrimp and pomegranate rack of lamb, to try to overcome the lack of rear access. It was a risky investment in a city with a history of crime and poverty.

The university, which has no immediate plans to develop the property, offered the Franco-Camachos free access to the shed and walkway as long as they acknowledged Yale owned the land, but they refused to do that, Yale spokesman Tom Conroy has said.

"We're simply defending our property rights," Conroy said last year. "It's hard for us to understand why they think they have a right to the property. It's clear we own the property."

The Franco-Camachos said last year that Yale could revoke the offer for access at any time. They say tenants have used the walkway for decades, a practice which by law gives them rights to the area under adverse possession, or squatters rights.

The couple say the rear access is important for safety reasons in case of a fire, and that the area can be used for deliveries and garbage. Yale says the restaurant can operate without the exit.