The decision came down late last month in a challenge in Bovina, a rural town with only 459 registered voters on the western slopes of the Catskills in Delaware County, where the peacefulness of the farms and woodlands was disrupted last year by a passionate dispute over the possibility of installing commercial wind turbines. The opponents of the turbines organized a voter-registration campaign among second-home owners, and eventually won a zoning ordinance from the Town Board banning wind farms and protecting pristine scenic views.
As Election Day approaches, and worries about voting mayhem rise, the owners of weekend houses in New York have won a state appellate court decision affirming their right to register and cast their ballots in their weekend communities.
The court said it was not the address on a tax return or a driver’s license that mattered most, but a homeowner’s “intent” and personal connection to a home, even one where the voter sleeps only on weekends and holidays.
“They were saying your home is where your heart is,” said Bruce R. Kraus, a partner at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, who represented the homeowners on a pro bono basis.
The decision came down late last month in a challenge in Bovina, a rural town with only 459 registered voters on the western slopes of the Catskills in Delaware County, where the peacefulness of the farms and woodlands was disrupted last year by a passionate dispute over the possibility of installing commercial wind turbines.
The opponents of the turbines organized a voter-registration campaign among second-home owners, and eventually won a zoning ordinance from the Town Board banning wind farms and protecting pristine scenic views. They were led in part by Hall F. Willkie, the owner of a 70-acre farm in Bovina who in his other life is the president of Brown Harris Stevens, the Manhattan brokerage.
Mr. Willkie is a nephew of Wendell L. Wilkie, the Republican candidate for president in 1940, whose name endures in Willkie Farr & Gallagher.
But a longtime local resident, Edward T. Rossley, challenged the registrations of Mr. Willkie and other voters. The County Board of Elections reviewed the registration of 46 voters, asking for detailed documentation and an investigation by the county sheriff. Just over half of the contested names were removed from the rolls.
Mr. Willkie, who files his tax returns from his New York City address, was knocked off, while his partner, Tom Craveiro, a designer and contractor and a former United Nations relief worker, was kept on the rolls, apparently because he files his tax returns from the Bovina address. Both men use the Bovina address on their driver’s licenses, and spend the same amount of time in Bovina.
Mr. Willkie and seven other residents sued and won, but the County Board of Elections appealed. On Oct. 23, a five-judge appellate division panel unanimously upheld the registrations and concluded that once voters show “a significant and genuine contact” with their country homes, what counts “is their intent.”
“Although their employment requires them to maintain another residence, their intent is to spend as much of their lives in Bovina as possible,” the decision said.
Frank W. Miller, the lawyer who represented the Board of Elections, said the board had not yet decided whether to challenge the decision. And he said that the decision did not prevent the board from inquiring about car registrations or tax filings in the future.
Bovina has a population of about 600, mostly scattered through the countryside around a small hamlet, Bovina Center, with a cluster of about 40 houses. It is so quiet, according to Carol Spinelli, a broker with Coldwell Banker Timberland Properties, that a couple recently bought a house there as a getaway from their home in Woodstock on the other, more trendy, side of the Catskills.
But the area is changing. A few years, ago, a weekend cafe called Heaven opened in Bovina Center; the owners were a New York model, Taylor Foster, and a fashion photographer, Joshua Allen. And soon after, an international luxury resort company, Amanresorts, bought a sprawling mansion and announced plans to turn it into a 50-room full-service hotel and spa.
Mr. Craveiro said that despite the voting dispute, the weekenders and year-round residents usually get along, and work together to support the volunteer fire department and ambulance service. And, he said, everyone is behind the plans for the luxury hotel.
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