Stuff Sullivan’s “Cylinder of Dominance”

City Desk Icon City Council voted Friday to close a loophole in the City Charter that had allowed for one of the odder legal battles in recent history. By a 5-1 margin, council decided to bring the city’s air-rights definitions into conformance with state and federal standards.

For years, the city’s disinclination to define where a property owner’s air rights end allowed – theoretically, it was thought – for a building of infinite height. City Hall watchers put the curious loophole up there with anachronistic laws regarding what time cows have to vacate downtown and which compass direction the city’s clock keeper must face while adjusting time pieces for daylight-saving time. One wag wrote in the 1970s, when the city was in the grip of soaring crime and unemployment, “Since we’ve gotten about as low as we can go, why not try to go equally as high? Come on, someone out there must want to build a skyscraper to the stars.”

But the issue gained material importance only three years ago when local car salesman Eddie “Stuff” Sullivan claimed ownership of infinite space directly above his dealership at Center Highway and Count Road. The issue first came to light during a special Zoning Commission hearing to discuss Sullivan’s plan to float a succession of hot-air balloons three miles above his Chrysler lot. Zoning officials were attempting to prevent the balloons from taking flight, citing air-traffic concerns.

But Sullivan’s bravura performance, the first of many, at that meeting led City Attorney Steven Stomache to advise the Zoning Commission that no language in the City Charter existed to prevent the auto huckster from going through with his balloon scheme. Said Sullivan that day, “The FAA can go hang. They can fly their damn planes around my balloons. I own that property outright, and I pay all appropriate taxes and fees on that land. It’s not my fault the fools who wrote the charter didn’t stipulate where my property ends in the air. This is my land, and it’s my cylinder of dominance. This area is zoned commercial, and my balloon plan goes part and parcel with my commercial venture.”

U.S. Attorney Mary Walters quickly brought suit against Sullivan, arguing that the federal government could stipulate where a property owner’s right to the air above his land ended. Sullivan, who represented himself in the case, found a sympathetic ear in Judge Willis Marshall III, a Bush administration appointee and avid defender of property owners’ rights. Marshall, in an opinion that held up in Appellate Court (the Supreme Court denied hearing the case), ruled that the federal government’s right to regulate interstate commerce applied horizontally, but not vertically. “The Constitution does not allow for the federal government to apply such onerous conditions that an individual property owner cannot make legal use of all physical space existent in, on, or over his property. This is a matter for state and local governments. If the City Charter does not see fit to cap how far up a property owner’s property can go, it is not the responsibility or business of the federal government to set that cap itself.

Had Stuff Sullivan left his court victory at that, his balloons may still be flying today. But his legal victory inspired a bout of hubris that Icarus would have appreciated. It started quietly but queerly, when Sullivan’s sales staff would find him staring up at the sky above the dealership. When asked what he was looking at, Sullivan would say, “It’s mine. All of it is mine.”

Sullivan started to make national headlines after holding a press conference at which he declared that any portion of the universe that existed within his “cylinder of dominance” belonged to him. “Owing to the daily rotation of the Earth, and the suspected rotation of our galaxy as well as that of others, this means that I am part owner of everything in the universe. At some point during our trip around the sun, which is rightfully mine for a few minutes each day, most everything falls within my intergalactic bailiwick. This means that I, Stuff Sullivan, am legal owner of everything in the known universe and spaces unknown. I own everything above my dealership, right up to God’s doorstep. As such, I will pursue and defend my claims to all celestial bodies of worth. Further, I will proceed with demanding NASA and all other space programs properly compensate me for the time their vehicles spend within my property.”

“What about private satellites?” one reporter joked. “For cell phones and GPS?”

“Good point, son,” Sullivan said. “I’ll go after those folks too.”

Thus began Stuff Sullivan’s battle to assert dominance over his extraterrestrial domain, and also his undoing. At the height of his legal activity, Sullivan was suing 170 governments, space consortiums, businesses, and astronomical congresses. (In addition to lawsuits concerning aerospace fly-overs, Sullivan attempted to force astronomers to consult with him before naming newly discovered stars and galaxies.) Sales at his Chrysler dealership dropped, and friends and family privately questioned his sanity.

A series of events during the past month brought the story to a quick, suitably bizarre ending. First, DaimlerChrysler ended its relationship with Sullivan, citing concerns over embarrassing publicity. Sullivan brushed off this first setback, saying, “Chrysler can sit on a tack. Once I start winning a few of these cases, I’m gonna be rich for life. I’ll be buying Bill Gates lunch pretty soon.”

Then he started losing his cases. In a two-week period, Sullivan learned that all 170 of his lawsuits were either dismissed without a hearing or lost in a series of stinging summary judgments finding for the defendants. These setbacks crippled his nascent plans for converting his former dealership into an impenetrable, self-sustaining compound Sullivan was planning with CH2M Hill, the multinational engineering and construction giant.

Finally, after a debate that almost all downtown watchers deemed years too long, City Council finally decided to set air-rights standards that conformed to federal air-safety regulations. On a Friday afternoon, with a near-unanimous decision (pro-property-rights Council Member Mary Jane Hardackre was the lone holdout), council killed Stuff Sullivan’s claim to his “cylinder of dominance.”

A crowd of onlookers watched Saturday as Sullivan’s three-mile-high chain of hot-air balloons was lowered to the ground. Sullivan, suffering the ill effects of a man who has lost the universe in a month’s time, has not made himself available for public comment. But there were reports from various witnesses on Saturday of Sullivan shuffling around his property, staring up at the sky.
– C. Gaines

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25 Responses to Stuff Sullivan’s “Cylinder of Dominance”

  1. joe donnelly
    April 9, 2007 at 6:47 pm

    There’s a lesson in this for all. Always go for the summary judgment!

  2. April 10, 2007 at 8:36 am

    No one piece of this story is true. Show me a direct quote, or even a single link to another source.

    Also “Center Highway and Count Road” does not exist… even in the far off lands of Staten Island.

  3. April 10, 2007 at 9:22 am

    Staten Island? No one said this was in New York.

  4. Steve
    April 10, 2007 at 12:42 pm

    Curbed ran it like it was a NY story. If it is not in NY… where is it set then?

    Where are the national headlines?

    “Sullivan started to make national headlines after holding a press conference at which he declared that any portion of the universe that existed within his “cylinder of dominance” belonged to him.”

    Nothing came up in Factiva

  5. April 10, 2007 at 12:49 pm

    The website “Steve” linked from his name is gregeaton.com. Who’s the one who’s being untrue here?

  6. SBaker
    April 10, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    Look, this is getting silly. The important thing is that I don’t have to look at those damn balloons anymore whenever I step onto my back porch. Which isn’t to say that the council has done one goddamned thing about the Holt building facade.

  7. April 10, 2007 at 1:18 pm

    Curbed ran it like it was a NY story.

    Hm. Actually, they just presented the link to the story. I don’t believe they said it was set in New York.

  8. Steve
    April 10, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    No links to a secondary or godforbid primary source…

    gotta love the internet.

    Thrillho I guess you expect me to post my e-mail address for some more spam?

    Show me some primary or secondary sources and I’ll shut up.

  9. April 10, 2007 at 1:53 pm

    Both myself and The City Desk have looked into this and we stand fully behind the story.

  10. April 10, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    Providing an invalid website and email, and citing “Factiva?” This “Steve” is clearly some sort of internet prankster, and you guys are falling for it, hook line and sinker.

  11. April 10, 2007 at 2:39 pm

    I, for one, stand my Mr. Sullivan’s right to enforce his own property rights. I wonder if he ever considered obtaining the mineral rights for the land underneath his property. This would certainly bolster his claim to a Cylinder of Dominance.

    Also, to Steve, if you are doubting the authenticity of the article you can always check out the balloons on Google Earth.

  12. FBunay
    April 10, 2007 at 3:01 pm

    Cuius est solum, ejus est usque ad caelum et ad inferos!

    “To whomever owns the land, shall own the earth to its center and up to the heavens”

    http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/blackstone/bk2ch2.htm

    “Land hath also, in it’s legal signification, an indefinite extent, upwards as well as downwards. Cujus eft folum, ejus eft ufque ad coelum, is the maxim of the law, upwards…”

  13. April 10, 2007 at 3:29 pm

    As the writer of this piece, I have to speak up. I’ve been following Stuff Sullivan since this story broke years ago. I would be more than happy to provide any doubters with my notes and recorded interviews for this story. Unfortunately, as a matter of policy, I destroy all notes and recordings after each piece I write is published.

    Quite honestly, the reputation and credibility of The City Desk should be enough for any reader. But I appreciate the debate and welcome further comments.

  14. Steve
    April 10, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    This is an outrage!! I demand a full hearing by the Board of Superiors. I have called 511 and informed them about this breach in truthfulness. They referred me to the Council of Grievance… but I will not stop there. The truth about this false story will not end here.

    If you are wondering why I am so passionate about this story, it is simply because my great grandfather was shot 50 years ago for not citing his primary source. He discovered graft and corruption in the Old Liberty Warf district and tried to report this to the Board of Superiors. He was asked to provide a primary source, and could not. The pages were torn out of the Municipal Archives detailing each and every crime. Without the primary source, he had no foundation for his claim. The Community Board Member of CB16 agreed that he was guilty of slander and demanded an apology. He refused and was gunned down by Sal “Fat Sally” DiCostanzo as payback.

    The whole story can be found at the archives:

    http://www.municipalarchives.com/warf/corruption/

  15. April 10, 2007 at 4:47 pm

    Hi C. Gaines,

    does that stand for Chris Gaines? I mean, do you look like this?
    http://g.sheetmusicplus.com/Look-Inside/covers/WB-PG9907.jpg

  16. Cleo
    April 10, 2007 at 6:45 pm

    i don’t understand why “steve” is under the impression this is a new york story. if you read craig gaines bio in the contributers section, it says he lives in los angeles. he’s not even from the city, like most of the contributors! why must every resident of new york city think that every story is about their city. geez. nyc isn’t the center of the universe!

  17. Anonymous
    April 10, 2007 at 8:54 pm

    This is a cute entry! I like the idea of some guy looking up into the sky thinking he owns it all! To infinity and beyond! Sadly, not possible and I quote Wikipedia:

    “In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has the sole authority to control all airspace, exclusively determining the rules and requirements for its use. Typically, in the “Uncontrolled” category of airspace, any pilot can fly any aircraft as low as he/she wants, subject to the requirement of maintaining a 500 foot distance from people and man-made structures except for purposes of take off and landing, and not causing any hazard. Therefore, it appears to trump any individually-claimed air rights, near airports especially.

    Specifically, the Federal Aviation Act provides that: “The United States Government has exclusive sovereignty of airspace of the United States.” The act defines navigable airspace as “airspace above the minimum altitudes of flight…including airspace needed to ensure the safety in the takeoff and landing of aircraft.”

    Property owners may waive (or purchasers may be required to waive) any putative notion of “air rights” near an airport, for convenience in future real estate transactions, and to avoid lawsuits from future owners who might attempt to claim distress from overflying aircraft. This is called a navigation easement.”

  18. Pop
    April 10, 2007 at 9:49 pm

    Stephen Glass called; he wants his job back.

  19. April 10, 2007 at 10:12 pm

    1. Pop: I, sir, am no fabulist.

    2. Anonymous: Quoting a notoriously unreliable source like Wikipedia to the rock-solid City Desk is the height of hilarity.

  20. Anonymous
    April 11, 2007 at 9:32 am

    I have stumbled into an alternate world here. Well, I hope Mr. Sullivan has cheered up a little since Saturday. Maybe he can start to focus on the ground under his property. Mineral rights perhaps? All is not lost, yet!

  21. John
    April 11, 2007 at 8:32 pm

    What kind of reporting is this? You can’t tell anywhere on the site what city the City Desk is covering. Newsflash, guys: The world gets the Internet, not just your city. It would cause less confusion if you mentioned what city you’re writing about.

  22. April 12, 2007 at 9:16 am

    Well, I think it’s fairly obvious.

  23. GL
    March 2, 2011 at 8:27 am

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