COPAKE—Salvatore Cascino has been fined thousands of dollars for damaging fragile wetlands and a protected trout stream, again… and again.
These new environmental violations cropped up in February before Mr. Cascino was ordered in April to stop work on a new 15,000-square-foot “greenhouse” he was building without a permit. The timing also coincided with a site plan review by the Copake Planning Board of Mr. Cascino’s “master plan” for his 300-acre property.
Now, one critic of Mr. Cascino and his frequent and long-running illegal activities hopes these new instances of thumbing his nose at the law will backfire on him.
Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106th) has written a three-page letter to New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Richard Ball, asking him to reconsider his department’s support of Mr. Cascino’s “farm operation” in light of these latest violations.
Mr. Cascino and the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) go way back in a relationship that reads like a broken record: the DEC finds that Mr. Cascino has violated environmental law and slaps him with fines and orders him to undo his violations; Mr. Cascino agrees to pay and to fix his violations but then breaks the law again… and so on.
Mr. Cascino, 80, of Larchmont, Westchester County is a convicted felon who has spent the past 22 years amassing violations of federal, state and town laws for illegal dumping, building and excavating at a place he calls Copake Valley Farm, along the east side of Route 22.
The Cascino property’s 313 acres includes freshwater wetlands at the northern end and the Noster Kill, a protected trout-spawning stream, that runs the length of his property.
According to this new settlement agreement dated March 31, DEC staff, representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Mr. Cascino’s engineer met at the Cascino property February 28 and “observed the result of new unauthorized clearcutting of understory vegetation… during February 2020 as well as new clearcutting of stream bank vegetation by use of mechanized equipment, resulting in stream disturbances in several locations of the Noster Kill.”
Mr. Cascino’s actions are violations of New York Codes, Rules and Regulations (NYCRR) and Environmental Conservation Law (ECL). And these were violations of a previous consent order agreement.
The DEC ordered Mr. Cascino to pay a civil penalty of $25,000. He was required him to pay $16,000 when he signed the order in March, with the remaining $9,500 suspended as long as he “fully complies with the requirements of this order, including the Schedule of Compliance.”
Under this agreement, Mr. Cascino is supposed to “immediately cease all earthmoving, vegetation removal and disturbance activity in the stream, wetland and corresponding adjacent area, except as specifically provided for in this Schedule of Compliance.”
His engineer has to make a restoration plan, the DEC has to approve it, and Mr. Cascino has to complete it on time.
The list of Mr. Cascino’s DEC violations date back to 2000 and include: dumping of solid waste at the property; the unlawful disposal of ground construction debris—dumped and graded in the wetlands; unlawful disturbance to the Noster Kill; open burning of wood pallets and disposal of ash at the property; excavation with side casting of spoils evident in the Noster Kill causing reduced hydrology within the side channels of the Noster Kill.
Though in the settlement agreements for some of these violations he was ordered to fix what he had damaged, the DEC has now noted, “restoration of wetland in this area may not be possible given the extent of impact.”
‘Mr. Cascino’s activity will likely ruin this beautiful stretch of land permanently…’
Didi Barrett (D-106th)
New York State Assembly
Mr. Cascino knows that the Noster Kill and the wetlands on the property are subject to the jurisdiction of the DEC, and that a permit from DEC is required prior to excavating, filling, grading or conducting other disturbance activities in the wetlands or disturbing the Noster Kill or its bed or banks, according to the DEC document.
In Assemblymember Barrett’s letter to the Department of Ag and Markets commissioner, dated May 5, she writes about Mr. Cascino’s “lies, deceit, crimes, cover-ups, and costs” to Copake over the past two decades. She calls the situation “desperate for my constituents in Copake who over the last year have seen the institutions that are supposed to protect small communities from deceitful and malicious actors fail repeatedly.
“This is why I am writing now… to implore you to reconsider your department’s support of Mr. Cascino’s ‘farm operation.’”
The Department of Ag and Markets sent a formal opinion to the Town of Copake in September 2019 stating that after a site visit by department staff member Dr. Robert Somers, the department concluded that the Cascino property is a “farm operation” and the town must not “unreasonably restrict” his agricultural activities.
Following the release of Ag and Markets’ opinion, Ms. Barrett had a series of communications with Ag and Markets staff. “On December 4, 2019 we spoke via conference call with several [Ag and Markets] staff, including Dr. Somers, in which the staff insisted that they were constrained by statute to not consider Mr. Cascino’s terrible history and to not consider the various prosecutions undertaken by numerous state and federal authorities in recent years and not to consider any point of view other than that of Mr. Cascino’s. However, staff did say that [Ag and Markets] would reconsider the opinion if it was found that there were ‘open violations’ against Mr. Cascino,” Ms. Barrett wrote.
The assemblymember then enumerated several ongoing violations, some within the last few weeks, “so recent that your colleagues at [Ag and Markets] may not yet know about them. She listed the recent DEC settlement agreements detailed above and:
• A March 13, 2020 DEC order on consent with Mr. Cascino regarding numerous petroleum storage violations at his facility in Dover Plains, Dutchess County (Region 3). “Although not agricultural in nature, these violations speak to Mr. Cascino’s continued and flagrant disregard for the laws of this state.”
• She also noted Mr. Cascino’s recent installation of a septic system on the Copake property, for which he did not secure the needed permit from the Columbia County Department of Health
• She mentioned that Mr. Cascino began construction of a building without a permit (a 15,000-square-foot greenhouse) on the property in April and that the Town of Copake secured a Stop Work order to prevent further construction
• She brought up Mr. Cascino’s 30-foot-wide steel bridge, constructed without a permit over the Noster Kill; in 2009 and again in 2013 he was ordered to remove the bridge, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court Appellate Division in 2012. But Mr. Cascino has ignored multiple court orders and DEC actions to remove the bridge, which is still there. “This disregard for the laws of our state cannot be dismissed,” Ms. Barrett wrote.
“I hope that this documentation is sufficient to show that Mr. Cascino’s actions are not only in the past, but ongoing… I believe [Ag and Markets] has no choice but to re-evaluate their determination.”
If the Ag and Markets opinions stands, Assemblymember Barrett wrote “the Department will have allowed Mr. Cascino to make a mockery of the laws meant to protect legitimate farmers by using the right-to-farm as a shield for his nefarious purposes. Mr. Cascino’s activity will likely ruin this beautiful stretch of land permanently for future agricultural use, as well as permanently pollute protected wetlands and streams… We need your help to prevent this and hopefully salvage the soil, water, and habitats Cascino is destroying right now.”
Ms. Barrett enclosed a copy of a report dated May 3 from the Copake Conservation Advisory Committee (CAC) in which the committee finds that the scale of Mr. Cascino’s current “master plan” project “will have adverse impacts on the environment at that location.”
The project involves the construction of a 25,000-square-foot barn allegedly “for the care and management of cows and sheep;” the 15,000-square-foot greenhouse “for the production of retail crops;” and four overhangs totaling 24,300-square-feet “off the top of existing walls to protect feed and equipment.”
The CAC’s report notes that the entire 313 acres is located within the Roeliff Jansen Kill Watershed, the kill is a Designated Inland Waterway to the Hudson River.
The report also points out that:
• The state-protected Noster Kill is located within the 100-year flood plain, and supports wetlands, wildlife, plants and flood soils. It flows into the Bash Bish Brook and then the Roe Jan Kill, which empties into the Hudson River
• The southern part of the property is adjacent to the Harlem Valley Calcareous Wetland, a significant biodiversity area, according to the DEC Hudson River Estuary Program
• Two aquifers lie under the property
• The buildings are within the Scenic Corridor Overlay Zone (SCOZ).
“This history of land use violations, taken in conjunction with the environmentally sensitive conditions of the site outlined herein, lead the Conservation Advisory Committee to recommend strongly the disapproval of the Copake Valley Farm site plan now before the Copake Planning Board,” the report states.
An email request to Attorney Michael H. Sussman for comment on his client’s [Mr. Cascino’s] latest violations did not receive a response.
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