COPAKE—Salvatore Cascino’s “lengthy history of disregard for the laws and regulations, which directly affect public health and safety” are all part of the official response of the town delivered this week to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.
The town was responding to a March 11 letter written by William Kimball, director of Agricultural Protection and Development at the department, who reviewed Mr. Cascino’s proposal to build several massive structures on his 300-acre property. The letter indicated the town could not interfere with Mr. Cascino’s plans because he has what the state calls “a farm operation.”
A resident of Larchmont, Mr. Cascino owns a Bronx waste-hauling business and has a 12-year record of violating federal, state and town laws on his property along the east side of Route 22, called Copake Valley Farm. Following a six-month site plan review of Mr. Cascino’s application, which included his plans to construct a 24,900 square-foot composting barn, two 70-foot-high storage silos and an 18,500 square-foot run-in shed, the Copake Planning Board unanimously rejected the Cascino proposal last November, citing a long list of reasons. The Columbia County Planning Board, the Town Planning Board’s agricultural consulting firm and its engineer all recommended rejection of the plan.
But Anna Kirschner, the lawyer who represented Mr. Cascino before the Planning Board, requested that the state agriculture department, commonly referred to as “Ag and Markets,” review the board’s site plan review process and its administration for compliance with state law.
Mr. Kimball, the Ag and Markets official, accepted her request and last month called the Copake Planning Board’s requirements with regard to its review “unreasonably restrictive.” He declared that Mr. Cascnio’s plan deserves an “expedited review.”
That maya have pleased Mr. Cascino, but it set off a chain of shocked and outraged reactions from State Senator Steve Saland (R-41st), Assemblyman Marcus Molinaro, (R-103rd), the Columbia County Democratic Committee and the Copake Town Board, all of whom wrote to Governor David Paterson demanding his personal intervention with Ag and Markets on behalf of the 3,200 residents of Copake.
Following the outcry and noting the receipt of “a number of inquiries from concerned citizens, local officials and state representatives regarding this matter,” Ag and Markets Deputy Commissioner Jerry Cosgrove, wrote a letter to the town saying that Mr. Kimball’s letter was only “an interim step” and not the final word in his department’s “deliberative review.”
According to Ag and Markets Law “local governments are prohibited from enacting and administering laws that would unreasonably restrict farm operations located within an agricultural district unless it can be shown that the public health or safety is threatened.” That Mr. Cascino’s operation is a threat to the public health and safety is what the town’s response to the Kimball letter aims to show.
The response contains a letter from the town’s Planning Board Attorney Lawrence Howard urging Ag and Markets to take a closer look at the Cascino application. A draft version of Mr. Howard’s letter tells Ag and Markets that the town is not biased against farm operations and that the Planning Board did not reject the site plan of a legitimate farm operation.
“In the end, the board determined that it could not subject the town to the threat posed to the public health and safety by structures requested by Mr, Cascino, knowing they would most likely be used to facilitate ongoing violations of local, state and federal environmental and land use laws,” Mr. Howard wrote.
Mr. Cascino has used Ag and Markets Law “as a sword instead of a shield” to get approval for “an impermissible operation… [and] the department runs the risk of setting an precedent that will lead to the misuse of farmland across the state,” wrote Attorney Howard.
Also contained in the response is a memorandum from Victor Meyers, the town’s attorney handling all litigation relating to Mr. Cascino and Copake Valley Farm. In that case, the town alleges that Mr. Cascino has illegally dumped materials from his Bronx recycling business for years. Mr. Cascino has also been cited in an ongoing enforcement action brought by the state attorney general on behalf of the state Department of Environmental Conservation for dumping in a protected trout stream and wetlands. Last December, Mr. Cascino was the target of a “cease and desist” order aimed at ending his illegal dumping in waters regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Mr. Meyers enumerates the many instances of litigation Copake has brought against Mr. Cascino, with supporting legal documents and photographs. He notes the town’s expenditure in excess of $100,000 in legal fees and costs for enforcement proceedings against Mr. Cascino. Mr. Meyers points to the statements in Mr. Kimball’s letter that say the town can bring an enforcement action against Mr. Cascino if he doesn’t obey town codes. “The suggestion provides little solace,” writes Mr. Meyers, whose firm also represents the Town of Dover in Dutchess County in its enforcement actions against Mr. Cascino. Mr. Meyers also says he has “knowledge and information” about Mr. Cascino’s environmental violations in Connecticut.
Also included in Copake’s response is a 15-page memorandum from the Planning Board’s engineer Douglas Clark detailing the town’s site plan review process step-by-step and Mr. Cascino’s failure to comply with the checklist of things asked for by the Planning Board asked.
During the process, “there were a number of significant changes and revisions to the site plan indicating that [Mr.] Cascino had clearly not thought through the basic purpose and objectives of the project… [Mr.] Cascino lacked the credibility needed to support [his] assertions that only farming is planned for this site,” writes Mr. Clark.
The town’s response concludes with a statement by former Planning Board Chairman Edgar Masters recounting the board’s history of approvals for “Bona Fide farmers” during his 17-year tenure on the board.
While the debate continues about the authenticity of Mr. Cascino as a farmer and Copake Valley Farm as a farm, Mr. Cascino’s representative David Wiener recently filed plans to build a house on the property with the town’s building inspector.
Criticism arose during the Planning Board’s site plan review process that since there were no living quarters on-site, there would be no farm manager or anyone there, for that matter, to deal with any crisis that might arise during the night.
According to Planning Board Chairwoman Marcia Becker, the plan is for a two-story house with a full attic and full basement and four to five bedrooms. Mrs. Becker spoke at the April 9 Town Board meeting, asking the board for guidance.
In light of the nearly $10,000 in unpaid consultant fees that Mr. Cascino owes the town in connection with the Planning Board’s site plan review, Mrs. Becker wanted to know whether the Planning Board should consider Mr. Cascino’s plans for a house.
Mrs. Becker told The Columbia Paper that she was advised by Mr. Howard that since the town has no law regarding unpaid consultant fees, if the house meets the criteria requiring Planning Board review, it should be considered.
Mrs. Becker said that the if the house will cost more than $400,000 to construct or has more than 3,500 square feet of habitable living space it will come under Planning Board review. The house has apparently fallen under the $400,000 cost, but Building Inspector Ralph Shadic has not yet issued a determination on the amount of living space.
Ms. Kirscher declined comment on the house saying she had not seen the plans and on the town’s response to Ag and Markets saying she had not received a copy of the response from the town.
Regardless of whether Mr. Cascino is allowed to proceed with his application for approval to build his home, it appears unlikely he could break ground for it any time soon. He still faces a temporary restraining order against any type of construction activities issued by Judge Jonathan Nichols. The town sought and was granted the order more than a year ago after Mr. Cascino engaged in activities at the site for which he had no permit.
To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@ColumbiaPaper.com.