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Cascino trial closes with another eyewitness to dumping


HUDSON—The tone was contentious in state Supreme Court this week as Salvatore Cascino’s defense attorney, Dennis Schlenker, questioned his own witness, a former Copake Planning Board chairman. The witness did not appear to offer Mr. Cascino’s case much help, but instead supported the accounts of other eyewitnesses, who have observed large quantities of trash and other refuse being dumped on Mr. Cascino’s land in Copake.
     Former Planning Board Chairman Edgar Masters was subpoenaed to testify as a defense witness in the civil case brought against Mr. Cascino by the town. Mr. Cascino, has a 12-year history of violating Copake town codes, state laws and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulations on his 300-acre Copake Valley Farm property on the east side of Route 22 near the southern entrance to the hamlet. Mr. Masters took the stand March 25, the fourth and final of day of the trial at the Columbia County Courthouse, where acting State Supreme Court Justice Jonathan Nichols is hearing the case without a jury.
     The town alleges that Mr. Cascino illegally dumped materials he trucked in from downstate and that he built structures without first obtaining permits required by town law.
     Mr. Masters served on the Planning Board from 1991 until January 2008 and was chairman for more than half of that time. He testified that between 1998 and 2008, he saw illegal dumping, mining, the operation of a trucking business and the destruction of protected wetlands on Mr. Cascino’s property. In 1998, Mr. Masters said he saw 15 to 25 acres of ripped plastic bags containing leaves and household garbage, such as plastic bottles and paper.
     Under questioning by Mr. Schlenker, Mr. Masters said he paid for aerial photographs of the Cascino property on three occasions, once in December 2007 and twice in 2008.
He told the court it was “essential that the Planning Board have a photographic record of [the Cascino] property” where “a tremendous amount of activity” was ongoing with “trucks dumping, bulldozers operating and trucks being serviced in his truck building.”
     In his questioning, Mr. Schlenker asked whether it was fair to say that Deborah Cohen, with whom Mr. Masters has lived for the past eight years, is “an outspoken opponent of the Cascino farm.” Mr. Masters agreed. Ms. Cohen is part of a group called Citizens for Copake. Referring to the citizens’ group, Mr. Schlenker asked rhetorically, “That’s really just a nicety. It’s really Citizens against Cascino, isn’t it?”
     Mr. Schlenker asked Mr. Masters whether his relationship with Ms. Cohen and his own feelings about the project posed any conflict of interest with his duties on the Planning Board.
     “Absolutely not,” Mr. Masters replied.
     Mr. Schlenker had said previously in the proceedings that between 2003 and 2005 Mr. Cascino submitted four different building plans to the Planning Board, and he suggested that Mr. Masters should have recused himself from reviews of those plans because of his relationship with Ms. Cohen.
      Mr. Masters also headed the town Strategic Planning Committee, established by the Town Board to recommend zoning revisions. And Mr. Schlenker suggested that Mr. Masters had engineered a moratorium on commercial buildings and major subdivisions from November 2004 to 2005 to thwart Mr. Cascino’s plans.
     But Mr. Masters said that Mr. Cascino’s plans called for a truck depot for his waste-hauling business, a conclusion supported because Mr. Cascino’s drawings depicted a dozen tractor-trailers. Mr. Masters also cited Planning Board consultants, an engineer and an expert on farm buildings from the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service, who had advised planners that Mr. Cascino’s plan for a “cattle barn”—one version would have covered 45,000 square feet—was instead a large commercial structure. Mr. Cascino was informed of those findings in letters from the Planning Board chairman.
     Mr. Masters testified that none of Mr. Cascino’s plans came to a vote by the Planning Board because Mr. Cascino never filed an application to the Planning Board and never requested that his projects be put on the board’s agenda.
     The judge heard similar testimony from current town Planning Board Chairwoman Marcia Becker, who was also a Planning Board member at the time of Mr. Cascino’s earlier submissions. Mrs. Becker, who was also called by Mr. Cascino’s lawyer, noted that all of Mr. Cascino’s proposals were the subject only of “sketch plan conferences,” not official planning reviews.
     In the closing moments of the trial, Attorney Victor Meyers, who represented the town, called a final witness, Laura Sager, the executive director of the Columbia County Soil and Water Conservation District since 1997. Ms. Sager testified that she had never received the letter from Mr. Cascino or his representatives asking her department “to establish Copake Valley Farm as an agricultural district.”
     Earlier in the proceedings Mr. Cascino’s defense counsel introduced a letter asking for the agricultural district designation, apparently as a way to demonstrate that the Cascino property is a bona fide farm. But Ms. Sager said that her department had no record of the letter. The copy introduced by Mr. Schlenker had the wrong address for her agency in any case.
     In addition, Ms. Sager said what Mr. Cascino requested is “not a duty we are charged with.”
     When Mr. Schlenker then questioned the adequacy of Ms. Sager’s filing system, suggesting that the letter had been misplaced. But Ms. Sager said she had checked with all members of her staff and the local staff of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to see whether anyone had seen the letter. She said that in her career at the agency’s office, she had never run into a situation where correspondence was lost.
     The trial concluded this week, and attorneys for both sides must now wait for copies of the court transcript, which will take “several months” according to Judge Nichols. Once they get the transcripts they will have 60 days to make any legal submissions to the court.
     The judge will rule at a later date, with no deadline set.  
     Meanwhile Judge Nichols has not yet ruled on whether Mr. Cascino’s violated a temporary restraining order issued by the judge November 2006. The order directed Mr. Cascino to stop all construction, excavation and dumping on the property. Witnesses report he continued dumping and other activities on the property despite the judge’s order to cease all such activities.

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