State: Maybe later for Cascino ruling

COPAKE–The state Department of Agriculture and Markets has decided not to decide right now whether the town Planning Board review of Salvatore Cascino’s massive building project complies with state law.

  Last November, after a six-month site plan review, the Planning Board rejected Mr. Cascino’s proposal to build several structures on his 300-acre property called Copake Valley Farm.

   A resident of Larchmont, Mr. Cascino owns a Bronx-based waste hauling business and has a 12-year history of violating federal, state and town laws on his property located along the east side of Route 22.

   Mr. Cascino’s proposal included plans to construct a 24,900 square-foot composting barn, a grain dryer, two 70-foot-high grain storage silos and an 18,500-square-foot run-in shed.

   The county Planning Board and the town Planning Board’s agriculture consultant and engineer all recommended rejection of the plan.

   But attorney Anna Kirschner, who represented Mr. Cascino before the Planning Board, requested that the state agriculture department, commonly called “Ag and Markets,” determine whether the Planning Board had acted in accordance with the state Agriculture and Markets Law.

   In response to that request, William Kimball, director of Agricultural Protection and Development with Ag and Markets, wrote a 10-page letter dated March 11 to Town Supervisor Reggie Crowley and Planning Board Chairwoman Marcia Becker, to say that his department had determined that Mr. Cascino was engaged in a “farm operation.” Because of that, Mr. Kimball said the Planning Board’s site plan review process should have been expedited and was “unreasonably restrictive.”

   In light of Mr. Cascino’s history as a scofflaw, the Kimball letter provoked outraged reactions from State Senator Steve Saland (R-41st), Assemblyman Marcus Molinaro (R-103rd), the Columbia County Democratic Committee and members of the Copake Town Board, all of whom wrote to Governor David Paterson demanding his personal intervention with Ag and Markets on behalf of the people of Copake.      

Ag and Markets Deputy Commissioner Jerry Cosgrove wrote in a March 31 letter to the town that his department’s review of the Cascino matter is “on-going” and that the March 11 letter had only been “an interim step” and not the final word in his department’s “deliberative review.”

The town responded to Mr. Kimball’s determination with a letter from Planning Board Attorney Lawrence Howard defending the Planning Board’s process and decision on the grounds that the Cascino operation is not a legitimate farm and is a threat to the public health and safety.

Victor Meyers, the town’s attorney handling its many bouts of litigation against Mr. Cascino, also submitted a memorandum detailing the legal actions the town has brought against Mr. Cascino and the allegations that he has illegally dumped materials from his Bronx recycling business in Copake for years.

Douglas Clark, the Planning Board’s engineer, submitted a 15-page memorandum detailing the town’s review process, Mr. Cascino’s failure to produce necessary documentation and the significant changes Mr. Cascino made to the project while it was under review. Also part of the response was a statement from former Planning Board Chairman Edgar Masters about the board’s history of approvals for bona fide farmers during his 17-year tenure.

The latest round in this protracted dispute came in a May 11 letter to Mr. Crowley and Ms. Becker, in which Ag and Markets Commissioner Patrick Hooker notes all the unresolved legal issues involving the Cascino property:

*It is the subject of a July 12, 2007 consent decree relating to alleged Environmental Conservation Law violations

*A November 27, 2006 Columbia County Supreme Court temporary restraining order (TRO) prohibiting further construction and/or excavation or depositing of any material on the premises because of alleged violations of the Copake Town Code

*A December 19, 2008 cease and desist order issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers relating to the placement of materials into United States waters, including wetlands.

“In light of these pending legal matters, particularly the TRO and the inability of Mr. Cascino to proceed with his proposed project until these issues are resolved, I have concluded that it would be premature to move forward with the Department’s… review at this time,” wrote the commissioner.

Though the commissioner’s conclusion is not what he had hoped for, Assemblyman Molinaro told The Columbia Paper Tuesday that the department’s decision to offer no judgment “is better than [the department’s] original judgment in favor of the applicant.”

The assemblyman said he believes the Town of Copake was right to reject the Cascino application, noting “there is no way to review current law and make this application fit.”

Mr. Molinaro said he supports the town, the state attorney general and the state Department of Environmental Conservation as they pursue their enforcement actions.

Councilwoman Linda Gabaccia ,Town Board representative on Cascino matters and its liaison to the Planning Board, called the latest Ag and Markets statement “disappointing and incredibly weak,” adding, “Ag and Markets missed a tremendous opportunity to set precedent and establish policy for waste haulers who would operate under the protective cover of agriculture. By rendering an opinion which really was a non-opinion and effectively passing the buck….They committed a disservice to genuine farmers and to the Town of Copake and virtually ignored the New York State Constitution’s commitment to preserving agriculture in this state.”

Supervisor Crowley referred a call for comment to the town attorney.

Attorney Kirschner did not respond to an email request for comment on Commissioner Hooker’s letter.

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