Safety trumps the law

Copake finds itself in dilemma over offer to donate pond

COPAKE–It seems like a good idea–giving the town a piece of land with a pond used by the Fire Department to put out fires in the hamlet. But there’s just one glitch, it’s illegal.

For many years the Copake Fire Department has had an informal agreement with past and present owners of a pond just off Church Street. The understanding allows the department to use the pond as water source to douse fires in the center of the hamlet.

Now the current landowner, Alice Belt, is selling her 72-acre property and wants to give the town a 1.7-acre parcel, which includes the pond. The parcel is behind and adjacent to a half-acre property known as the Church Street municipal parking lot, which the town already owns. The newly instituted Copake Farmers Market has been setting up shop in that parking lot every other Saturday since mid-June.

Ms. Belt went to the June meeting of the Town Planning Board to see how her planned gift might be given, but found out that the parcel she wants to donate does not meet the three-acre minimum lot size requirement for subdivisions under the town zoning law. Not only that, the pond parcel also lacks the required road frontage to qualify as an acceptable lot.

In a recent phone interview Ms. Belt told The Columbia Paper that the pond is sometimes used by the fire department for water rescue drills. It “never runs dry” and the town has connecting land, making the parcel an important town asset, she said. “It is not a building lot,” she added.

During the 24 years that she has lived in Copake, Ms. Belt said that “the town has been good to me.” Donating the parcel is “something I could do in return; it’s something that’s needed, and I would give it if [the town] wants it.”

Copake Fire Chief Randi Shadic wrote a letter about the situation to the Town Board and spoke about it at the June 12 Town Board meeting.

In his letter, Chief Shadic wrote that the gift parcel “contains a surface water pond that the community has relied upon for many years to serve its fire suppression needs for the general downtown business/residential section of the Copake hamlet…. The Copake Fire District currently maintains two dry hydrant installations in this pond, and with the aid of the Town of Copake maintains a roadway access to accommodate fire apparatus from Church Street, a/k/a, Route 7A, to the fire pond.”

Noting that Ms. Belt “has graciously and with the public’s best interest in mind” offered the donation, the chief wrote that the legal requirements of “additional acreage and creating road frontage… [are] impractical as the added lands would encompass unusable wetland area and not provide a viable alternate access.”

Another solution discussed at the Planning Board meeting was that Ms. Belt might consider adding a permanent easement to her 72-acre property that would allow the Fire Department perpetual access to the pond by future owners.

But Chief Shadic wrote that the alternate proposals are not reasonable and “will not serve in the best interest of maintaining the fire pond in continuing to serve in its current capacity.” He said he brought the matter to the Town Board in hopes that Town Attorney Tal Rappleyea might know some way the town could accept Ms. Belt’s donation despite the law.

Mr. Rappleyea suggested some possibilities, including a boundary line adjustment, referring the matter to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) or declaring the town immune from the Zoning Law.

But if the matter goes to the ZBA, Ms. Belt would have to pay an application fee.

Lindsay LeBrecht-Funk said that the Planning Board was just doing its job when it pointed out the relevant legal requirements, and she said she would support anything that can be done so that the pond could be turned over to the town at no expense to Ms. Belt.

Councilman Bob Sacks, a Copake fireman, spoke in favor of the donation, noting, “We do not have fire hydrants–we use ponds to fill our trucks; you can never have too many ponds.”

Chief Shadic said the location of the Church Street pond is ”paramount” and that to lose the use of that pond would impede his department’s ability to fight any fire that occurs in the hamlet.

Little red signs in and around the hamlet mark the distance to the nearest water sources for laying hoses. Losing a nearby water source “will create a huge void in fire protection for the downtown area,” said the chief.

Economic Advisory Board Chair Leslie Wood asked why the town was in a rush to resolve the question when Ms. Belt was hoping to sell her property sometime within the next three years and letting the ZBA handle it might take only a couple of months.

“The land is actively for sale,” said Chief Shadic. “If we don’t have this cleared up and off the table, we could lose the opportunity.”

Town Supervisor Reggie Crowley agreed, saying Ms. Belt could “sell it tomorrow.”

Though it isn’t done very often, Attorney Rappleyea said that because the donation involves a matter of public safety, granting the town immunity from the Zoning Law might be the best way to go.

Following that advice the Town Board scheduled a public hearing on a new local law that would exempt the town from its own land use law so it may accept the Belt donation. The hearing will take place prior to the July 8 Town Board meeting.

To contact Diane Valden email

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