A MAGIC KINGDOM lies within the Town of Copake, a place where things look real but don’t exist. Words have altogether different meanings, too. When you say something simple like, “Yes, your honor, I’ll do what you ask,” you actually mean, “I’ll do what I want. Who’s to stop me?”
In this special place the king makes all the rules. He’s banished the zoning trolls and freed himself to build or bury anything he wishes. His fields are layered with plastic shards and tidbits of wallboard, brick and cement. Neighborhood cows got their own two-lane highway bridge over a natural trout stream that he reconfigured with gravel to make it easier, no doubt, for the fish to swim straight. A wall directs rainwater away from the kingdom and onto the nearby state highway.
King Sal, who rules over this land of Copake Valley Farm on Route 22, is in the middle of yet another county court hearing to determine who’s more powerful, a judge or a king. Judges are supposed to outrank kings in this country. In Copake it hasn’t worked out that way so far.
In County Court last week the king, a.k.a. Sal Cascino, said (through his lawyer) that he’s cleaned up all the violations in his kingdom–all 16-years-worth of them. Gone, POOF!
Unfortunately for him the evidence supports what anyone can observe from the highway: old violations involving structures and land misuse persist, and new ones have appeared. Mr. Cascino didn’t seem worried by this. Facts don’t interfere with his plans. Instead, he has continued to game the legal system while he allegedly continues illegal dumping of debris on his property, thumbing his nose at attempts to restrain him.
The town has pursued a strategy of taking Mr. Cascino to court, where County Court Judge Jonathan Nichols ordered him to stop his construction and remove unlawful changes at his property. When Mr. Cascino ignored the judge, the judge found him in contempt. That’s supposed to carry a penalty, but Mr. Cascino has behaved as if the judge’s orders don’t matter.
We’re not talking here about a couple of tires or an old washing machine in the backyard. Mr. Cascino was ordered to remove 150,000 cubic yards of contaminated fill, among other things.
Mr. Cascino is apparently an equal opportunity scofflaw. Less than a decade ago he was also found in contempt of court in the Dutchess County Town of Dover, where he was ordered to… clean up materials he had dumped without permission and cease further dumping. Did the law come down heavily on Mr. Cascino? Not according to Jason Shaw, the attorney for Dover in the Cascino case. Mr. Cascino received a $250 fine and was ordered to pay $24,000 in legal fees plus an additional reimbursement to the town. It’s not clear he ever paid the town.
Judge Nichols has the power to put Mr. Cascino in jail until the harm he’s done is effectively remedied. A decision on this could come as early as this week. But based on recent history, is it any wonder Mr. Cascino shows no reluctance to defy the court?
What’s at stake in this battle between Copake and Cascino is the right of communities to establish their own laws and regulations. We call it home rule in New York, and when a guy like Mr. Cascino can flout local laws without serious consequences, he undermines our basis for self government.
Why should anyone obey the laws if the penalties for disobedience are insignificant or absent altogether?
The same holds true for the authority of the court. Defendants have the right to a fair and speedy trial, but Mr. Cascino has repeatedly delayed proceedings, increasing the cost to town and county taxpayers, which is undoubtedly part of the plan. If he does end up in jail and remains behind bars until his messes are cleaned up, he’ll have only himself to blame. He will also have an undeniable incentive to see that the cleanup gets done: his freedom.
Leaving him at liberty means there really is a King Sal, someone who not only wears a crown but wields the gavel.
And even if Mr. Cascino does go to jail until the mess is undone, it’s about time state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman opens an investigation into his practices here. This needs to happen before some other community finds itself hosting a serial scofflaw.