G’town finds some cleanups easier than others

GERMANTOWN—The Town Board spent much of its workshop meeting this week discussing continuing violations of the town junk law. Board members plan to take up the problem again at the Monday, December 22 board meeting, when Town Attorney Tal Rappleyea will be present.

On paper, Germantown’s law is clear. Types of “junk” are defined. “The deposit, accumulation, or storage” of junk is “prohibited within sight of persons traveling the public highways or within sight of neighboring property.”

The junk law can be enforced by the building inspector, the zoning enforcement officer, or by “any police officer of the municipality.”

Enforcement starts with a complaint. After investigation, the enforcement officer can present the property owner with a written Notice to Comply. An owner, tenant or occupant who does not take appropriate action can be fined $350 or sent to jail for up to 15 days, or both.

Also, the Town Board can hold a public hearing to “determine whether the violation constitutes a public nuisance requiring abatement” by the town. Based on the hearing the town can clean up the property and charge the owner for the cost via a lien on the property. And the violator can’t fill the property with junk again without risking further sanctions.

But enforcing a law that focuses on particular persons, possessions and properties can be complicated at best in a town of 1,954 people, many of whom know, or are related to, their neighbors.

In discussing junk policy and procedure at the December 15 meeting, the board had one intractable case in mind that remained unnamed. Over the course of many months, code enforcement officer John Fieser, responding to a neighbor’s complaint, visited the property and took photos. Promises to clean up have not been fulfilled.

The neighbor took photos. The property owner, a full-time resident of the town, got a lawyer. A new fence does not keep the junk out of view and adds to the eyesore. The neighbor, a part-time resident, may get a lawyer.

So far a public hearing has not been held, and fines have not been levied.

“In this case, there’s been a great effort to resolve this informally,” Councilman Donald Westmore said.

Mr. Westmore said he thought of this “as a test case, for the town and the board.” New businesses and residents are being attracted to Germantown, he said, and “it’s highly important that we demonstrate that laws are meaningful and we enforce them.”

Mr. Westmore suggested that the board consult with Mr. Rappleyea on “practical next steps we can take and then take them.”

Councilman Matthew Phelan said that he feared a legal battle that the town couldn’t afford, a cost that would be “unfair to all the residents.”

“We’ve hammered on other property owners and forced them to clean up,” said Councilman Michael Mortenson. “We have to continue to do that. We can’t pick and choose.”

“It would be nice to have more support from the town,” said Mr. Phelan.

“They’ve elected you to make those decisions,” said Supervisor Joel Craig.

“That’s what public hearings are for,” said Mr. Phelan.

Mr. Craig demurred, saying it was hard to judge opinion by public hearings, since only the strident tend to come out.

The decision was to alert Mr. Rappleyea that on December 22 he would be asked to present a plan.

Also this week Ellen Jouret-Epstein tried to persuade the board to appoint a Conservation Advisory Council (CAC). Ms. Jouret-Epstein, the Germantown member of the county Environmental Management Council, said she could not chair a local CAC but otherwise was “willing to do anything to get this off the ground.”

Possible CAC projects, she said, included working with the Germantown School, public education, research for the Town Board and an inventory of ash trees in town parks threatened by the emerald ash borer. The CAC could work with the Boy Scouts and could reserve a seat for a high school student, she said.

Told that the Parks Commission has had no success finding volunteers, Ms. Jouret-Epstein said that the CAC could have as few as four people. “Five is better. No more than nine.”

She said an “amazing new cohort of 30- and 40-year-olds are moving into town. They’re community-minded but not yet involved. Begin the process of cultivating” them, she said. They’re “the future of the town and they have new ideas.

When Mr. Phelan mentioned that the town had no funds for a CAC, Ms. Jouret-Epstein said that only one CAC in the county has a budget from its town, but many towns and the City of Hudson are considering appointing CACs.

Mr. Mortenson said that he wanted to “stay away from environmental Nazis,” after a dispute with a neighbor. Ms. Jouret-Epstein responded that the state had ruled on Mr. Mortenson’s dispute and that CAC’s role is advisory only.

When Mr. Craig hesitated to set up one more legal entity in the town, Ms. Jouret-Epstein said that the county environmental council and the other CACs would help.

The board agreed to consult supervisors whose towns have CACs or are considering them.

The board also heard from Robert Nedwick, whose sons play Little League and soccer. He asked the town’s help in restoring the town park fields for those sports. The town, in turn, is waiting to hear what parents want in the way of fields.

It takes a season to get a field ready, so it was decided to spend this season raising funds and making the fields safer.

“Bring us a plan,” said Mr. Craig. “Let us know what you want to do.”

Councilwoman Andrea Dunn was absent. The next Town Board meeting is Monday, December 22 at 7 p.m.

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