COPAKE—Salvatore Cascino once again failed to provide the Copake Planning Board with the hard data needed to decide whether he is a farmer.
Mr. Cascino’s right-hand man, David Wiener, appeared for the third time in three months before the Planning Board at its May 2 meeting, representing his boss on two site plan reviews. One review seeks site plan approval for existing buildings, which Mr. Cascino has already built on his 300-acre property, some without permission, and the second review seeks approval for three more new structures that will yield 64,200 square feet of enclosed or semi-enclosed space—all to be used in Mr. Cascino’s “farm operation known as Copake Valley Farm,” according to a proposed operating plan Mr. Wiener submitted in March.
Mr. Cascino, 79, of Larchmont, Westchester County is a convicted felon who, over the past 21 years, has amassed violations of federal, state and town laws for illegal dumping, building and excavating at the place he calls Copake Valley Farm at 13 Lackawanna Road. The property extends along the east side of Route 22.
For the May meeting, Mr. Wiener was asked to provide evidence in the form of financial records, receipts and lease agreements, that Mr. Cascino has been strictly conducting farming operations on the property. Last month Mr. Wiener produced three receipts for an agricultural business he claims his boss has been running for more than 15 years.
This month Mr. Wiener showed the board 50 receipts, all but four of them dated prior to 2012, all for the sale of hay and the purchase and sale of livestock. Planning Board member Jon Urban was incredulous, noting that amid the 20 pages of receipt copies, there were none for equipment repair, fuel, veterinarian bills or employees. Mr. Wiener responded, “How deep do I have to go?”
“Deep enough so we can” tell what’s going on, said Mr. Urban.
Board member Chris Grant asked if all the Cascino land is in an agricultural district. Mr. Wiener said it is. Planning Board Chairman Bob Haight said he checked with the town assessor and was told of the total 313-acres, Mr. Cascino has an agricultural tax exemption on all but 87 acres.
Mr. Grant said he wanted to see records that “clearly document” an agricultural business, such as financial statements for the farm, but that Mr. Wiener did not seem willing to provide them. Mr. Wiener argued that his receipts fulfill the purpose of showing commerce. “Do we just keep throwing things out till the spirit moves you that this is an ag operation?” Even in the years of the dumping, there was still an ag operation going on, said Mr. Wiener, who called for the board to make a decision based on the information he has already provided.
Town Attorney Ken Dow agreed that the board can’t keep going back and forth with Mr. Wiener, that they have to “wrap it up.” The attorney noted that the receipts presented for the past three years “were incredibly thin.” He again stated that it is the applicant’s responsibility “to overcome a history of credibility problems.”
About 10 years ago, Mr. Cascino made application to the Planning Board to build several massive structures including a 24,900 square-foot deep-bed composting pack barn, a grain dryer, two 70-foot-high grain silos and an 18,500 square-foot run-in shed. Back then, the board unanimously rejected the Cascino proposal, citing a long list of reasons, such as Mr. Cascino’s history of ignoring the law and his ongoing pattern of dumping construction and demolition debris under the guise of an agricultural operation. The board also cited Mr. Cascino’s failure to provide information requested and his ongoing legal entanglements with town, state and federal agencies. The board concluded at that time that Mr. Cascino’s plan was not for farming. Mr. Cascino sued to overturn the ruling, but the Planning Board’s decision was upheld on appeal.
The new proposal by Mr. Cascino includes the construction of a 24,900 square-foot barn for the care and management of cows and sheep and storage of feed and supplies; a 15,000 square-foot greenhouse for the year-round production of retail crops such as annual plants, herbs, small shrubs and possibly hydroponic plants to be sold through the farm store; and four overhangs, which are 20- to 50-foot extensions off the top of existing exterior walls to provide moderate protection from the elements for feed and equipment.
Mr. Grant said the matter cannot be solved anecdotally, that financial records must be shown and that the board should check with the assessor’s office to determine if the Cascino ag exemption is valid.
The assessor’s office told The Columbia Paper this week that by New York State law ag exemption renewals are completed annually. Statements verifying that the land remains in agriculture must be signed by the applicant and proof of farm income grossing at least $10,000 must be provided. But income is not a matter of public record, according to the assessor’s office.
Mr. Haight said that the four receipts provided by Mr. Wiener for the past year were not adequate. He asked specifically about precise numbers of livestock, payroll records and what Mr. Cascino planned to plant this year. When Mr. Wiener answered he did not know, Mr. Haight said, “If you’re going to plant something, you must have to buy something to plant.”
Mr. Dow suggested to Mr. Wiener that a statement from Mr. Cascino’s accountant, tax returns, profit and loss statements, personnel wages, salaries, expenses, leases pertaining to the last three years are needed. He said there should be “stacks of hundreds of receipts.
“We need verifiable numbers to show transactions of a certain magnitude,” the attorney said.
“So you want me to come up with something that paints a complete picture of a business?” asked Mr. Wiener after a repetitive hour-long discussion.
“That’s what we have been asking you for from the beginning,” said Mr. Haight. The chairman said he would give Mr. Wiener “one more chance” to produce the requested documentation. “We’re not going to keep dragging this on month after month.”
In other Cascino news, the Town Board announced at its April meeting that it would not take any further action with regard to the State of New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division Third Judicial Department decision entered February 21. The decision granted Mr. Cascino’s motion to “purge the contempt.”
In a case brought by the Town of Copake, Columbia County Supreme Court Judge Jonathan Nichols had found Mr. Cascino in both criminal and civil contempt of prior court orders and judgments and ordered Mr. Cascino to remain in jail until he proved that he had complied with the judge’s order to remove 9,650 cubic yards of illegally dumped solid waste as directed in a February 25, 2016 decision.
The Appellate Court acknowledged “competing evidence” and “a continuing impasse,” and concluded “that to continue Cascino’s incarceration any further would serve no viable purpose and cannot be sustained. We are satisfied that the record establishes a significant effort on defendant’s [Mr. Cascino’s] part to purge the contempt, while recognizing there remains some dispute as to whether all the disputed material has been removed.”
Mr. Cascino spent 572 days in the Columbia County Jail between February 25, 2016 and January 12, 2018.
Town Supervisor Jeff Nayer announced after a brief closed-door session last month, that the town would not seek permission to appeal the ruling. He said that the “little town of Copake had accomplished a lot” and had all the money spent in attorney’s fees to bring Mr. Cascino to justice reimbursed. Board member Richard Wolf read a statement regarding the Cascino litigation from Board member Jeanne Mettler, who did not attend the meeting.
Ms. Mettler noted that Mr. Cascino has removed nearly twice the amount of “offensive material” as ordered by Judge Nichols. “At this point, the Town is right to accept the Appellate Division Decision as the conclusion of this long and arduous litigation. While it may be impossible to reach a perfect resolution of this situation, Copake has accomplished what no other Town has done—we have stopped this serial polluter—we have seen him incarcerated and we have overseen the removal of offensive material from the soils of Copake.
“In concluding this litigation, we should recognize the Copake citizens who brought these concerns to public light, and stayed committed to this fight for well over a decade. We should also acknowledge the previous Boards, who commenced and pursued this lawsuit. This has been a long fight for a principled purpose, and all those who stayed with this fight should be proud of the results.”
Board member Stosh Gansowski said he had recently been in touch with the state Attorney General’s Office regarding Mr. Cascino’s illegal removal of barriers on the steel bridge he illegally built over the Noster Kill. He was told Mr. Cascino has been fined $130,000.
The Noster Kill is a protected trout stream and what Mr. Cascino did to it “is just a sin,” said Mr. Gansowski, who noted that Mr. Cascino has agreed to pay the fine over the next six months.
To contact Diane Valden email moc.r1558807993epapa1558807993ibmul1558807993oc@ne1558807993dlavd1558807993