State says Sal’s a…farmer?

COPAKE—Since Salvatore Cascino seems to be unable to convince the Copake Planning Board he’s a farmer, he’s decided to try his line on state regulators who don’t know him so well.

It’s a tactic he’s used before.

In March, April and May of this year, Mr. Cascino’s right-hand man, David Weiner, appeared before the Copake Planning Board, representing his boss in the matter of two site plan reviews. One review seeks site plan approval for existing buildings, some of which Mr. Cascino has already built 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 submitted by Mr. Wiener.

Mr. Cascino, 79, of Larchmont, Westchester County is a convicted felon who has spent the past 21 years amassing violations of federal, state and town laws for illegal dumping, building and excavating at a place he calls Copake Valley Farm, along the east side of Route 22.

Over the course of the three months Mr. Weiner appeared, Planning Board members repeatedly asked him to produce evidence in the form of financial records, receipts and lease agreements that would prove that Mr. Cascino has changed his ways and is now strictly conducting legitimate farming operations on the property.

Each month he failed to provide more than a handful of receipts for any given year, not enough “verifiable numbers to show transactions of a certain magnitude” as Town Attorney Ken Dow put it at the May meeting.

The Planning Board was skeptical of Mr. Cascino’s farm operation claims not only because of Mr. Cascino’s proven past misdeeds, but also because 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 misbehavior and his ongoing pattern of dumping construction and demolition debris under cover 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 that Mr. Cascino’s plan was not for farming. He sued to overturn the ruling, but the Planning Board’s decision was upheld in court.

This year, with the appearance of another similar Cascino master plan, Attorney Dow told the board at the March meeting, “It’s more complicated than just looking at two maps.” It is the “burden of the applicant” to show there has been “a change in circumstances that could warrant reconsideration of the matter.”

At the conclusion of the May meeting, Planning Board Chairman Bob Haight told Mr. Weiner he would give him “one more chance” to produce the requested documentation.

The following month, Mr. Weiner did not appear, but the Planning Board received a letter dated June 17, 2019, from New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets Director Michael Latham. The letter said Ag and Markets had received a request from Mr. Cascino to review Copake’s Zoning Code and its administration by the Planning Board.

The department says it performs “reviews on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the specific facts of each situation.” Prior to deciding “whether a local law unreasonably restricts a farm operation within an agricultural district,” the department considers information submitted by the affected farm operator, provisions of the local law and comments from the affected municipality, the letter said.

So Attorney Dow responded to the letter’s observation that “it appears that the Planning Board is having difficulty recognizing Copake Valley Farm as a ‘farm operation,’” by noting, “If that is so, it is because there is a well-established record that for many years, Copake Valley Farm was operated as an illegal waste dump cloaked in the guise of a farm, and the operator—Mr. Cascino—repeatedly thumbed his nose at the law, the Town, and the Courts. The current Planning Board review is the most recent episode in this long-running matter, and the Board is engaged in a good-faith effort to hear Copake Valley Farm’s current presentation to determine whether the applicant is now moving past his long history of illegal activity, deception, and despoilment of farm lands, and is now actually seeking to operate as a legitimate farm.”

In his four-page letter, Mr. Dow recounted Mr. Cascino’s history of illegal deeds, criminal contempt, incarceration, litigation and appeals involving town, state and federal agencies to illustrate “many of the reasons why Mr. Cascino’s claims to be engaging in a farm operation may not be reliable.” He even noted that Mr. Cascino had appealed to state Ag and Markets before to be recognized as a farm operation. The outcome, after a firestorm of opposition from state and local leaders, was a May 2009 letter from then Commissioner Patrick Hooker to the town stating, “I have concluded that it would be premature to move forward with the department’s AML (Ag and Markets Law) 305a- review at this time.”

While noting the town’s support of farming, Mr. Dow said, “Mr. Cascino’s clearest connection to agriculture has been to contaminate the lands of Copake Valley Farm by dumping and mixing into the farmland soils tens of thousands of cubic yards of illegal ground-up waste and further despoiling the farmlands by dumping over 150,000 cubic yards of ‘dead dirt’ on the farm land—soils that ultimately had to be removed to waste dumps. It would be quite a mockery of the Agriculture and Markets Law if it were to be invoked to facilitate further such despoilment and lawbreaking by adopting a guise of agricultural activities.”

In response to Mr. Dow’s letter, Ag and Markets Director Latham wrote in a September 5, 2019 letter that Dr. Robert Somers, manager of the department’s farmland Protection Unit, had conducted a July 23 site investigation of Copake Valley Farm (CVF).

Dr. Somers “observed only agricultural activities on the farm during his visit. The only construction activity observed was the construction of a rock wall fence to match other fences on the property.” Buildings are in “excellent” condition as are housing and pasture/confinement area for the farm’s cattle, sheep and horses, the letter said.

“Based upon our site visit and from information provided by CVF, the department has concluded that the agricultural activities and structures observed by department staff were in an amount and scope consistent with a crop and livestock operation of this size; are part of a farm operation, and the activity is protected under AML… The department is issuing this letter in an attempt to assist CVF and the Town in the review of CVF’s site plan application.”

The Copake Planning Board had planned to discuss the letters at its October 3 meeting, which was canceled due to lack of a quorum. The board’s next regular meeting is scheduled for Thursday, November 7 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.

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