COPAKE—The Copake Planning Board has to accept the State Department of Agriculture and Markets’ determination that Salvatore Cascino is operating a farm, but it does not have to stop asking questions.
It was a town Planning Board session filled with twists and turns on the site plan reviews for 13 Lackawanna Farms, a/k/a, Mr. Cascino’s Copake Valley Farm, January 2.
Since March 2019, the Planning Board has been reviewing two site plans connected with the Cascino property. One review seeks site plan approval for existing buildings that Mr. Cascino already built without permission. He was ordered by a court to get permission after-the-fact.
The other review is part of Mr. Cascino’s “master plan” for the property and involves the construction of three new structures yielding 64,200 square feet of enclosed or semi-enclosed space to be used in Mr. Cascino’s “farm operation known as Copake Valley Farm,” according to an operating plan submitted to the board by David Weiner, Mr. Cascino’s right hand man.
Mr. Cascino, 80, of Larchmont, Westchester County is a convicted felon who has spent the past 22 years amassing violations of federal, state and town laws for illegal dumping, building and excavating at his 300-acre property along the east side of Route 22.
Mr. Weiner showed up at the January 2 meeting with Mr. Cascino’s latest attorney, Michael H. Sussman of Goshen, Orange County, a well-known civil rights lawyer, who ran unsuccessfully for New York attorney general as the Green Party candidate in 2018.
The first issue discussed had to do with the fact that the board had received two applications for the two illegally built buildings, but no application for the “master plan.”
When the board began to review the initial applications, members asked Mr. Weiner if Mr. Cascino had additional plans for the property. It then learned about the “master plan” for “full site development.”
The board decided it was an administrative issue and did not ask for another application.
While it seemed at first that the interaction between Mr. Sussman and the board and the board’s attorney Ken Dow was adversarial, by the end of the session, it appeared the parties were actually cooperating.
Mr. Dow tried to explain the complexity and history of the Planning Board’s dealings with Mr. Cascino, stating that a state appellate court had upheld the board’s decision 10 years ago that Mr. Cascino’s plans did not qualify as an agricultural operation, but Mr. Sussman did not want to hear it. He told Mr. Dow he had read and understood all the history, didn’t need it repeated and wanted to move beyond that.
In a December 11, 2019 letter to the Planning Board Mr. Sussman wrote, “The board’s persistent recalcitrance is without any justification and will subject it to legal liability if not replaced by swift substantive consideration of [Mr. Cascino’s] site plan.”
The Planning Board has been trying to determine for some months whether the Cascino operation is strictly agricultural. They asked Mr. Weiner to provide evidence in the form of purchase and sales receipts and other records pertaining to the Cascino “farm business.” But every month Mr. Weiner came back with insufficient or irrelevant documentation and rather than give the board what it asked for–Mr. Cascino decided to take his case to the State Department of Agriculture and Markets
When the issue of whether Mr. Cascino’s operation is a farm resurfaced at the meeting, Mr. Dow told the board it is “kind of stuck” with Ag and Market’s recent determination that it is a farm. Board member Marcia Becker objected, saying, the board did not have a site visit.
The board had asked for site visit but was denied permission by Mr. Cascino. Mr. Sussman said he had “no issue” with the board having a site visit even though it is not growing season.
He then called a site visit “obstructive” and stated flatly, “Ag and Markets is not getting paid-off by Mr. Cascino.”
Mrs. Becker said it’s the board’s responsibility to visit the site.
Mr. Dow then brought up that Copake Valley Farm is a registered waste hauler.
Mr. Weiner explained that though it had been Mr. Cascino’s original intent to conduct a composting operation, “that venture died out” and “that registration was terminated.”
Mr. Dow noted that waste had been hauled to and dumped on the site. “You call it waste hauling, [Mr. Cascino] calls it reclamation,” Mr. Weiner said.
Planning Board Chairman Bob Haight noted that Ag and Markets had conducted a site visit and “according to everything they have, it’s a farm operation, there’s no reason for us to take a site visit. Ag and Markets has made the determination for us. We have to review it that way.”
Mr. Haight then went on to ask questions about the number of head of cattle Mr. Cascino has on the property and what the proposed 24,900 square-foot barn would be used for.
Mr. Weiner said there are 40 head on the property and livestock feed, supplies and birthing facilities would be in the barn.
Mr. Haight then noted that according to Ag and Markets the size of the barn “is too large for your farm operation.”
He also questioned the presence of certain equipment on the property that is not associated with farming, such as an asphalt roller used in road construction; and the large grinding apparatus. “Ag and Markets says these machines are not part of a farm operation,” he said.
Other questions were raised about an excavator and jackhammer and the apparent mining operation going on. “Does he even have a mining permit?” asked board member Julie Cohen.
The Columbia Paper called Copake’s Building Inspector/Code Enforcement Officer Lee Heim, who said he had not issued a mining permit.
It is also not clear if Mr. Cascino has secured permits for all the masonry stone walls he has constructed and is constructing.
“Is it part of a site plan review to tell an individual what they can and can’t have?” asked Mr. Sussman.
“We have codes,” said Mr. Haight, adding that if the place is a farm then the barns and equipment must be used for farming, otherwise it’s a change of use and if he’s storing other things—that does change it.
Mr. Dow pointed out that if Mr. Cascino’s buildings store construction equipment, then he is not entitled to the benefits afforded agricultural operations.
Other ongoing violations on the property were discussed, such as continuing un-permitted work on the farm stand, including the installation of ramps, railings and a whole new septic system completed without inspection or permits from the County Health Department.
The board also made reference to a section of the Town Code that says that if violations exist on a property, the board cannot consider and the building inspector cannot issue permits for any additional work on that property.
Mr. Haight called the situation a “Catch-22.”
By the end of the session, Mr. Sussman acknowledged the need for the board to provide him and his client with a list of issues/questions to be addressed and to “work out an escrow agreement so [the board] can do a more comprehensive site plan review.” He promised that “in the meantime no further work would be done on any of the buildings” at the Cascino place.
Mr. Haight told The Columbia Paper that once an escrow account is established, the board would hire a farming expert and take it from there.
The Planning Board was going to conduct a special meeting on the GRJH Craryville gas station/convenience store application, Saturday, January 11, 10 a.m. at Town Hall. But the meeting has now been cancelled for lack of a quorum.
The next regular meeting is February 6.