COPAKE—The Copake Planning Board is still considering Salvatore Cascino’s master plan for the build-out of his 300-acre property along Route 22 and Lackawanna Road. But that didn’t prevent Mr. Cascino from embarking on a major excavation project involving the leveling of several acres and moving tons of dirt just north of his proposed farm stand.
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 a place he calls Copake Valley Farm, along the east side of Route 22.
The Planning Board has been wrangling with two site plan reviews of Mr. Cascino’s plans to build multiple new structures on and off since 2017.
At the Planning Board’s July 16 meeting held via Zoom, Board Chairman Bob Haight told the board that Mr. Cascino had called the building inspector to ask if he needed a permit to grade off a knob on the property.
The excavation of a small knob would not have been an issue, said Mr. Haight, but in reality the excavation involved the removal of dirt—to a depth of at least five feet—off the top, from an area of several acres.
Amid the cloud of dust, passersby could see an 80,000-pound D8 bulldozer, two or more heavy-duty excavation machines and multiple dump trucks all joining forces in a big dig, which took place over more than a week.
The town code requires that a building permit be issued for any excavation involving more that 20 yards of material.
In meeting with the building inspector earlier in the week, Mr. Haight said he was told “New York State code does not have a building permit for excavation” so the building inspector did not issue a permit and could not therefore issue a stop work order.
Town Attorney Ken Dow did not agree that Mr. Cascino should just be allowed to proceed. He cited sections of Town Code which say excavation for various purposes require a building permit, a special use permit or a mining permit.
‘We don’t know why he’s doing anything.’
Bob Haight, chairman
Copake Planning Board
Another section says excavation for various purposes must meet numerous conditions including that “no more than two acres of property” are disturbed at one time.
Mr. Dow asked what the purpose of the excavation was. “There is supposed to be a reason for it,” he said.
“We don’t know why he’s doing anything. He took five feet right out of there,” said Mr. Haight, adding, “We don’t know where the dirt is going—if he’s selling it that falls under mining.”
Mr. Haight said more than a couple of acres were affected. “It looks like a shopping center is going in there, you can’t miss it.”
He said the matter was called to his attention by the Town Supervisor and that the Town Board wants the work stopped.
“We can’t wait around,” he said.
Board member Marcia Becker noted that the area being bulldozed of its top soil is supposed to be a hayfield, according to Mr. Cascino’s latest master plan map. The activity there calls the veracity of the map into question, she said.
Mr. Dow said the building inspector cannot allow the work to go on, as excavation for agricultural purposes is only allowed to involve 20 yards of material without a permit.
The attorney said the issue is not about getting a permit it’s that the scale of excavation is “flat out not allowed.”
Mr. Dow said he would address the matter by sending something in writing to the building inspector or Mr. Haight.
The excavation work continued over the weekend.
In a follow-up email late Wednesday, July 22, Chairman Haight said a stop work order on the excavation was issued that day, “We were a little late with the stop work order because they are putting the finish grade on it today.”
In April, Town Building Inspector Lee Heim also issued a stop work order to Mr. Cascino when it was discovered that he was constructing a 15,000 square-foot greenhouse behind the proposed farm market without getting the required building permit and site plan approval from the Planning Board.
Earlier in the July meeting, Mr. Cascino’s right-hand man, David Wiener, and his attorney, Michael Sussman, appeared virtually to make final submissions on the Cascino applications. Items included a full site development plan involving 27 structures, a barn floor plan, an edited operating plan, northern and southern tract maps, a survey, farm market entrance engineering plans, and letters.
The board deemed the applications complete and instructed the secretary to send them to the Columbia County Planning Board for review.
Because the next Town Planning Board meeting is only two weeks away, Mr. Haight advised the board to be ready to vote at the September meeting.
Attorney Dow brought up the question of whether Mr. Cascino’s current “agricultural plan” is substantially different from the one submitted in 2008 that the Planning Board denied. The denial was the subject of an Article 78 action in which a court upheld the Planning Board decision.
Ms. Becker said this plan is very similar to the plan submitted in 2008 and is basically the same only bigger. Board member Chris Grant also did not see any substantive change from the earlier plan. Mr. Haight acknowledged that some of the silos have been removed but the plan is otherwise pretty much the same.
Attorney Sussman pointed out that the state Department of Agriculture and Markets had rejected the idea that Mr. Cascino’s was not an agricultural operation.
He acknowledged that the board can make any decision the members see fit and, if that is denial, it can be addressed by litigation.
The Planning Board meets next August 6.