COPAKE—The Copake Planning Board has approved site plans that set the stage for Salvatore Cascino’s newest building projects.
After three years of on-and-off back-and-forth, the board voted four to one, with two members absent, to allow Mr. Cascino’s plan for the modified expansion of the “agricultural” operation on his 300-acre property to move forward.
But it’s not like Mr. Cascino has been waiting patiently for board action before starting his project.
He has gone ahead with the excavation of multiple acres, the installation of a network of stone walls and even began construction of a 15,000-square-foot greenhouse without a permit—before being issued a stop-work-order by the town’s building inspector back in April.
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.
One of the two reviews sought site plan approval for existing buildings, some of which Mr. Cascino already built without permission. The second review sought approval for three more new structures that will yield 64,200 square feet of enclosed or semi-enclosed space.
New construction (before recent modification) proposed by Mr. Cascino includes 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 even hydroponic plants such as tomatoes 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.
The Planning Board’s November 5 meeting via Zoom, began with questions from Board Chairman Bob Haight about the need for an 83-by-300-foot, 24,900-square-foot structure labeled on Mr. Cascino’s plans as an “equipment storage garage.” Despite the label, David Wiener, Mr. Cascino’s right-hand man, told the board the building was going to be used for hay and supply storage, shelter, birthing and medical treatment areas for cattle and sheep.
Mr. Haight said he thought hay was stored in a separate, existing white barn on the north end of the property.
Mr. Wiener said that was correct but that still more hay storage space is needed and currently the overflow of hay is stored outside under tarps.
Mr. Haight then sited information from Robert Somers, PhD, with the state Department of Agriculture and Markets and a supporting University of New Hampshire (UNH) document that indicated, based on the number of cattle, the size of the proposed barn “is way too big for the operation.”
Mr. Cascino’s operating plan states that his herd has been limited to about 50 cattle, but that that number would expand to 200 with the new barn in place.
Board member Marcia Becker said that based on the calculations in the UNH document, a herd of 50 requires 100 square feet per animal and a barn of 5,000 square feet.
Questions continued about hay storage: How much is on the farm now and how much is needed?
Mr. Haight wanted to know the size of the fields where the potential 200 head of cattle would be grazed.
Mr. Wiener estimated that the grazing area would alternate between “100 acres each way.” Mr. Haight said that “the land you have dictates the size of the herd you can take on.” Ms. Becker said one cow requires one to two acres. Two hundred cattle would require a pasture of 200 to 400 acres.
Mr. Haight said based on other barns in the area Mr. Cascino’s barn is too big, plus there is the matter of the Scenic Corridor Overlay Zone (SCOZ) in which the barn would be built.
The size of new construction is limited to 25,000 square-feet within the scenic district, according to Town Code.
Mr. Wiener said the restrictions do not apply to agricultural operations.
Questions about the propriety of the Planning Board requiring the applicant to produce a State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (SPDES) Permit and a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPP) brought up at the October meeting were resolved.
Mr. Haight said in a follow-up phone call that applicants pursuing projects of this size usually have engineers who secure these permissions from the appropriate agencies and can provide the Planning Board with permit copies. Mr. Cascino has not yet gotten these permits and Mr. Wiener said they wouldn’t be obtained “until the time of construction.”
Later in the November meeting, in light of the board’s concerns about the building size, Mr. Wiener offered to cut the size of barn in half to 12,500 square feet with the provision that Mr. Cascino could apply to add-on to the structure at a future time.
Mr. Haight said in that case the board would vote on the matter that night.
Ms. Becker called for a resubmission of the project maps with the updated dimensions and the relabeling of the structure in question to barn instead of storage garage.
When Mr. Wiener objected to the resubmission idea, Ms. Becker noted that the project involves the development of the site and a multi-million dollar project.
Mr. Haight called for a vote to approve Mr. Cascino’s master plan (13 Lackawanna Properties) subject to the relabeling of the current storage/equipment garage to a barn; the reduction in size of the barn from 24,900 square feet to 12,500 (83 X 150) square feet and removal of the large compost grinder, which is not part of the farm operation, and any other non-farm-related equipment from the property.
The approval is also subject to the applicant securing building permits and remaining in compliance with any local, county, state and/or federal laws and regulations, specifically but not limited to SWPPP and SPDES regulations.
Mr. Haight, Julie Cohen, Steve Savarese, Ed Sawchuk voted in favor; Ms. Becker opposed; Chris Grant and Jon Urban were absent.
Ms. Becker said she voted no because she did not feel comfortable approving the plans without verification that related permits and processes are followed and that the Planning Board has copies of them.
About 10 years ago, Mr. Cascino made application to the Town 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. Mr. Cascino sued to overturn the ruling, but the Planning Board’s decision was upheld in court.
Last year during the review process of Mr. Cascino’s latest plan, the Planning Board spent several months trying to determine if Mr. Cascino was indeed running an agricultural operation.
During that time Planning Board members repeatedly asked Mr. Wiener to produce evidence in the form of financial records, receipts and lease agreements that would prove that Mr. Cascino had 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 2019 meeting.
After the board told the applicant he had one more chance to prove his case, Mr. Cascino enlisted the aid of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, which sent someone to pay a visit to the Cascino place. The department sent a letter to the Planning Board telling them 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 (Ag and Markets Law) …”
The board was then advised by Attorney Dow, that it had no choice but to accept Ag and Markets’ determination that the place is a farm and to move forward with the site plan review process.