Advocates Stumped: Town Opens Criminal Investigation

Only stumps remain after a heavily wooded portion of town land was demolished

As stones are being unturned and members of the community are demanding action, the Town of Clarkstown is now under immense pressure to investigate and resolve allegations of illegal town property use on Old Stone Road in Valley Cottage. Local activists are accusing a homeowner of adding an illegal second level to their house, building a large gate outside their property line, and demolishing approximately 100 trees owned by the town.

“The Town is extremely disturbed by the allegation of destruction of trees on Town property as well as the other alleged violations that have occurred at 20 Old Stone Road,” read an exclusive statement from the Town Supervisor’s Office. “Upon learning of the allegations the Town of Clarkstown immediately took all actions possible within our authority.”

Marvin Baum, a resident and creator of the “Save West Hook Mountain!” Facebook group, was one of the multiple concerned residents that alerted the town of the illegal construction. At a town hall meeting on March 23, Baum called for a public hearing, after advocating for months that the issues be resolved.

Baum said he initially reached out to Supervisor George Hoehmann on October 7 to report the cut-down trees and the property owner’s illegal second-floor home addition. The activist was also incensed that a public hiking trail adjacent to the home had been littered with signs that advised “keep out, private property.”

One of the “private property” signs on Old Stone Road, by the entrance of a public trail

According to the Town of Clarkstown Supervisor’s Office, Dennis Letson, town engineer, issued a violation and stop work order on Nov. 16, 2020. “Since the issuance of the violation and stop work order, no work has been done at the property,” read the office’s statement.

In a public facebook post, Councilman Michael Graziano denied that he and the town did not respond to the concerns. “This resident is alleging that I, along with the Town of Clarkstown, have not taken any action to address the matter,” said Graziano. “This could not be further from the truth.”

Graziano said that when he and a town representative inspected the property, “we were shown a large area cleared of trees that appeared to have been cut quite some time ago. The concerned resident asserted that this clearing was all on town property, had been forested as recently as February, and wanted the homeowner charged criminally for removing the trees,” wrote Graziano.

According to the Town Supervisor’s Office, Clarkstown has opened a criminal investigation regarding the allegation of illegal tree removal, but cannot comment on the investigation at this time.

View from the town hiking path adjacent to 20 Old Stone Road, where an estimated 100 trees were cleared

“The town lacks any concrete evidence which would hold up in a court of law to pursue action against whomever is responsible,” wrote Graziano. “Based upon aerial photos, that clearing appears to have taken place in early to mid 2019. If anyone has evidence to show who was responsible, please contact me or the Town Attorney’s office at 845-639-2060.”

Although the Town said it cannot immediately resolve the tree clearing issue, the Supervisor’s Office explained steps the town has taken to address the other violations at 20 Old Stone Road.

In January, the Town Assessor’s Office completed an inspection of the property. “The assessed value of the house has been increased and the increase in taxes will be reflected on the upcoming tax role,” read the Town Supervisor’s Office statement. “In addition, the Town will seek to recoup property and school taxes for the previous year.”

The Town Building Inspector issued a violation to the property owner on Jan. 21, 2021 for not obtaining a permit for the second floor addition to the property. “As of April 6, 2021 the Building Inspector has withheld the issuance of a building permit pending review of the owner’s architectural plans which were received today (April 6th),” read the town’s statement.

“Why are you granting a permit for something he did as part of the illegal action?” said Baum in response to the anticipated legalization of the property. “It makes no sense.”

Clarkstown officials also ordered the property owner to demolish the wall which they had constructed near the home, after a survey of the parcel conducted on March 19 noted that the gate rested on town property.

The wall built on town property was demolished following a town inspection in March

“Once the survey was done, it became very clear how much land was taken over and how much land was damaged,” said Baum.

“The property owner recently submitted a proposed landscape plan to the Department of Engineering and Facilities management for review,” according to the Town Supervisor’s Office.

Baum has criticized the town’s response and said he does not think the town took enough action up until recently, which he believes would have prevented further damage.

“Yes, they did start doing some things, but they only did things after extensive efforts and research on my part, which should have been done by the town, starting back in October,” said Baum. “It needs to be out in public, and we need to have presentations of what the options are for the restoration to get the best results possible.”

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