Secluded saltbox bane for Berne building inspector
Enterprise file photo — Saranac Hale Spencer
What makes a residence? The makeshift kitchen of Kevin O’Reilly, accused in 2007 of growing marijuana in a secluded saltbox in Berne, is cast in natural light through a new window in the an old structure he apparently lived in, unknown to the out-of-town owner.
BERNE — A 19th-Century saltbox has been recommended for demolition by the town’s building inspector. The property’s owner claims his permit application was improperly denied and demolition recommended so a man living with the building inspector could use the land.
“We get people constantly who think that there’s some ulterior motive,” Supervisor Kevin Crosier said. “The answer is, we follow the regulations and that’s it.”
In a letter sent to town officials and The Enterprise, Donald Stamm, who owns the property, requested the zoning board of appeals review the denial of his permit by Building Inspector Timothy Lippert. Lippert served on planning boards in Rensselaerville and Berne before becoming the Berne building inspector in 2013.
Disagreements with the decisions of the building inspector may be handled on appeals to the zoning board. The board’s chairman, George Christian, declined to comment on Stamm’s letter, sent in December.
“If the structure is a danger, we can have it demolished,” Crosier said of a last resort.
Crosier said he has discussed the situation with the town’s attorney, William Conboy. Conboy told The Enterprise last week, however, that he hadn’t been asked by the town to review the letter.
Stamm wrote that he received a letter from attorney Aline Galgay representing a client who wanted to offer cash for his property on 74 Beaver Road, a 15.5-acre property on a seasonal, dirt road.
Stamm said Galgay’s secretary told him over the phone that her client wanted to use the property as a hunting camp and that his name was Scott Green. When asked for confirmation, Galgay’s secretary said Galgay does not reveal clients’ names.
Scott M. Green and Lippert live on a grass-fed beef farm on Bradt Hollow Road, less than a mile from Stamm’s property. Both Crosier and Lippert said “Scott Green” is a common name. It appears just once in the Albany County voter rolls, for the one at Lippert’s address.
“We spoke to Mr. Lippert, we spoke to his better half, and that’s it, the answer is ‘No, we didn’t do that,’” said Crosier of Lippert and Green colluding to devalue Stamm’s property in order to purchase it at a reduced price.
“I know a Scott Green,” Lippert told The Enterprise. “I don’t know anybody trying to purchase [Mr. Stamm’s] property.”
Lippert described Stamm as a disgruntled property owner who, like others, was trying to skirt the law, which requires structures to adhere to the state’s building code.
Lippert and Crosier urged The Enterprise to “Google” Stamm’s name, which shows he had to forfeit his post as mayor of Salem City in West Virginia in 2012 because the city council claimed he was no longer a Salem City resident and therefore couldn’t hold office.
Stamm acknowledged this and said he is dealing in court with the question of where he is considered a resident, since he owns many properties. He said he has owned the Berne saltbox property since 1994, using it as a weekend camp while he lived in New York City for 15 years.
Crosier said people sometimes try to take a barn or woodshed and convert it into a residential structure without the proper permits.
“They’re looking to circumvent the health department regulations and that’s something we’re concerned about because an illegal septic system could pollute somebody’s groundwater, then somebody gets sick,” said Crosier.
In an April 2013 letter, Lippert told Stamm he needed a building permit for the foundation work his contractor, Martin Tessarzik, was undertaking. Soon after, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation cited Stamm for violating the federal Clean Water Act and state regulations requiring erosion and sediment regulation for excavation of more than one acre of land.
Stamm, however, said that he wanted to use the building only for agricultural storage, not to live in, meaning no water system would be required. He wanted just to shore up the foundation before winter set in. He wrote that he would store feed, salt, fencing supplies, and tools.
The rebuilding of the foundation was needed after water rushing against the house destroyed the dry-stacked stone, Tessarzik told The Enterprise. He said he graded the property so water would drain away from the saltbox. On the permit application, Tessarzik also listed replacing pine floorboards and working on the chimney.
Tessarzik raises beef cattle and small grains in Wright, in Schoharie County. Since 2012, he said, he has kept cattle in Berne, on Woods Road near Stamm’s property, and plans to graze his animals on Stamm’s land.
After Tessarzik submitted an application for a building permit, Lippert sent a letter, in November 2013, in which he denied the permit, writing that the structure had “exceeded its life expectancy and was build without any regard to the NYS Building Code.”
“The structure also lacks any potable water supply or approved sanitary septic system,” Lippert wrote. “The nearest electric utility is two miles away,” He also wrote that the structure is “an invitation to vandals.”
Stamm answered each of these statements at length in his Dec. 13, 2013 letter. He wrote that the saltbox was built before building code, and “has stood there for many generations as a principal residence and farmhouse for untold families”; he estimated the saltbox was built in the mid- to late 1800s.
“I know that were I inclined to restore a residential purpose to this building that I would need an engineered septic system to have a building permit approved.”
Stamm goes on to say he doesn’t need electricity to use the building for storage.
He takes umbrage at the final reason Lippert gave for not approve a permit and recommending “immediate demolition”: “The structure is an invitation to vandals.”
Stamm calls the statement “a harsh and irrational evaluation of properties and structures in a rural environment such as the town of Berne.” He notes many residents leave their homes for months at a time in winter, and those homes are not demolished.
He goes on to say he worked with a DEC staffer in the Division of Water as he cleared the land and with the Forestry Division to establish boundaries.
Responding to Lippert’s claim that demolition is warranted to reduce Berne’s liability, Stamm states that Berne was not held liable when police were busting a pot-growing trespasser on his land and a cop’s hand was wounded.
In 2007, a man living in the old saltbox was arrested for growing marijuana nearby — all apparently without the owner’s knowledge. During the drug bust, an Albany City police officer’s thumb was injured by a stray bullet when a sheriff’s deputy fired at a dog attacking him. Police found a makeshift kitchen and a mattress in the cabin, where the accused pot grower, Kevin O’Reilly, had lived with the dog.