Berne homeowner threatens to sue town for lack of response to neighbor’s junk

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider
A homeowner on Woodstock Road is threatening legal action against the town of Berne for not prosecuting his neighbor for code violations.

BERNE — Thomas Crary says he can’t sell his home for what it’s worth because his neighbor’s refuse has devalued his property. He told the Berne Town Board he will sue the town for not enforcing its code.

Crary spoke at the Jan. 9 meeting about his property at 22 West Woodstock Road.

Crary had previously addressed the board about his neighbors’ property at its August meeting last year, saying he first tried to sell his property five years ago because of a family emergency and was “lowballed.”

“In four years, there’s been no progress,” he said at that meeting.

“There’s definitely code violations,” Building Inspector Chance Townsend told The Enterprise this week, but he added that many homes in the Hilltowns have similar violations.

Townsend said that his 30 hours a week don’t allow him enough time to keep up with a backlog of complaints and well as current citations and building permits.

The Enterprise could not reach the owners of the property at 37 West Woodstock Road by phone and so visited the property, leaving a note with a request to call, but got no response.

Crary told The Enterprise on Jan. 16 that he would like to ask the town to reimburse him for the difference between the amount offered for his house and its appraised value 0f $260,000. He said he will not try to sell his home until he settles on something with the town.

“I don’t want to go through any of that … ,” he said, of seeking legal action. “I just want it to be fair.”

Looking to move to Florida for warmer weather, Crary, who is 64, said he put his home on the market for $240,000. Visitors to an open house put in offers around $160,000 and noted the neighboring property as part of the reason for the low offers, said Crary.

Supervisor Sean Lyons told The Enterprise on Jan. 12 that the town had last cited the property in 2017. He said he has since sent Townsend to investigate the property.

Crary told The Enterprise on Jan. 16 that he had not been contacted by either Lyons or Townsend since he spoke at the town board meeting on Jan. 9, or when he spoke at town hall before that, in October 2018.

Townsend said on Wednesday that the supervisor had spoken with him after the Jan. 9 meeting, and he intends to visit the property. But the building inspector said he was not sure when he would visit the property given his current workload.

Crary told The Enterprise that he bought his property 25 years ago and built his house there five years later. The neighboring property at 37 West Woodstock Road is 300 yards above his driveway, across the street to the right. The previous property owner kept the property in good condition, but those who inherited it let it fall into poor condition, he said.

In 1999, he and Virginia Crary obtained six acres of property off of Woodstock and Switzkill Road, according to Albany County records. In 2000, Thomas Crary solely obtained a mortgage of $162,000. The property, which currently is listed only under his name and an address at 22 West Woodstock Road, has a full-market value of $211,111.

In 2013, Melanie and Rudy Stempel inherited two-thirds interest of the property at 37 West Woodstock Road from Melanie Stempel’s deceased father, John Bushnell; Heather Schwenk inherited one-third interest, according to Albany County records. However, town assessment rolls list only the Stempels as the property owners. Crary said the Stempels live on the property with their son. The property was bought with $25,000 in cash and a $25,000 mortgage. The property, which is listed on assessment rolls as 39 West Woodstock Road, currently has a full-market value of $128,730.

The front yard of the Stempels’ property, visible from the road, has vehicles including a recreational vehicle, golf cart, and horse trailer in the front yard, as well as interior furniture and construction materials. Crary said that these vehicles, including trailers and motorcycles, are unregistered. Unregistered vehicles are not allowed to be kept in a front yard for over 45 days, according to Berne’s town code.

Crary said he first filed a complaint about his neighbors over five years ago. He said he has since dealt with three different building inspectors, including Townsend.

The town’s building code states the code-enforcement officer is authorized to order in writing that a violation of a building code or town code be fixed. The written order, known as the compliance order, is to include a period of time to remedy the issue.

The officer is also authorized to issue appearance tickets. Those who violate the compliance order are subject to a fee of no more than $200 per each day the violation continues. A court order may be obtained to issue the correction as well.

Crary said that he approached Townsend after he was first appointed in January 2018 to ask if he would need to issue a new complaint about his neighbors. He said Townsend told him he didn’t need to and that he was familiar with the situation.

But he still didn’t get a response, Crary said, and so he went to a town board meeting in August to address the issue. At the August meeting, Townsend said he was new to the position and still receiving training and “sorting out the past.”

“You are on that list,” Townsend said at that meeting. “And we’re developing a system to try to deal with this … it’s got to be a very detailed process … .”

Townsend said then that the property owners had been cited in the past but not by himself.

On Wednesday, Townsend told The Enterprise that the West Woodstock Road property is an ongoing issue “five or more years in the making.”

Townsend said that the two previous building inspectors had visited the property and had notes about violations. Although he is not sure if a citation was made, he said the issue seemed to have been resolved at one point after the owners brought items that had been on their property to the town transfer station, but that it appears the owners later moved things like trailers onto their property.

Townsend said he intends to visit the West Woodstock Road property but said he is not sure when, due to his workload. His position, he said, needs more hours, more staff, and better tools.

His part-time position initially had him working about 15 hours per week, but that was changed to 35-hour weeks in July, and then this year set at 30 hours per week. In addition to working with the planning and zoning boards, Townsend said he also has too much on his roster. According to the yearly report received from an Enterprise Freedom of Information Law request, over the course of the 2018 year, the building inspector had to handle a total of 63 permits of several different varieties, historic reviews, and variances.

Other issues still unresolved are 10 to 15 years old, he said. Townsend also said he is trying to update the current system of issuing permits and other tasks to make it more efficient.

He said he would have to review the previous incidents recorded by the other building inspectors before addressing the issue.

Crary told The Enterprise he had hoped to have the problem addressed over the fall and winter before the prime time to sell homes begins in the spring.

“I have a lot of faith in local government, but after five years my patience is wearing thin,” he said.

At the January meeting, Crary read three pages of a prepared speech and also provided a video to the town board members before the meeting. The video shows a view of the property while driving past, and includes shots of a mobile home, the house, trailers, and other items in the front yard.

“When I left that building, I said to myself, ‘That was a total waste of time,’” Crary told The Enterprise. But Crary said that he was pleasantly surprised that people contacted him after the Jan. 9 town board meeting about lawyers he could contact. Council members Dawn Jordan and Karen Schimmer also visited the property.

More Hilltowns News

  • Over his nine-plus years as Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s superintendent, Timothy Mundell has led the district through significant challenges, helping to establish a much stronger foundation for the next superintendent than he had coming in. 

  • Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s proposed budget, with a 5.09 percent tax increase that required it to be passed with a 60-percent approval rate, failed to reach that threshold by a mere eight votes. The district will have to decide whether to have residents vote on a new budget in June, or move directly to a contingency budget. 

  • “Farm life requires a level of discipline and common sense,” Garry told The Enterprise when she was appointed to the Appellate Division. “From my father I got a love of people that’s been really helpful to me.”

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