Pine Street residents upset with NYSDOT ‘scorched-earth’ maintenance methods

The Enterprise — Sean Mulkerrin

“Scorched-earth policy” is how a Pine Street resident described DOT maintenance of the one-time grass strip between the department’s fence and Pine Street.

VOORHEESVILLE — James Porter and his Voorheesville neighbors had asked the New York State Department of Transportation to maintain a tiny portion of its property near their homes. 

The Pine Street residents’ request was rewarded with a front-porch view of what looks like blow-torched vegetation. 

Recently, Porter, who has lived on Pine Street for 32 years, has had issues with the department — its garage is located across the street from his home — but, at the July 27 board of trustees meeting, he wanted to focus on just one.

Porter said he called at the end of May to ask that the DOT mow the narrow strip of land — no more than 370 feet long, using Albany County’s Interactive Mapping tool, and approximately 8 to 10 feet wide, by eyeball — on Pine Street between the DOT fence and the road. The strip is across the street from the last four houses on Pine Street nearest to Route 85 and across from Hannaford Plaza.

Porter said he never had a problem with getting the DOT to mow the front of the highway garage, but getting the department to take care of the narrow strip along Pine Street has been a struggle. 

After calling in May, Porter said he called again around July 12 to see if the DOT would mow along Pine Street, and said a neighbor followed up the next day.

Porter then had to go out of town for a while.

“I don’t know if they were annoyed or what,” Porter said, but when he got back it looked like the area had been laid waste with Agent Orange; everything was brown and dead, he said.

“All the foliage is wiped out,” he said.

Another neighbor called it a “scorched-earth policy,” he said; some else said it looked like a wildfire had made its way through the area. 

“It’s startling,” said Trustee Jack Stevens. “It’s almost like napalm; everything is brown.”

“It almost looks like there was a fire, it’s that well — it’s down to almost the bare earth,” Stevens said. 

“There was no advance notice,” Porter said. “And I’d like to consider us neighbors to them.”

Porter said that part of the road is a popular walking spot. 

No signs or placards were put up notifying neighbors that the area was going to be sprayed, he said, or what type of pesticide or herbicide was used to kill the grass, bushes, and parts of trees. 

“I’d like to know what they used,” he said.

The tall, dead grass wasn’t going to be cut until his neighbor called about it, Porter said. 

Porter said his wife read that there is a type of herbicide that will no longer be able to be used after December. “So I’m thinking it must be like Roundup on steroids or something,” he said.

Legislation passed in 2020 was signed into law in 2021 that banned the use of glyphosate — a weedkiller at the center of tens-of-thousands of claims and lawsuits whose damages could run in billions of dollars — on state property. 

Porter said he spoke with the village’s Public Works Department Superintendent Brett Hotaling about the situation. “And I guess [the state DOT] say they’re not responsible for that property,” he said. “Well, if they’re not responsible then why did they destroy whatever was growing there?”

On Albany County tax maps, the narrow strip of DOT property running along Pine Street is shown as being in the village; however, most of the state’s garage is in the town of New Scotland. But the tax map shows DOT as owning the entire property.

Village attorney Rich Reilly said he did some initial research into the situation.

What Reilly found was the DOT’s Environmental Handbook for Transportation Operations. “It looks like it really governs their activities on state roads, as opposed to their property that isn’t necessarily on state roads,” Reilly said.

Reilly said the handbook talks about herbicides and that their usage is generally restricted to controlling vegetation that can’t be mowed like areas around signposts and guardrails. 

Reilly also said that, if herbicides are being used within 100 feet of a dwelling, public building, or public park, DEC regulations require the placing of visual notification during, and for at least 24 hours after, to show that herbicides have been applied to an area. 

“This appears, sort of, at first blush to be applicable,” said Reilly. “So it strikes me that maybe we can prepare a letter to DOT, indicating that the concern’s been brought to our attention. It seems to me to be a conflict with at least their policy on DOT on state roads. And ask if they can clarify what was done.”

The Enterprise sent pictures to DOT spokesman Bryan Viggiani of the Pine Street strip, and asked about the type of herbicide it uses on vegetation; if it has a policy to spray vegetation it doesn’t want to mow; if it typically notifies residents it’s going to be spraying in an area and if it’s required to do so.

In response, The Enterprise received the following:

“The New York State Department of Transportation selectively applies herbicides to enhance motorist safety and visibility as necessary in instances where mechanical control methods would contribute to the spread of invasive species or expose NYSDOT personnel to traffic hazards or injury.

“NYSDOT only uses herbicides that are registered for use by the State Department of Environmental Conservation, and applies the smallest amount necessary to achieve our vegetation management objectives in accordance with State and Federal regulations. Herbicides are applied by appropriately trained and licensed staff using application methods and equipment that allow them to precisely target undesirable vegetation and reduce drift.”

In a separate incident, The Enterprise was notified in April by an Altamont reader that the Korean spice Viburnum had been ripped out by DOT. 

Viburnum’s “most notable characteristic is the intoxicating fragrant white flowers that cover the shrub in spring,” according to one description. It had been planted along the bridge at the intersection of Maple Avenue and where Route 146 turns into Route 397, also known as Western Avenue — not to be confused with Guilderland’s Route 20. 

Lara Stelmaszyk also told The Enterprise the state DOT had been spraying the patch of grass between the creek and Township Road / Western Avenue in Altamont without notice to residents.

More New Scotland News

  • “It would be in line with the town’s hamlet idea,” said developer Ron Kay of his plan for 20 acres along Route 85, across the road from the Stewart’s Shop and in between Stonewell Plaza and the convent-turned-apartments at 1903 New Scotland Road.

  •  “They say 83.28-percent complete,” Councilman William Hennessy said during the Jan. 12 town board meeting of the Hilton Barn’s new slate roof. “Whereas they’re really more like probably 90-percent done.”

  • Voorheesville Mayor Rich Straut said he wasn’t sure why the same state funding was announced again, but surmised it had something to do with the village hitting another threshold in the project, what Straut called “closing on the financing.”

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