Fletcher Road a ‘very hot spot’: Expanded driveway leads to lawsuit

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

The driveway of 15 Fletcher Rd., in the foreground, was empty midday on Wednesday, while the driveway next door, at 11 Fletcher, held a black trailer and a white car. Two parking pads are visible across the street, at the far right.

GUILDERLAND — On Fletcher Road in Westmere — an older area of town where most houses were built after World War II when households typically had one car and driveways are not as long as they are in some newer parts of town — many residents have made L-shaped additions onto their driveways, to park more cars off the road.

One such parking pad has given rise to a lawsuit.

Christine Duffy and Owen Duffy of 15 Fletcher Rd. are suing next-door neighbors Kellie Baldwin and James Baldwin in Albany County Supreme Court, stating in their complaint that the Baldwins have “intentionally … and/or recklessly” created conditions that interfere with the safe and quiet enjoyment of their home and are a private and public nuisance, creating a safety issue for pedestrians or vehicles going in or out of the Duffys’ driveway, as well as creating unsightly conditions and altering the character of the residential neighborhood.

Kellie Baldwin told The Enterprise that she has moved out of the home where her family has lived for 25 years, and will not be able to pass it on to her son, because of the dispute.

Baldwin said there is no permit on file for her driveway expansion, but that it has been approved by the town.

She said that Christine Duffy’s concerns extend far beyond the driveway: “It’s everything on my property, it’s, ‘Cut down this tree,’ it’s ‘Do this,’ ‘Do that.’”

Christine Duffy said she cannot comment on litigation but she has written a letter to the Enterprise editor this week, alluding to the problem. Duffy’s attorney, William J. Better of Kinderhook, said through a secretary that he was declining to comment.

Highway Superintendent Gregory Wier said of Fletcher Road and its many expanded driveways, “For some reason, and I don’t know why, that’s a very hot spot.”

“I do know there are several situations out there where people never got permission and they’ve been there for years and years now, and I’m not going to go there and tell them to remove them,” he said of the expanded driveways.

If owners expanded their driveway because they have three or four cars, Wier said, it stands to reason that, if the driveway space were to be reduced, at least some of those cars would then be parked in the street.

“I’d rather have them parked off the street,” Wier said.

When he visited the Fletcher Road, Wier said, he had found that there were about 20 houses along the stretch from Dresden Court to Route 20, and 13 of them had expanded driveways, he recalled. This is the stretch that includes the Duffy and Baldwin properties.

He does not want to be the “the car police in the town of Guilderland,” Wier said, and tell people that they can only have, for instance, “1.2 cars per household.”

When asked why the town didn’t enforce its own codes, rather than waiting for residents to turn in offending neighbors, Wier said that the town doesn’t have an employee whose job it is patrol for violations.

Several other town officials — Supervisor Peter Barber, Chief Building and Zoning Inspector Jacqueline Coons, and Deputy Chief of Police Curtis Cox — said that they could not comment on matters related to Christine Duffy and referred The Enterprise to the town attorney.

The suit

Specifically, the Duffys allege in their court filings that the Baldwins have:

— Excavated and paved over a substantial portion of their front yard, without a permit and within the required front-yard setback of 35 feet to the neighboring property line, to create an illegal parking lot/driveway, blocking the line of sight into and out of the Duffys’ driveway;

— Parked vehicles within the 35-foot front-yard setback, blocking the line of sight; and

— Parked and stored large trucks at their property, blocking the line of sight and creating noise, exhaust, light pollution, and the appearance of a business in a residential district;

The complaint says that, when the Duffys purchased their home in 2013, the next-door neighbors had a driveway for two vehicles and a yard; the Duffys had unobstructed sightlines into and out of their driveway.

In or around 2015, the Duffys claim, the Baldwins excavated — “and upon information and belief without applying for a permit from the Town” — a substantial portion of their front yard abutting Fletcher Road, paved over the area with asphalt, and constructed a brick retaining wall, creating an illegal parking lot for three to four cars in their front yard, within the required 35-foot front-yard setback, and causing more of their lot to be covered by impervious surface than the town code allows.

The attorney for the Baldwins, Philip A. Wellner of Hillsdale, in Columbia County, said this week that all motions have been submitted to the judge and it’s now up to the judge if he will hear one or both of the Duffys’ claims — of the creation of a public or a private nuisance.

The Baldwins’ motion to dismiss argues that there has been no public nuisance because the Baldwin’s vehicles have never blocked Fletcher Road, and there have never been any accidents, and the Duffys do not specify what danger is caused to “all persons traveling on Fletcher Road” as a result of the ways cars are parked on the Baldwin property.

The memorandum of law also says the claim of private nuisance should be dismissed, because the allegations “do not rise to the level of being substantial in nature, unreasonable in character, or that they actually interfered with Plaintiffs’ use and enjoyment of their land.”

“If the case is not dismissed, my clients will be filing a counterclaim against the Duffys for intentional infliction of emotional distress,” Wellner said.

Wellner said Duffy has engaged for “months and months” in behavior that includes a “barrage of police calls” and a “barrage of complaints to the town code-enforcement officer.”

Wellner said that the Baldwins have gotten the required permission from the town for whatever needed approval. The driveway was done using the correct procedures, he said.

Building department’s view on right-of-way

Coons said that the building department has jurisdiction only over what is done within the property lines and not over what happens in the highway right-of-way.

She said that there is a lot coverage limitation. “There’s a certain amount of green space that has to be maintained,” but that that only applies to land located within the property lines.

Coons said she did not know if there is a permitting process required for building a parking pad within the highway right-of-way.

The size of the highway right-of-way varies depending on the road, Coons said. The road itself is within the right-of-way.

On new roads, the right-of-way is 60 feet wide; on older roads, it was “not quite that wide,” she said. Some old roads measured the right-of-way in rods, she said, adding, “A three-rod road was like 55 feet and a third of a foot, or something.” State roads are “a whole different thing,” she said.

When a right-of-way is 60 feet, it extends 30 feet in either direction from the center of the right-of-way, but the center is not always in the center of the road, she explained, so a survey would tell precisely where property lines end.

Most people who put in sprinkler systems sign a waiver with the water department, Coons said; the waiver states that they are aware that part of their system might be within the right-of-way.

“Most people end up with a few [sprinkler] heads out in the right-of-way, to get coverage,” she said, noting that the majority of people maintain their lawns within the right-of-way.

Highway department’s view

People who want to extend their driveways need to fill out a curb cut/driveway permit form, said Wier.

“If you’re going to be doing an extension on your driveway,” Wier said, “what we like to see is the entrance of the driveway would get wider.”

When the highway department receives that form, Wier said, “We go out to see, does it affect sight distance? Does it fit? Does it work for the area?”

Wier said he visited Duffy’s house, backed into her driveway, and looked out to the left to gauge the sight line. He said he did not have a problem. He noted that there were only a car or two parked next door at that time and said that the sight line might be worse at a different hour, if there were three or four cars parked there.

The way the cars are parked at 11 Fletcher Rd. right now, Wier said, they’re off the road. “So if you think you have trouble now, with the cars parked off the road, you’re going to have half again as many problems, with the cars in the road,” he explained.

If he had to tell all of the homeowners with expanded driveways on that street to tear them out, at their own expense, he asked “How many of those people are going to be mad at me?”

The New York State Department of Transportation’s press office was asked if there are any regulations in the state’s Vehicle and Traffic Law about the number of vehicles that can be kept in a residential driveway, or if there is any proscription against paving over parts of lawn for additional parking, or against doing so if it obstructs sight lines.

Stephen A. Allocco, Assistant to the Regional Director of the New York State Department of Transportation, Region 1, responded in an email, “Our traffic people confirmed that there is nothing in the VTL [Vehicle and Traffic Law] covering these items, and agreed that local land-use regulations would be more likely sources of any applicable rules of this sort.”

Water department’s view

Timothy McIntyre, superintendent of the town’s water/wastewater department, said that his department has jurisdiction over a right-of-way “only where it pertains to easements for water lines or sewer lines.”

He said that, if people want to put in a fence or other object in the right-of-way, “We just want to be aware of it.”

He added, “That doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to do it, but we have to be able to take it out and not put it back.”

He said that, if fixing someone’s sprinkler system after accessing lines is a simple matter of putting on a couple of clamps, his department will do that, but that the waiver will cover the department if it has needed, for instance, to tear up half of a property-owner’s sprinkler system.

McIntyre noted that driveways cross water lines.

“Believe me, if there’s a water break, we’ll move your driveway,” he said.

Driveways are treated differently than optional items like sprinkler systems.

The department will replace a driveway, McIntyre said, “to where it was.”

Most permits for swimming pools come to his department from the building department, he said, to make sure that construction would not impact any water lines running through the property.

In that case, he said, rather than possibly tearing up a pool later, the department would rather clarify where lines are, so the pool location can be shifted.

“We want to make sure that doesn’t happen, before it happens,” McIntyre said. “You don’t want to get things too close to where, if something happens, it’s just mass destruction.”

Police view

Cox did say, “We have been dealing with Miss Duffy for quite a while, and we’ve been trying to resolve the issues that she has with the neighbors,” before adding that he has been instructed to refer people to the town attorney.

“He’s the town attorney, and because of the nature of the situation there, we just have to let him handle it,” Cox said.

Cox was asked how the police handle frequent calls related to neighbor disputes.

They take each call as it comes and consider each one carefully, he said.

“If it constitutes a crime, we’d be obligated to look into it,” he said. “When there’s any kind of call, we always evaluate it and make a decision,” he said.

If there were an emergency, the police would absolutely respond immediately, he said.

“If it’s a complaint, it depends on the nature of the complaint. If it’s a criminal matter, we certainly will look into it. If it’s not, we don’t, but we try to refer it to the right people.”

In this particular case, Cox said, “There have been so many calls and so many different types of complaints that we’re letting the town attorney handle it.”

Town Attorney James Melita said that he is now copied on all complaints from Christine Duffy, and that those complaints often raise legal issues.

“I look at every complaint,” he said, noting that they are often matters that the town has no jurisdiction over. He gave the example of a time when he says Duffy asked him to issue a restraining order against a neighbor.

Other items in the right-of-way

Wier mentioned that homeowners are also asked to sign waivers when they want to put up permanent structures in the right-of-way like “fancy mailboxes with brick.” Wier said the town needs to make sure people know that if a snow plow hits their $3,000 mailbox and knocks it down, the town will replace it, but only with a standard post and a standard mailbox.

Waiver aside, most people still want us to pay for their fancy mailboxes, Wier said.

Another problem is basketball nets left in the road near the end of driveways, Wier said. PIn winter, if residents don’t bring them inside and they get frozen in, then it’s up to the plows to try to avoid them.

Requests for fences along the front of a property are likely to be denied, Wier said. “If you want a fence, chances are I’m going to deny it,” he said, “because we know that when we plow, we’re going to break it.”

Joined: 06/22/2017 - 10:34
Neighbors from Hell

I really feel bad for the Baldwin's. Sometimes it's luck of the draw and you get neighbors from hell.

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