Cease-and-desist orders did not stop tree-cutting for proposed development

— From Prime Capital Development submittal to the town of Guilderland

Despite a cease-and-desist order, trees have been cut to make way for this proposed 41-lot subdivision off of Route 146 on the outskirts of Altamont.

GUILDERLAND — Trees have been illegally cut to make way for a proposed 41-lot subdivision on 159 acres off of Route 146 on the outskirts of Altamont.

On Tuesday, the Guilderland Town Board authorized the town attorney to “seek injunctive relief,” issuing a restraining order, and to have the planning board suspend review of the proposed subdivision.

Guilderland’s town planner, Ken Kovalchik, and the town’s chief building and zoning inspector, Jacqueline Coons, “became aware of the tree-cutting” “just before Christmas,” Supervisor Peter Barber told The Enterprise on Friday.

They then issued cease-and-desist orders, which, he said, were ignored.

So on Friday, Dec. 30, Barber said, a third cease-and-desist order was being served personally to:

— The property’s owner, the Dorothy Friedlander estate, in Saratoga County;

— The applicant for the subdivision, Jason Zappia, in Schenectady County; and

— The logging company felling the trees, Savoie Logging and Contracting, based in Fultonville, in Montgomery County.

“We’re keeping the DEC informed,” said Barber of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. “The DEC is letting the town take the lead.”

The Enterprise obtained copies of the orders. The first cease-and-desist order was issued to Zappia and Joseph Bianchine, who works for ABD Engineers, on Nov. 17, and was signed by Coons and Kovalchik. The second, also issued to Zappia and Bianchine, and also signed by Coons and Kovalchik, was issued on Dec. 15.

While the first order prohibited “any tree cutting” on the proposed subdivision property pending planning board review, the second order noted four potential violations of both town and state regulations.

The third cease-and desist order, issued on Dec. 30, names Bianchine as the “Applicant Engineer” as well as the three entities named by Barber.

The order lists the same four potential violations as the second order and notes, “On December 29, 2022, the Town became aware the contract with the logging company … is with Richard Friedlander and not Jason Zappia.” Richard is the son of the late Dorothy Friedlander, who owned the land.

Neither Zappia nor Richard Friedlander could be reached for comment.

The state regulation that the tree-cutting may violate says, “A project sponsor may not commence any physical alteration related to an action until the provisions of SEQR have been complied with.” SEQR is the State Environmental Quality Review process.

The three town subdivision regulations that the tree-cutting may be in violation of include: removing features, such as trees, that would add value to a residential development; removing more trees than necessary to make construction feasible while all other vegetation is to be left in place; and stripping more than 25 percent of its cover from an approved plat.

Asked how the order would be enforced, Barber said that two earlier cease-and-desist orders may not have been personally served but they would be on Friday although it could take some time since the three parties are located in three different counties outside of Albany County.

If Friday’s order is violated, he said, a police officer or DEC officer could be sent to enforce it, perhaps issuing a ticket.

If an applicant violates town rules and regulations, it “will haunt” them during the approval process, Barber said.

Prime Capital Development is proposing a 41-lot conservation subdivision on 159 acres largely off of Route 146 but mostly accessible from Gun Club Road with 36 of the homes accessible from Gun Club Road and the remaining five to be accessed from Armstrong Drive, which would see a now-dead end between 19 and 21 Armstrong turned into a five-home cul-de-sac. 

Neighbors showed up in December at a Guilderland Conservation Advisory Council meeting to voice objections to the proposal.

Barber told The Enterprise on Friday that the DEC had changed its regulations since Pyramid, owner of Crossgates Mall, clear-cut trees to make way for a Costco Wholesale store.

In March 2020, Pyramid clear-cut 8 acres of trees at the corner of Western Avenue and Crossgates Mall Road, sparking immediate protests from residents.

A federal lawsuit then claimed the clear-cutting violated the federal Clean Water and Endangered Species acts as well as the state’s Environmental Quality Review Act. Ultimately, the lawsuit, like two that followed, was unsuccessful in stopping Pyramid’s plans for the area.

Since the stumps stayed in the ground after the trees were felled in March 2020, the state did not consider the site as having been disturbed. Coons contacted the DEC, Barber told The Enterprise at the time, and was told tree-cutting is not a physical alteration of the land and therefore not illegal.

Barber reiterated this week that, in 2020, clear-cutting had been allowed by the DEC as long as the stumps stayed in place but said the regulation on what constitutes land disturbance had since been changed.

The last time The Enterprise wrote about the issue, in September 2022, the DEC said, “DEC has not made any recent regulatory changes regarding tree-clearing or revisions to DEC’s definition of land disturbance.”

However, in the meantime, Guilderland on Dec. 6 passed its own law that prohibits clear-cutting of one acre or more unless that was part of an approved permit or site plan — or sustainable forestry practice.

Barber on Friday said the town’s new law would apply to the Prime Capital Development project but said it would “not add new ammunition” to the regulations already in place.

Town regulations are set up, he said, so that developers preserve the status quo as an application is going through the approval process.


Neighbors react

Ken McIver, who lives at 19 Armstrong, said that on Thursday there was “a tremendous amount of activity” near his home.

“You could hear not only the saws but you could hear them driving wedges — these were good-sized trees — and then you’d hear the trees crashing to the ground.” A neighbor estimated 25 to 30 trees were felled this way, McIver said.

He has also seen pictures of trees felled near the Gun Club Road side of the proposed development. “They’re not saplings,” he said, noting the stacked trees were a foot or more in diameter.

“I have very strong feelings,” said McIver. “It seems the person in charge of this project is flying loose … He’s been ordered to stop a couple of times and he hasn’t.”

Ellen Root, at 17 Armstrong, heard the same terrifying noises on Thursday, which she believes were the felling of big old oak trees.

“We are so upset,” she said of herself, her husband, Bill, and other neighbors who have stayed in touch through text chats.

“We’d hear the saw, and then bang, bang, bang — the wedge — and then ca-boom! The tree was down. And then we’d hear it again and again — sometimes more than one saw.”

Root said she first started hearing trees being cut in early November and shared with The Enterprise a drone video of the area that was taken before Thanksgiving. The first cease-and-desist order was issued then, she said.

On Dec. 15, Root said, Timothy McIntyre, superintendent of water and wastewater for the town, visited the property and after that a second cease-and-desist order was issued, Root said.

The Conservation Advisory Council had planned to walk the land for the proposed development on Saturday, Dec. 17, but a snowstorm prevented that outing, Root said.

On Tuesday, Dec. 27, Root heard more logging, and then again on Thursday, Dec. 29, when she heard still more logging, starting at 8 a.m., she called McIntyre again since he had been responsive.

Root tried calling various town and village officials on Thursday who were either away for the holiday, or said they couldn’t do anything, or, in the case of the village, said it was out of their jurisdiction, Root said. 

Finally, at about 4 p.m. on Thursday, she said, someone from the DEC told the loggers to stop.

Root later sent The Enterprise an email with information she had received from the DEC on Friday afternoon, saying the DEC’s Division of Water has decided to issue a Notice of Violation to the parties involved for not receiving Construction Stormwater General Permit coverage prior to commencing work at the Gun Club Road site. 

More Guilderland News

  • Guilderland is on the cusp of forming a District Facilities Committee to map out the district’s next capital project. It will dovetail with work currently underway by a Future Ready Task Force.

  • “This means a great deal to not only this community, but my family as well,” said Councilwoman Amanda Beedle on flying the pride flag. She said she had brought the matter to the board because she wanted “to show that this town is very open and inclusive and welcoming to all.”

  • The May 17 petition filed by Cuyler Court residents William and Colleen Anders claims that, in July 2023, the town’s use of heavy equipment to access “stormwater or water management facilities” caused damage to their driveway and yard, which when combined with Guilderland’s “negligence and failure to maintain certain components” of those facilities, led to “significant flooding” of the Anders’ basement six months later. 

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.