Farms among bidders for conserving land

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Abandoned: Small trees and weeds cover the ground where a parcel foreclosed upon by the county meets Beaver Road in Berne. The property has been abandoned for more than 10 years and had delinquent taxes. It has been withdrawn from auctions in the past for possible conveyance to the state, but it is now up for a sealed-bid auction this month. The property was previously in the name of Joseph and Marion Santoli, and Ronald and Francine Hoffman.

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Crosby Farm, a historic property in the higher elevations of the Helderberg escarpment, is now operated by Timothy Lippert, the town’s building inspector. Lippert has been honored for his holistic management practices, a point made in letters of support from conservation groups for Lippert’s bid to purchase a county-owned piece of land this summer.

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Dancing Dreams is the horse farm run by Virginia Romero on property situated between unpaved roads in Berne. Bordering two sides of her land is an L-shaped parcel up for auction, which she hopes to buy to expand her farm and use animals for therapeutic purposes. She hopes the land would provide a buffer between her activities and hunting in the state preserve nearby.

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Saltbox: The structure that Berne’s building inspector has recommended for demolition is supported by large wooden beams underneath, evidence of foundation work in progress that was interrupted when the town reviewed and eventually denied a building permit and the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation inspected the property in response to complaints. The DEC concluded that, because the site was being graded for agricultural purposes and no water quality violations were made, the project did not need a permit from the state for construction activity, and rescinded the notice of violation.

Much interest has been shown in the L-shaped property, fronting Beaver Road in Berne. The 42.5-acre parcel, numbered 4.31 on this map that is part of a county file, is outlined, looking rather like a backward P. The vacant land is assessed for $40,600 with a full market value of $60, 597.

BERNE — One of the neighbors and potential bidders for a foreclosed property near a state preserve is the town’s building inspector, who was recently accused of trying to devalue an adjoining parcel.

Timothy Lippert is seeking to expand his farm for grass-fed beef through the Albany County foreclosure auction, according to letters in the county's property folder sent by his attorney, Aline Galgay.

Galgay also sent a letter on behalf of an unnamed client offering to buy 15 acres just north of the county-owned parcel in May 2013, around the same time that Lippert, as building inspector, recommended a saltbox there for demolition. The owner of the saltbox property, Donald Stamm, believes the client was Scott Green, who lives with Lippert. Galgay is also the town attorney for Westerlo.

The county-owned property up for auction is listed on the Berne tax roll as 42.5 acres of vacant land assessed for $40,600, with a full market value of $60,597. The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation was interested in buying the property to become part of the adjacent swath of state land, but e-mails from county officials indicate it wasn’t conveyed due to a lack of state funds.

The state’s original offer of $68,000 to buy the county-owned parcel is the minimum bid for the auction listing. The bidder is also limited by a conservation easement, requiring the property be used only for agriculture or preservation.

Sealed bids are due to Albany County on May 15 and, as is typical with county foreclosure auctions, are subject to approval by the legislature and the county executive with closing expected in August. Galgay sent a letter of interest for Lippert to Daniel McCoy, the county executive, in May 2012, and forwarded letters of support from Jill S. Knapp, then the executive director of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, and Katie Stone, land projects manager and assistant counsel at The Open Space Institute.

“I’ve known Tim for about a decade and for a number of those years worked with him when we were both active in the affairs and efforts of the Columbia-Greene Chapter of Trout Unlimited, efforts devoted to conservation and preservation of the cold water resources in the area,” John A. La Rocca wrote in a letter for Lippert.

In addition to Lippert’s letters of support, letters expressing interest in the property were sent to McCoy by John E. Swift and Virginia Romero, a property owner adjacent to the county-owned parcel.

Galgay wrote about the public benefits that Lippert’s ownership would serve.

 “Before purchasing his farm on Bradt Hollow Road in Berne four years ago, he was a sixteen-year resident of the Town of Rensselaerville,” Galgay wrote. “Mr. Lippert has been active in open space conservation of and sustainable agriculture in the Hilltowns, and believes that his proposed use of the land comports with the intended use by the State of New York for which Albany County had agreed to sell the county parcel.”

Lippert was awarded an Agricultural Environmental Management road sign from the Albany County Soil and Water Conservation District in August of 2013. He hosts educational seminars with a representative from Cornell Cooperative Extension and bird watching tours on his land.

Galgay wrote that Lippert intends to use the property for grazing his cattle, abiding by established environmental standards, continuing to allow guided bird walks from the nearby Huyck Preserve, and entering into a conservation easement for open space on the land.

Galgay notes in her letter that the comprehensive plan for Rensselaerville shows the county-owned parcel is on the edge of the watershed for Lake Myosotis, the water source for the Rensselaerville hamlet.

Lippert and Galgay did not return phone calls on Wednesday.

Virginia Romero said she has been interested in owning the 42.5-acre L-shaped parcel, which surrounds her property on two sides, in order to expand her Dancing Dreams horse farm, where she said her horses now graze on her front lawn. Horse owners board their animals at the farm and Romero holds training clinics. With more land, she hopes to host therapy sessions for autistic children and veterans, as well as their families. She said she does not run her farm for income.

“I really have a love of the land and I have a love of the land the way it is,” Romero told The Enterprise. “Hunting happens all around me. If I had that insulation there, I could bring kids there.”

In a letter sent to McCoy in December 2012, Romero wrote that she was interested in buying the property and that she had suggested to Lippert that they split the land. She wrote that she had asked him, then a Berne planning board member, to investigate its status and he answered that it was owned by the state.

“The second week of December, 2012, Mr. Lippert began brush hogging the land and told me he had bought it,” Romero wrote, in a letter to McCoy which was included in the county’s file on the property. “I was upset that he had given me misinformation when he told me that the state owned the land which he maintains he believed at the time. Even if this was true, he was aware he never corrected the mistake, and had worked to acquire the property for himself. He stated he was not responsible for looking out for other people, which, of course, is true, but to me, in this case, ethically questionable.”

In e-mails kept in the property’s file, county officials wrote that Lippert didn’t own the land and that they had subsequently called Lippert, who agreed to stay off of the property.

This week, Romero told The Enterprise she recently received a call from Galgay proposing she and Lippert agree to split the property, so they could ask the county to remove the parcel from public auction. Romero said she didn’t agree and wants to go through the bidding process.

“There are several individuals that have shown an interest in that property, so it would be best that it goes to auction,” said Frank Commisso, the Democratic majority leader in the Albany County legislature, who spoke with Galgay. “It certainly is something that would be bid on and, when that’s finalized, the outcome will be that it could also be withdrawn for a later auction…but that wouldn’t be up to me, that would be up to Real Property or the county attorney.”

Stamm, who lives in West Virginia and owns the adjacent property with the saltbox, said he hasn’t corresponded with town officials any further since a building permit for the old home on his Beaver Road property was denied in November 2013.

Galgay sent Stamm a letter inquiring about the possible sale of his property in 2013, asking if he would be interested in selling his 15 acres, which share the northern border of the county-owned parcel up for auction. Stamm said he was told by Galgay’s secretary that Scott Green was the client interested in his property for a hunting camp.

When asked to confirm, Galgay’s secretary told The Enterprise she does not speak about private clients.

Lippert said in April that “Scott Green” is a common name and that he doesn’t know anyone trying to buy Stamm’s property. He lives with a man named Scott Green on his farm less than a mile from the county-owned parcel and Stamm’s property.

This week, Stamm said he is willing to sell his property, which has a $52,239 full market value on the tax roll, for $120,000.

Lippert defended his denial of the building permit, saying that the saltbox was required to follow the state’s building code and have potable water and electricity, which it lacked. He also described it as a liability to the town by inviting vandals. Stamm said he intends to use the property for agricultural storage for Martin Tessarzik, a friend and beef farmer who cleared the land for grazing his cattle.

As Berne’s building inspector, Lippert sent a notice to Stamm that a permit was required for grading and foundation repairs the saltbox on Beaver Road in 2013. A notice of violation sent to Stamm from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation was rescinded that same year because the work was being done for agricultural activities, a follow-up letter from DEC states, and because no water quality violations were observed. The notice and recession were also sent to Lippert. 

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