A check Shandaken wishes it never cashed

Above: Former Shandaken town supervisor Peter DiSclafani trades barbs wtih Councilman Jack Jordan and current supervisor Rob Stanley at Monday's town meeting. Video by Julia Reischel.

A dispute over a misguided $2,500 check cashed by the Town of Shandaken three years ago caused fireworks at Monday's Shandaken Town Board as part of the town's ongoing dispute about an illegally large farmstand on Route 28.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, former town supervisor Peter DiSclafani, town board member Jack Jordan and current supervisor Rob Stanley traded accusations of financial improprieties and conflicts-of-interest in the ongoing attempt to legalize Al Higley's Hanover Farms farmstand.

Two weeks ago at a special meeting of the town board, an overwhelming majority of the town residents called on the board to reject a proposal to re-zone Route 28 to accommodate the farmstand, which is much larger than its operating permit allows.

At the meeting this Monday, DiSclafani first upbraided Stanley for telling the Watershed Post and the Woodstock Times that a $2,500 check that DiSclafani accepted in 2008 on behalf of the town from Higley, the owner of the controversial Hanover Farms farmstand, was part of "a deal that was struck" regarding the farmstand's legality.

"I never told the zoning officer to rescind a citation [against the farmstand]," DiSclafani told Stanely.

"That's your word against hers," Stanley responded.

"There wasn't an exact deal struck," DiSclafani said. "We said we would try to form a law that would be a compromise between what we had and what the current law was. That was all that was promised."

Then Jordan demanded that DiSclafani explain his recent written accusation that "someone on the town board" might be profiting from re-zoning the land around Hanover Farms. DiSclafani wrote the accusation in a letter to the town board in opposition to the farmstand in May.

"Who on this board is supposed to benefit financially from the farmstand?" Jordan asked DiSclafani multiple times.

Eventually, DiSclafani answered:

"I feel that somebody on the board might benefit financially."

"Who would that be?"

"It might be you."

A $2,500 error

The matter of the $2,500 check is a complicated one, but everyone seems to agree on a few facts. In 2008, Shandaken zoning enforcement officer Gina Reilly was in the process of issuing a zoning violation to the farmstand when Al Higley, several lawyers, town zoning officials, and DiSclafani had a meeting. After the meeting, DiSclafani began drafting a law intended to retroactively legalize the farmstand. As part of that process, DiSclafani sent a letter to Al Higley asking that he pay the town $2,500. He also advised Reilly to place the processing of the zoning violation on hold.

Those bare facts sketch out a picture that, at worst, looks like a kind of pay-to-play politicking. Indeed, Alfie Higley, Al's son, described the financial exchange that way when the Watershed Post interviewed him two weeks ago.

"He took $2,500 from us illegally last year," Alfie Higley said. "It was for us to finish the whole zoning issue. We made an arrangement to finish [it] between our attorneys and their attorneys. [They sent us a memo] that they needed $2,500 to resolve this issue."

But nobody else is accusing DiSclafani of doing anything more than making a mistake. According to public town documents obtained by the Watershed Post, DiSclafani deposited the check in the Town of Shandaken's general fund, and then later returned it to the Higleys with interest. The Higleys, for their part, attempted to send it back.

Stanley, in an email he sent to the Watershed Post in May, described the transaction as "not cool" because neither the town board nor the town supervisor can levy fees for zoning issues. Here are his comments in full:

Yes a citation was issued in 2008, but later that year in a meeting between Mr. Higley, his attorney, the Chairs of the Planning and Zoning Boards (at that time), the Town ZEO (Gina Reilly), the Town's attorney on this matter (at the time) and the Town Supervisor (Peter DiSclafani). No councilmen were invited.

At this meeting some kind of deal was struck, Mr. Higley was asked to submit payment to the Town ($2500) for "site plan approval" at his current (2008) area. The Town Supervisor(Peter) accepted the check, deposited it in a Town account and ordered the ZEO (Gina) to rescind the citation, which she did. Mr. Higley's claim is that it was for him to receive site plan approval, Peter argued it was for "site plan review." In either case, not cool. The Town Planning Board is the only one that can enforce these fees and are deposited in an escrow account. These are actions of the Planning Board. The Town Board and especially a Town Supervisor, cannot enforce these fees, solely. Mind you a fee FAR in excess of our standard fee for a lot of the same size anywhere else in town SO...no citation exists today.

The Watershed Post printed Stanley's above email, and, last week, so did the Woodstock Times. When DiSclafani saw the Woodstock Times' version of the email, he objected to Stanley's statement vehemently. That's why he spoke up at Monday's meeting, he told the Watershed Post yesterday.

"It bothered me that Rob spoke about a meeting that he wasn’t at," DiSclafani said. "There was never any conversation saying, 'Send me $2,500 and your legal issues go away.'”

According to DiSclafani, he decided to look for a way to forge a compromise between the Higleys and the town at the 2008 meeting.

"I really was looking for some kind of a way to help," he said. "Being the supervisor, turning away a business that’s successful and fairly popular isn’t a smart thing to do."

On the advice of a temporary attorney that the town was using while its regular town lawyer was on vacation, DiSclafani said that he decided to make a new law to legalize a larger farmstand that was allowed under the zoning rules. 

Reilly, the zoning officer, had not yet issued a citation against the farmstand for violating the zoning law, he said. Instead, she had issued Hanover Farms a "notice of noncompliance and order to remedy" -- a warning that informed Higley that he had 30 days to bring the farmstand into compliance with zoning law.

"After the meeting, I told Gina [Reilly] to hold off on whatever she was doing, that we were going to work on a law," DiSclafani said. "I never told her to rescind the citation or the compliance order."

Asking the Higleys for a $2,500 check was a mistake DiSclafani made on the advice of the town's temporary attorney, he said. The attorney advised him to ask for the money as part of a "site plan application" to the town.

"I’ve since learned that it may not exactly be legal and it may not exactly be illegal for a town to do that," DiSclafani said. "He said this is fine, that this gets the town money for legal expenses that will be incurred in trying to write a new law."

So what next?

DiSclafani never did succeed in getting his farmstand law passed before being voted out of office. But three years later, the town board is soldiering on where he left off. 

At Monday's meeting, Stanley announced that the town board is working on "a law that will 1) address current issue with existing operations and 2) allow for more of these businesses [like Hanover Farms]."

Stanley said that the town hopes to have a rough draft of the law to present at the July town meeting.

In other farmstand business from Monday's meeting, Stanley announced that Reilly, the zoning officer, has responded to the complaint filed against the farmstand by three of its neighbors. In a letter to the three complainants, Reilly asked them to wait for the new farmstand law to respond to their concerns. Both the complaint and the town's response, which are public records, are posted below.Hanover Farms ComplaintHanover Farms Complaint Letter ResponseJune 3 2011