Forest Hill Drive is a quaint, curving loop just above Skytop Steakhouse off of State Route 28. Many of its residents describe it in traditional terms, listing its lack of amenities as something of a badge of rustic honor.
But the quaintness has become a little strife-torn of late; a conflict between residents and a neighbor who hopes to turn a 13-acre parcel into an egg-production farm ended up before the Ulster Town Board.
“We don’t get much from the town,” said Geoffrey Ring, one of several Forest Hill Drive residents who spoke during the public hearing on Thursday, June 20. “We don’t have street lights, we don’t have sidewalks, we don’t have garbage pickup, we don’t have water and sewer; we don’t have anything … We’re asking that you maintain our standard of living. If there’s 20 families, and then there’s one, the preponderance of the evidence should show that there’s a problem here.”
The “one” referred to by Ring is Terri Valenti, who rents a home on the property in question, land which is one-fifth-owned by her uncle, Gary Valentine. Valentine, who lives in Bethel, Conn., said the neighbors have a “vendetta.”
“These people are out for a vendetta for whatever reason,” Valentine said. “All of these things are petty.”
“These things” detailed by Valenti’s neighbors don’t just include concerns over the character of the neighborhood, but also issues with zoning, tree removal and the possibility their own property values could plummet if the property becomes a bustling egg-production business.
“We paid an exorbitant amount of money for our houses up there, we pay an exorbitant amount of taxes every year,” said Mark Ennis, who was joined at the public hearing by his wife, Jennifer. “And if you talk any realtor, and you tell them, ‘The value of this house is X amount of dollars, can you name me the five top reasons why the value of that house would go down,’ one of those top five reasons would be if there is a farm next door. Why is that? It’s because of the smell that comes off of the animals, the traffic that comes in and out.”
Valenti said the eggs would not be sold on site, but would rather be transported elsewhere. She began bringing animals onto the property last autumn, and has since sought permission from the Ulster County Planning Department to allow agricultural activities there. She said she has also had conversations with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to remove trees — many of which she said are dead — from the property. She added that concerns from a neighbor that trees along the edge of the property were misplaced.
“They don’t want to see my land and I don’t want to see their land,” she said. The land was previously owned by Valenti’s relatives going back around a century, and she said she was fulfilling a dream of her great-grandmother by opening an egg-production business there. Some of the land was purchased by the state under eminent domain laws when Route 28 was built, but Valenti’s family still partly owns the remainder.
“The land has not been occupied since 1961, yet taxes have been paid by my family, each and every one of them, since 1961,” Valenti said.
As for some of the other issues residents have, it appears to come down to a matter of interpretation. And while some questions still have yet to be answered, much of the town’s interpretation is that nothing illegal is happening.
Stanley Meketa, a local resident, said he was concerned about what the clearing of the trees might imply for the future.
“It may not constitute a structure tomorrow, but down the road it could,” Meketa said. Additionally, a structure had already been built without town approval, but its size was reduced to avoid the need for a construction permit.
“The size and the structures are below the square footage that the state building code requires a building permit for,” confirmed Town Supervisor James E. Quigley, III. Quigley also addressed the tree removal, noting that while it’s been happening thus far without permits, that doesn’t mean that will always be the case.
“If there is an intent to clear-cut the 13 acres behind the house that you occupy, or anything more than a casual cutting, you will be required to come before the town board and apply for a forestry permit,” he said. “There also is a qualification of selective timber harvesting, and (you) will have to come forward for that.”
Mark Ennis also expressed concern about electricity being run to one of the small buildings on the property, possibly by way of an extension cord, and the lack of an easement to that part of the property which would allow emergency vehicles to get there in a timely fashion.
“There’s no way, should a fire happen on any of those 13 acres, whether it’s by lightning or man-made, that you’re going to get an emergency vehicle back there to extinguish the fire, to render medical assistance or whatever else,” Ennis said. “Their driveway goes under an awning attached to the house. If a fire truck tries to get back there it will strike the house.”
There is also some question as to what constitutes a domestic animal. Town officials found on the property a cow, a calf, a pig, ducks, dogs, a pig, and seven egg-producing chickens.
“Give me the definition of a domestic animal,” said Jennifer Ennis. “My definition of a domestic animal is a dog or a cat, maybe a few chickens. Certainly not a horse or a cow or a calf when we are all aware that they are looking for an agricultural exemption to run a farm. I think that we have all been misled.”
Ring echoed the sentiment.
“They say that they have pets, yet they have an application for a farm,” he said. “Is it a business or is it domesticated animals? We’re looking for you to make that determination … The facts show that they have intention to establish a farm to produce commercial activities.”
Town Attorney Jason Kovacs said he needed to do a bit more research to make a determination of his own.
“I don’t want to give the wrong advice,” Kovacs said. “I will look into the matter.”