BY DYLAN SKRILOFF
PHOTOS BY PETER BRUNWASSER
If you visit the home of Mr. and Mrs. Jim Burns at 32 Sephar Lane in Chestnut Ridge on any given day chances are you will hear a racket of Biblical proportions. The noise comes from his neighbor Steven Slackman, owner of Steve’s Lawns, a popular Rockland County landscaping service.
In 2007, Slackman moved his company to 30 Sephar Lane. Jim Burns, a contractor in his own right, says it’s been one long-lasting headache ever since.
The noise isn’t the only concern the Burnses have with their neighbor. Jim insists the entire use of the property by Slackman is against village code and environmental Flow-Control regulations. The Burnses’ other neighbors and the Village of Chestnut Ridge agree and, in fact, the village has been embroiled in an expensive legal battle with Slackman.
Adding to the Burnses’ frustration, before Slackman purchased his plot of land adjacent to him, landscaping companies had expressed interest in purchasing their property for commercial use and the village told him it was against code. “Rockland Tree Service tried to buy my property and the village attorney said no such company was allowed in that zone [yellow zone]. The village attorney said the village would shut down the use of the property,” Jim Burns said. Yellow zone refers to laboratory/office zoning.
In a twist that Burns claims is a sign of corruption, a former village code enforcer Rich Mitzner once charged with overseeing the Sephar Lane area, now is on Steve’s Lawns’ payroll and is a consultant for Slackman’s legal case. The village forced the code enforcer out of his position due to his refusal to enforce code at the 30 Sephar Lane property, Burns said.
“The village attorney said ‘we’re having problem with the code enforcement officer.’ The village mayor and attorney told me to document everything going on next to my house. I started taking notes, photos….well sure enough they got rid of this guy [although not for what was happening at the Burnses’ property alone]. He was here 22 years. Now he states at the village monthly meeting he is the paid lead site plan representative for Steve’s Lawns,” Burns explained.
Not long after Slackman’s company came to Sephar Lane, they clear cut two and a half acres of trees and turned the whole property into a transfer station and landfill.
“What’s gone on between 2007 and now, you can’t even imagine,” Burns bellowed.
But Slackman’s lawyer Dennis Lynch of the Feerick Lynch MacCartney firm in Nyack contends that his client’s use of the property is consistent with the zoning for the area. “Jim Burns uses his property for commercial purposes and directly in front of both properties is the Chestnut Ridge Bus Company, which has been operating commercially for many years,” Lynch said.
Jim Burns denies Lynch’s account. Burns said that although he did agree to pay a small fine after being accused by Mitzner of “operating without a site plan,” he only did so to avoid dealing with Mitzner, who Burns claims had begun harassing him and playing mind games, including winking and blowing kisses at him in court. After the case, Burns sent a letter to the village clarifying that he believed he had done nothing against code.
Lynch also pointed out that after the village filed a stop work order against Steve’s Lawns earlier this year, the NY Supreme Court granted his client an emergency stay. As a result he continues to use the property as a landfill and transfer station for his landscaping business.
Regardless of the experience of the Burnses and others who feel they were misled, the courts have been relatively friendly to Steve’s Lawns so far and the case is heading for a final appeal possibly this year or next. The court case against Steve’s has been led not just by the village, but also a large company across Red Schoolhouse Rd., who claims Steve’s Lawns is hampering their desire to develop a 14-acre swath of land.
Judges have found that on at least one occasion the village broke public meeting laws to meet with the favored developers across the street. The appearance of an unnaturally friendly relationship between the village and the across-the-street developers has been exploited by Lynch expertly in court briefings.
Village officials said they could not comment for this story due to ongoing litigation.
The latest activity on the 30 Sephar Lane property that Burns takes exception to is the construction of large concrete walls on Slackman’s property line, which he says are to prevent himself and other concerned neighbors from peeking in and watching what is going on on the property. Such walls are not legal either, Burns contends.
Though the village has been on the Burnses’ side throughout the ordeal, Jim Burns said he is beginning to lose faith in the officials, including Mayor Rosario Presti Jr. Burns complained that the attorney the village and its insurance company hired to fight the Article 78 case for the Village Zoning Board of Appeals brought on by Steve’s Lawns, Terry Rice, is a former client of Slackman’s.
Fellow contractor and Chestnut Ridge resident Ron Miller is among those outraged by Slackman’s exploitation of the land. “What’s going on here is outrageous. You won’t find anything like this anywhere else in Rockland,” he said.
Miller is among a cohort of contractors and landscapers who toured the 30 Sephar Lane property while it was for sale and were told the land could not be used for the sort of activity going on there now. Miller reiterated, “I was told L/O means no!”
John Ferguson from Ferguson Landscape and Construction told the Rockland County Times that he cannot believe what Slackman is doing and that it runs counter to all modern zoning and land use practices in the area. He expressed concern about what he called a lack of enforcement of Flow-Control laws, which regulate how the use of property impacts waterways. Ferguson believes Slackman’s unregulated activity is diverting water and causing flooding.
Burns is between a rock and a hard place. His property is no longer suitable for residential purposes due to the noise, so it is next to impossible to sell the attractive home he owns for fair market value to a prospective homeowner. Meanwhile, he also cannot sell the surrounding property he owns to a commercial landscaping business because he understands that to be against the law.
Burns says overly optimistically, “The only saving grace of my house, is years ago I put up a bamboo wall all the way around my property.”
To a new visitor, the bamboo wall hardly puts up a fight against the industrial racket next door. “This is nothing,” says Burns of the noise.
Apparently it gets worse.