By Gwendolyn Craig
A New York City duo with property in Thurman may be on the hook for more than $1.5 million in fines—and could be required to dismantle their rental lodge—after the Adirondack Park Agency cited them with numerous alleged violations dating back to 2017.
The Brampton retreat owner James John McDonald and business partner Jeffrey Lee appeared before the agency board on Thursday for a rare, full APA board enforcement hearing, only the second in at least 14 years. The property is near the Hudson River.
Jennifer Hubbard, senior attorney for the APA, spent the first part of the hearing detailing agency staff’s three-year effort to work with McDonald and Lee.
The partners are advertising The Brampton, Hubbard said, on the premise of experiencing the natural character of the Adirondacks, the very thing the APA’s regulations intend to protect.
“Respondents have not, however, operated their business complying with the rules designed to protect the environment,” Hubbard said.
After 20 phone calls, three visits to the Warren County site, one meeting at the APA offices, four staff letters and three proposed and subsequently ignored settlements, Hubbard recommended the Manhattan men get the maximum fine of $1.548 million for the 1,032 days since the first written staff letter was sent outlining the violations.
The fine combines violations of two acts—the Adirondack Park Agency Act and the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System Act—because the structures are under the APA’s jurisdiction. Other agencies are investigating the property including the state Department of Health for an improper wastewater treatment system. An on-site cesspool and its leach field are within 100 feet of the property’s water supply.
In a phone call on Tuesday, Lee told Adirondack Explorer that he didn’t believe the enforcement hearing was “a serious thing at all.”
“Simply put, they want us to do A, B, C and D,” Lee had said. “Our engineer didn’t get back to them in time, therefore they got a little upset, and then I guess, this is the next step. … They’re governmental employees. I don’t feel that they could care less what happens really. Maybe they feel like again, a year ago, we were in violation of three things. When we didn’t correct those violations in time, we were in violation of 50 things.”
Four violations for non-permitted structures more than doubled over the years as McDonald and Lee continued to place more rental cottages and trailers on the land, agency records show. As Hubbard laid out the agency’s case, she showed social media posts advertising specific cottages for rent that McDonald and Lee had assured agency staff just days before were only for personal use.
During the showing of the social media posts, both McDonald and Lee looked down at their notes and grinned. But when it was time for them to take the stand, McDonald and Lee apologized for their ignorance about the Adirondack Park Agency’s rules and regulations and blamed an engineer that they had never officially hired for the lack of communication with agency staff.
The two also felt Hubbard had mischaracterized them.
“I do disagree on the point that we haven’t made any attempt to try and get the place into code,” McDonald said. “Firstly, to everyone on the board,” he continued, “I’m truly sorry that this has caused a lot of effort and stress to individuals.”
Lee said that from the beginning he and McDonald hired a contractor to get the property in compliance with APA regulations. They had bought the property without knowing the existing house on the parcel was already illegal because the prior owner had built it without the proper permits.
But when questioned by members of the agency board, Lee admitted that they had never signed a contract for services with the engineer.
Lee and McDonald said their ignorance wasn’t an excuse, and McDonald suggested he would take a course on APA regulations. According to their rental website, McDonald is a hedge fund manager on Wall Street and Lee works in real estate.
McDonald bought the approximately 12 acres in the southeastern Adirondacks in 2015 and established it as a tourist accommodation. The Brampton has its own website, but is also featured on Airbnb and other online rental platforms.
The website touts the spot as an upstate New York retreat for New York City dwellers. It has hosted yoga workshops, weddings, company retreats and summer getaways.
There is the original single-family dwelling, a barn, a yoga deck, a second single-family dwelling that the new owners built, two smaller existing cabins built prior to APA’s regulations and allowed only for personal use, an Airstream trailer, a “glamping” tent, a camper van, an outhouse and a large staircase. McDonald and Lee also cut down multiple trees, which they claimed on Thursday was for installing a new leach field, but instead was advertised on social media as a games lawn.
With a four-night minimum stay on Airbnb, a cleaning fee and service fee, The Brampton was raking in about $6,360 per stay during peak summer season. Weddings start at $10,000 and McDonald and Lee have said they can accommodate up to 100 guests. Corporate retreats start at $3,000 per night.
Hubbard showed an advertisement for a yoga retreat planned for this fall, advertising some of the illegal structures as places to stay.
Following yet another interaction where McDonald and Lee were reminded of the violations, they posted a social media advertisement featuring one of the illegal structures that said “we can’t stop adding fun places to sleep at Brampton village.”
Despite what staff have found advertised online, Lee was firm that most of the cottages had not been rented and that he lived in one and stored his personal belongings in another. The two also argued that they were not making as much money on the property as it seemed, and they had invested a lot of money in engineers and trying to get into compliance.
“From the minute we encountered you guys, we have been doing everything we can to be in compliance,” Lee said. “There are certain things, like the Instagram stuff, I agree, we should probably not be putting those things on Instagram.”
Lee smiled and shrugged, then added, “We’re going to stop.”
Board member John Ernst said everything McDonald and Lee did appeared to be piecemeal—such as adding a trailer even after they knew they were in violation.
“It gives an appearance that isn’t good,” Ernst said.
Lynne Mahoney, a representative from the Department of State, asked for verification that McDonald and Lee had never signed or returned any of the three settlement agreements APA sent. Hubbard said they had not.
The agency board met in executive session following the hearing and again on Friday morning.
After, Enforcement Chair Art Lussi announced that the board had come to a resolution and the APA’s counsel was preparing it. Because the decision was determined in executive session and the final document had not been written up, board members were advised by counsel not to share the official outcome with the public yet.
Once written, the determination will be sent to McDonald and Lee. Agency staff suggested the determination would be finished sometime next week.
Anita Dingman says
Looks like a nice place. They would have done better to have complied with the APA rules like we natives have to do-or gone to another place without the APA regulations. I am glad that the APA is enforcing their regulations and not letting the “elite” get away with flaunting them.
Lynne P. says
Terrific reporting. This investigation illustrates why we need top journalists out in the field covering stories that the public should know about, and weigh in on. Thank you, Gwen!
Cesspool? I thought cesspools went the way of open landfills. I guess it illustrates the disconnect often seen between out-of-area developers and reasonable land stewardship. Openly violating APA requirements is nothing new. Anyone familiar with the Essex area will notice the similarities between this group of Wall Street developers and the exploits of Sandy Lewis, another Wall Street multimillionaire, who fought the APA – and won!
steve morris says
send a message—bulldoze the violations and plant trees.
Scott Bennett says
Levy the fines..every bit of it. These are people with loads of money who were told by someone else who did it to just do everything first then plead ignorance. That’s what they all do. That’s what happened here! I used to work in the building industry as well as excavation for many years. Have seen it first hand and heard many stories about people with a ton of money going this route. They thing we’re a bunch of hicks up here and know nothing. A lot, not all, but many are arrogant and hire big lawyers to do whatever they need to do to get what they want. But sometimes as usual in Albany, somebody knows somebody who knows someone on the board and they are not as strict. So glad they’re throwing the book at these a-holes and make them remove everything as well. It’s funny how such successful people can claim ignorance when they want something.
Peggy Carrol says
Thanks also to the neighbors in Thurman who brought this to the attention of the APA. Throw the book at ‘em, remove the non- permitted structures and plant trees.
Pat B says
These two clowns refer to a contractor and engineer supposedly involved in work on the property. Yet neither is named. Were they local businesses or some of their cronies from NYC looking to put one over on the hicks in the Adirondacks? I agree, knock down the structures, recycle/donate anything that can be salvaged and plant trees.