By Gwendolyn Craig
The Adirondack Park Agency has fined a Hamilton County couple $28,500 for building a deck greater than 100 square feet within 50 feet of the mean high water mark of Lake Algonquin, but the couple intends to challenge the agency’s determination in court.
Joseph Cotazino Jr. said his retirement home has turned into “nothing but a nightmare.”
It started in the summer of 2017, when Cotazino was preparing to build a dwelling on Kibler Point Road in the Town of Wells. The couple owned two campsites and a vacant lot on the lake. They planned to use most of their life savings to build their dream retirement home on the lot, while their son would occupy a campsite next door.
Cotazino had received all the proper permits and checked with the APA so he would be in compliance. But then Cotazino received a letter from former Town Supervisor Brian Towers, concerned that one corner of the house would be only 7 feet from the edge of the road.
The plans were lawful, and the town issued the building permit, but Towers left Cotazino with a warning.
“However with all (due) respect, the town will not be held legally responsible for any damage to your property incurred during the routine maintenance of our road, including snow removal from the driving surface, the height or width of resulting snow banks, and/or naturally occurring water drainage,” Towers wrote.
Cotazino received a second letter, records show, from the next Town Supervisor Donald Beach, again concerned about how close the house would be to the road.
Worried that his house would get hit by a snowplow, Cotazino said he went back to the APA to ask for a variance so he could build within the shoreline setback. Records show Beach provided a letter to the APA in support of a variance for Cotazino, stating that the house’s current position “will cause the town to be unable to safely plow the road.”
At an APA enforcement committee hearing last month, Cotazino said APA staff members came to his property and placed new stakes for where his house could be built without a variance — and that he built it there.
Jennifer Hubbard, an APA attorney, said employees do not design projects. She acknowledged that staffers did put stakes down where Cotazino would not need a variance.
“Frankly what happened here was the development was not constructed within the development footprint that staff flagged,” Hubbard said.
Cotazino disagreed, and believes he built his home where APA staff said he could.
Justin Gray, an attorney representing Cotazino, said during the hearing that APA’s argument didn’t make any sense. Cotazino had originally planned to get a variance, but APA staffers had encouraged him not to apply for one.
“This is a travesty of justice,” Gray said.
Ultimately the enforcement committee ruled in favor of the APA staff’s determination of a setback violation. The APA said Cotazino’s jurisdictional inquiry included a home but not a deck. In its determination, the agency is ordering Cotazino to remove any portion of the deck within the 50 feet of the mean high water mark by June 1.
The agency also issued a $28,500 fine, $1,500 of which is due this month. If Cotazino removes the portion of the deck in violation, the rest of the fine will be suspended.
But Cotazino does not have plans to remove his deck.
Gray said he will be filing a court appeal soon to overturn the order for his client.
“Obviously I’m totally disappointed with their decision,” Cotazino said about the enforcement committee’s determination. “I feel like I’m trying to convince them of a problem that they created. They’re the ones that put me in violation, not me. I was filing the variance, and in their determination, they told me I didn’t need it.”
Another aspect of the case that bothers Cotazino is how he was found in violation in the first place. A neighbor, he said, was trespassing on his property and reported his deck to the APA.
Cotazino said he hopes to be able to confront his neighbor in court.
This article has been updated to say the APA’s jurisdictional inquiry records show it did not include a deck when reviewing Cotazino’s compliance.