Philanthropist, orchid maven and businessman Stuart Salenger was the subject of verbal attacks at the government center once again at a public hearing about an application to move a 4.5 acre parcel he owns in Forestburgh into Sullivan County Agricultural District Four.
As has happened the two previous times when Salenger successfully moved other parcels into the district, neighbors came out in force to object. Ben Wechsler, himself a wealthy landowner who has a lawsuit pending against Salenger, was one of several people from the neighborhood who said that Salenger is violating terms of the deeds to his parcels by creating a commercial operation on them.
A lawsuit about the matter should be settled sometime this year, and Wechsler said action by the county legislature regarding whether to accept the land into the ag district should be postponed until after the lawsuit is resolved.
But Robert Kaplan, chairman of the Sullivan County Agricultural Protection Board, told the legislature the information he received from agricultural officials in Albany was that the deed dispute is a civil matter and should have no impact on the decision of the legislature.
In contrast to previous hearings on Salenger’s property, this time the neighbors also attacked county legislators regarding their close ties to Salenger, who donates time and money to several local causes, including Catskill Regional Medical Center and the Forestburgh Theater.
Neighbor Kathryn Barnhardt said that lawmakers Jody Goodman and Leni Binder should recuse themselves from a vote on the matter because they have sat in box seats at Salenger’s box at concerts at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.
She said, “Sullivan County rules of ethics prohibit the acceptance by a local official of any gift having a value of $75 or more. A box seat ticket at Bethel Woods exceeds this amount.” She said accepting the tickets without paying for them is a misdemeanor.
Other neighbors repeated the charge and said that lawmaker David Sager should also recuse himself from the vote, because he had accepted a $9,500 campaign contribution from Salenger when Sager was running for a seat in the state senate last year.
Goodman responded sharply, saying she checked about the legality of the matter before voting on Salenger’s application three years ago. She added, “If you would like to ask for counsel again on this vote, I have absolutely no problem, because my name is everything to me, and how dare you drag it into the dirt as you did.”
Sager, too, was quick to defend his action and said there was nothing wrong with his acceptance of the contribution and also voting on the question. He also directed a remark at Forestburgh council member Eugene Raponi, who earlier spoke against Salenger’s application and who had previously voted with a unanimous Forestburgh Town Board in opposition to the plan.
Sager said this was the third time Raponi had appeared before the legislators on the Salenger matter and voted time and time again on matters having to do with the Neversink Gorge, where the land is located. Then, producing a document with a bit of a dramatic flair, Sager said Raponi “has never disclosed that he was gifted a parcel of land in the gorge by his good friend Mr. Wechsler.”
Salenger, who was in the audience, did not speak at the proceedings. Lawmakers will likely vote on the matter next month.