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Minnewaska misdeeds to cost stateSmiley family seeks $5.9M in settlement
By Adam Bosch
Published: 2:00 AM - 06/01/11
KERHONKSON — A judge will soon penalize New York state for keeping a well-known family out of its Lake Minnewaska home for the past 22 years.
The state could be ordered to pay as much as $5.9 million for breaking a contract and denying the Smiley family its leasehold right to a mountaintop home passed down by its ancestors, according to court documents.
The fight goes back to 1989. The death of a Smiley matriarch that year triggered the start of a 99-year lease for her descendants to use Wildmere Cottage, a house on state-owned land only paces away from Lake Minnewaska.
New York refused to recognize the lease, but lost a 1994 case in state Supreme Court in Ulster County. The court reaffirmed the Smileys' lease and ordered the state to reconnect utility lines — including electric and septic service — that had been cut off from the house.
Alfred Smiley of the hamlet of Wallkill and his family were forced to sue again in 2004 after state engineers botched three attempts to build a septic system and connect it to Wildmere Cottage.
Engineers built septic systems in bad soil, one that failed a dye test and another that leaked effluent across hiking paths, court papers said. The fiasco angered Alfred Smiley, whose family once owned the 10,000-acre preserve and were known for environmental stewardship.
"The state arrived and tore the place to hell," Smiley said. "They advertise this jewel that they're trying to take care of and they immediately crap on it."
Court of Claims Judge Judith Hard decided state officials broke their contract with the Smileys by not providing utilities. She also scolded two state engineers — Scott Fish and Michael Tesick — who admitted to breaking health regulations when they designed the septic systems because they thought the state parks department "had the power not to comply with those regulations."
"They cut corners, deviated from acceptable engineering practices and blatantly ignored codes of the New York State Department of Health and the Ulster County Department of Health without obtaining a variance," Hard wrote in her decision.
The state also failed to repair electric lines running to the house after a 2002 ice storm. The 5,200-square-foot cottage was dark for four years.
The state attorney general's office declined to comment because the case is ongoing. State parks spokesman Dan Keefe said the state disagreed with Hard's decision. He also said both engineers who oversaw the failed septic systems are still employed by the state.
Both sides were back in court last week to argue about damages. Court papers from 2009 show that the Smileys claimed $5.9 million in damages. Hard will rule on a dollar amount in the fall.
The family's lawyer, John Simonson, said damages should be substantial because "what would it have cost the family to maintain comparable accommodations for 22 years alongside Lake Minnewaska?"
For his part, Smiley hopes to have oversight of the next septic system to guarantee it lives up to his family's legacy in the 'Gunks. And he hopes his grandchildren can soon have the same life he did as a kid at Wildmere Cottage.
"We take them up there for the day to pick berries and things like that," he said, "but it's a hell of a difference to stay there overnight."
Lake Minnewaska and surrounding areas as they are now.
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