ALDEN, N.Y. (WIVB) — Robin Levan-Banko said she can no longer enjoy her backyard without the smell of oil and diesel overpowering her nose or the din of a backhoe overpowering her ears.
The Alden resident said her neighbor, Douglas Benzee, has turned his property off Walden Avenue into a junkyard, against town laws. On any given day one would find more than 30 to 40 cars, boats, trucks and trailers on Benzee’s property.
The town agreed, telling News 4 Investigates that Benzee needs an engineering document, called a site plan, that could cost thousands of dollars.
“There’s probably a hundred violations over there,” said former town supervisor Dean Adamski. “I take the responsibility. It falls squarely on my shoulders, but I do need help from other agencies.”
Those other agencies, the state Department of Motor Vehicles and Department of Environmental Conservation, told News 4 Investigates that they have investigated the matter, and this does not fall under their jurisdictions. In other words, this is the town’s problem.
This battle has raged on for almost a decade, in court and on Benzee’s property, where the code enforcement officer, tagged along by county sheriff’s deputies, inspects his property regularly. There have been alleged threats and plenty of cussing.
To Levan-Banko, what is on Benzee’s property is “a bunch of junk.”
“I mean, he buys and sells and if you look at the Dumpster behind me he crushes vehicles and puts it in the Dumpster,” Levan-Banko said. “He has a backhoe that he runs constantly. It’s a mess.”
Mark Drogi, who also lives in the neighborhood, said he is at wits’ end trying to get a resolution. To him, this is a quality-of-life issue with an eyesore in his community.
“I’ve talked to the council, I’ve talked to the town,” he said. “The current council right now has done the most out of anyone to try to fix the problem. We’ve had the DMV here, the DEC and it gets hung up in the courts.”
Benzee told News 4 Investigates that he was told he could legally operate what he deemed his hobbies without any government control. He said he believes he is being singled out by power-hungry government officials who do not use the same diligence on other property owners as they do with him.
“I don’t think what I am doing is illegal,” Benzee said. “I’m just restoring and working on my own stuff.”
In addition, Benzee owes some $80,000 in property taxes and interest fees he said accumulated when he lost his job and fell on hard times.
Indeed, Benzee is in the crosshairs of town officials. And it’s not the first time he’s found himself in trouble with government officials.
Benzee was cited for similar code violations at a property in Elma that he owned before he sold it in November 2019.
Violations started in 2008
Town of Alden officials first cited Benzee in 2008 for operating a commercial business without a town site plan review in violation of the laws for junkyards.
Since then, the town has been in and out of court with Benzee, and the code enforcement officer has filed violation after violation on the property.
Town of Alden Code Enforcement Officer Christopher Snyder said the bottom-line is Benzee needs a site plan review, but he refuses to get one.
On November 21, 2019, Snyder notified the town board that Benzee had not complied with conditions set by a town judge and they are back in court.
Benzee’s property is zoned C-3, which does allow heavier, large-scale commercial use, according to the town’s zoning laws. Moving and storage with light fabrication are allowed, but they must be done in an enclosed building or buffered with a solid wall or fence.
Snyder, the town’s code inspector, told News 4 Investigates that Benzee is in violation of several town and state building codes. He said he is illegally storing unlicensed vehicles in the open and operating a junkyard without a site permit. The matter remains in Town of Alden court.
Benzee said that he believes this is a case of selective enforcement, and the town turns a blind eye to other problems, while keeping pressure on him because he owes tens of thousands in property taxes and interest.
But when it comes to the town’s inspector, Benzee said, “He don’t like me and I don’t like him. So, I know I’m not going to get anywhere because it’s been 8,9 years and still not getting anywhere with a new judge.”
Snyder from time to time inspects Benzee’s property, counting the number of unlicensed vehicles on the property to report back to the court. Benzee said it’s trespassing; Snyder said he has a legal right to enter the property per town code.
The encounters are recorded on Benzee’s Ring cameras surrounding his property and they are often ugly.
“I want to see a court order!” Benzee can be heard yelling at Snyder and a few county sheriff’s deputies there as an escort.
“Get him the [expletive] out of here because what you guys are doing is illegal. He ain’t got a warrant.”
“Hey Chris! You stupid [expletive]. Get outta here!” Benzee is heard yelling at the code officer on one Ring video.
Benzee said he used the colorful language because he doesn’t want to be nice to Snyder.
“He’s not nice to me, I’m not nice to him,” Benzee said.
Snyder even wrote on memorandum to the court in August 2019 that Benzee threatened him.
“During the inspection Mr. Benzee said to me on more than one occasion – ‘Do you want to get shot?’” Snyder wrote.
Benzee doesn’t deny it, either. He said it would be considered “self-defense.”
“I told him, I says, ‘you keep trespassing you’re going to end up getting shot’ because it’s not just my property that he trespasses on. He trespasses on other people’s property,” Benzee said.
Snyder filed a complaint with the state Department of Motor Vehicles in April 2015, stating that Benzee was operating an automotive repair shop, a junkyard and was dismantling vehicles on the property.
The DMV said it received another complaint from the town last March and sent staff out to investigate. But a DMV spokesman said they did not see any vehicles being taken apart and no vehicle parts were being offered for sale. Also, the DMV does not regulate the storage of old vehicles.
Complaints also got filed with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, who made four visits to the property over the years. A spokesman said the DEC found no violations of their environmental laws, and punted the issue back to the town.
The DEC said it “determined Benzee is under the threshold of end-of-life vehicles requiring a permit and therefore is considered exempt,” under state regulations.
“DEC will continue closely working with the Town of Alden and continue to monitor the operations at 12132 Walden Avenue to help ensure all environmental laws and regulations are being followed,” a DEC spokesman said.
Adamski was critical of both state agencies not offering any help.
“Maybe it’s small fish to them but it’s a huge fish, it’s a whale to the Town of Alden,” Adamski said.
Benzee has run into problems like this before on property he owned with his parents on Gaylord Court in Elma.
Elma’s code enforcement officers told News 4 Investigates that Benzee was brought to court at least twice between 1992 and 2019 over various violations, including having too many vehicles on the property, uncut grass, gutters in disrepair and having a rear yard “full of auto/junk parts.”
Benzee said Elma is where he started his “hobby” of building trucks and fixing things for his family and friends.
“That code enforcer out there was willing to work with you and wasn’t after carrying out personal vendettas and stuff like that,” Benzee said.
Benzee sold the property in Elma in 2018 to BMG Property Holdings.
End in sight?
To his neighbors in Alden, no end seems to be in sight.
Levan-Banko said she was hesitant to contact the press for years out of fear that the situation would only get worse. But she said she’s sick over waiting for the courts and the town to settle the matter and felt like it was time to put more pressure on the authorities to resolve the problem sooner, rather than later.
“I mean, it’s just been going on and on and I’ve tried to email any assemblymen senators … nothing is being done,” Levan-Banko said.
“We used to be friends until he thought that I turned him in to the town,” she said. “It wasn’t me, it was someone else, but then he thought I did, so now I thought, well, OK, fine, I’ll play your game.”
Dan Telvock is an award-winning investigative producer and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of his work here.