About 70 town of Otsego residents — most of them clearly angry and concerned — listened to state Department of Transportation officials talk at a public hearing on July 25 at Cooperstown’s Middle/High School about plans for a slope stabilization project on state Route 80.
When they left about an hour later, they had heard a presentation of the state’s plans to replace a retaining wall with a slope, and many had given public comment, but DOT had not answered the question on most everyone’s mind: does the state own a strip of land between state Highway 80 and Otsego Lake where several residents had built or own houses or other improvements?
“I’ve heard many rumors,” said Bernard Enright, 6722 Highway 80. “What I want to know is does the state own from the middle of the road down to the lake?”
Enright’s question drew cheers from the crowd, but no response from DOT officials in attendance. The meeting, said project manager Kathryn Mangan, was to record comments, not to answer questions.
Her statement drew sounds of disgust from the audience.
“Many of us here own property on the lake,” said Fred Mueller of 6703 State Highway 80. “We have our deeds and we just don’t know what we own and these are questions we need answered.”
The state is making plans to take two lake-front properties north of Five Mile Point, including at least one through an eminent domain claim.
One of the properties, at 6688 Highway 80, called “Acqua Verde” and owned by Joseph Galleti, is on reconditioned land, and will be acquired through eminent domain. It includes a cottage just feet away from the storm damaged wood-timber retaining wall that DOT has determined needs to be torn down and replaced.
The second property, “Camp Be-Lo” at 6690 Highway 80, is owned by Andrew Peterson and is also close to the retaining wall. It was unclear if it too would be paid for by the state through eminent domain.
DOT officials claim they have a deed to the strip of land, and have owned it for nearly 100 years, and would only have to compensate property owners for the loss of water access or improvements like docks and stairs.
Several officials at the meeting said they could not comment on whether the state had plans to take the rest of the properties, but several residents stated that they believed that was the case.
Several calls to DOT officials for clarification have not been returned.
“DOT announced that they own our lake front,” said James Sever of 6691 Highway 80. “They will take it and not pay us for it.”
Sever and several other property owners said that their deeds and title searches also show ownership of the disputed strip of land and that they have paid annual property taxes.
“Why would we have bought it without lake access,” he said. “It seems like it is just a forgone conclusion now. When they are done with it, the shore will be natural … and stripped clean (of houses).”
To build another type of retaining wall on the property would cost $625,000 according to a presentation made by project engineer Brian Doag. Building a stabilization embankment, or slope, instead would cost about $400,000.
Building the slope is the DOT’s preference, but it was not an opinion shared by neighbors of the project.
“We love our charming old property on the lake,” said Betty VanHeusen of 6693 Highway 80. “We didn’t buy it to get a hunk of dirt thrown next door.”
According to a DOT timeline, preliminary approval for the design will take place this fall. The final design will be completed by the end of the year. Construction will begin in the winter and end in the spring of 2015.