An attempt by a Croton-on-Hudson couple to take a neighbor’s property by “adverse possession” will cost them $50,250, due in part to the downfall of the Big Black Cherry Tree.Justice Charles D. Wood of Westchester Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 8 that Charles Andrew Salzberg and Anita Salzberg must compensate Kenneth Sena and Joseph Mazzaferro for cutting down their trees.
Wood depicted the removal of five trees as a “brazen, recalcitrant, unapologetic” act.
Justice Linda S. Jamieson had previously ruled that the Salzbergs had trespassed and damaged their neighbors’ property. Wood then held an inquest on the value of the damages.
The scene of the dispute was Finney Farm Road, where hilltop estates provide commanding views of the Hudson River.
The Salzbergs bought their property in 2011 for $725,000, according to county property records. Sena and Mazzaferro paid $1.3 million for theirs in 2014.
Sena and Mazzaferro bought the Neumann House, designed by modernist architect and furniture designer Marcel Breuer – best known for the Whitney Museum of American Art – and built in 1954. Architectural Digest featured the house last year as an example of one of Breuer’s favorite projects.
The Salzbergs sued Sena and Mazzaferro in 2016, challenging their neighbors’ ownership of a strip of land bordering the properties.
They cited the legal principle of adverse possession. The idea, sometimes called squatter’s rights, holds that someone can claim ownership of land by openly occupying it for a significant period of time, if the legal owner does not object.
The lawsuit repeatedly states that the Salzbergs and previous owner of their property had possessed the disputed strip of land in a hostile, notorious, open, obvious, exclusive and continuous manner for about 30 years.
The previous owner had converted the strip from a forested area to a lawn, maintained a barbecue pit and a fence and cultivated other trees and plantings. The Salzbergs continued maintaining the strip.
In 2015, according to the complaint, Sena and Mazzaferro asserted their claim to the land, and when the Salzbergs were out of town for a family funeral they tore down the fence.
That amounted to trespass, the Salzbergs claimed. They asked the court to declare that they owned the land. They demanded $50,000 damages for trespass and $500,000 in punitive damages.
Sena and Mazzaferro accused the Salzbergs of trespass and destruction of their property. The Salzbergs had hired a contractor to cut down a large cherry tree and three or four smaller cherry trees, in what Sena and Mazzaferro theorize was done to gain a better view of the Hudson.
Wood refers to the larger tree as the Big Black Cherry Tree, or the BBCT, a “rather substantial” tree, “certainly larger than the average amateur weekend lumberjack would attempt to cut down with a chainsaw bought on impulse at Home Depot or Lowe’s.”
Jamieson ruled in favor of Sena and Mazzaferro. The question before Wood was how to assess the damages, given the tangled branches of New York law.
He weighed the stumpage value – its use as timber – and the replacement value of healthy trees.
Wood awarded Sena and Mazzaferro $40,250 for the stumpage and replacement value of the Big Black Cherry Tree, $5,000 for four small trees, and $5,000 for trespass damages.
He noted that state law does not allow an award of damages against a party that uses adverse possession unsuccessfully in an attempt to deprive a landowner of their property.
He deferred to the legislature “to address conduct that for all intents and purposes amounts to a consequence-free roll of the dice to steal real property.”