By CAROLINE MURRAY
JOHNSTOWN -- Mayfield town attorney Carmel Greco and attorney Christian J. Soller attended a hearing in Fulton County Supreme Court Monday to argue an Article 78 proceeding that exotic-cat owner Steve Salton filed against the town zoning board of appeals last year.
The lawsuit is Salton's latest attempt to keep his three tigers and two leopards on his Route 30 property.
Judge Richard T. Aulisi listened to both arguments and expects to have a decision in about a month. Until then, Greco said, the town's cease-and-desist order is on hold and Salton's cats are free to remain at his home.
"The issue is if wild animals can be maintained and harbored in an R-1 residential district," Greco said during his argument. "I don't know how many times Mr. Salton can hear 'no.'"
Salton and his attorney Soller filed an Article 78 against the town zoning board of appeals last year, after the board denied him a variance to officially grant an exception to town zoning laws.
The lawsuit was put on hold while Salton appealed a prior Supreme Court decision that said his exotic cat exhibit, Natasha's Helping Hand, requires a permit from the Mayfield town planning board in order to operate on his property.
Salton filed that lawsuit in 2011, arguing that his operation is not a business, and was grandfathered before the 2005 zoning law took effect.
The state Appellate Division's Third Department upheld the Supreme Court decision in April, ruling his operation is indeed a business, and not grandfathered in before the new zoning law.
"In the first round of arguments it was whether his conduct -- maintaining his exotic animals -- conformed to town code and it was determined that it did not," Soller said. "OK, so it doesn't conform to the town code, so give us a variance."
Soller said the lawsuit asks that the board reconsider the variance application.
He said the zoning board of appeals was too quick to dismiss Salton's application and did not properly evaluate the request.
"Just a blanket denial without even looking at anything is an abusive discretion and that determination should be reversed or the court should direct them to consider it further," Soller said.
Greco said he is asking that Aulisi dismiss the lawsuit completely, based on a New York State Town Law that states an Article 78 proceeding against a town zoning board of appeals has to be filed within 30 days of a decision.
Greco said Salton filed the lawsuit in October 2013, four months after the board denied him a variance.
"It was too late. It was well beyond the 30 days," Greco said.
Soller said after the zoning board of appeals denied Salton's application last year, the paperwork was not properly filed with the town clerk's office. He said there is no evidence as to when the board denied the application.
Greco said the "ministerial oversight" does not prevent the 30 days from running.
Aside from this argument, Greco also said that according to the prior supreme court ruling, Salton is illegally running a business at his home without a permit from the town's planning board.
He said as a result of the appellate court's latest decision, it is confirmed and no longer disputed that Salton is conducting a home occupation and was not grandfathered in by a 2005 zoning law.
He said Salton was denied a permit from the town's planning board in September 2012. Greco said the variance application asks the town to consider the same request he was denied two years ago.
"Same wine, different bottle," Greco said.
Soller said the exotic animals are therapeutic to Salton, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and leukemia, and has a son with a mental disability, he added.
The attorney also said Salton's wife suffers from multiple sclerosis; the family's life largely revolves around the animals' care.
"But the neighbors don't find it therapeutic," Aulisi said.
Salton currently lives at 3240 Route 30, Mayfield.
The legal battle can be traced to a 2011 town of Mayfield council meeting when Salton's neighbor, Richard Travis, raised concerns about the animals' proximity to his residence, the Donjes Woods subdivision, a residential neighborhood directly behind Salton's home.
Travis complained about the level of noise the animals made, their effect on his property value, and questioned whether the town's zoning laws permit Salton to keep endangered species on his property.
Travis was present for Monday's hearing, but declined to comment.
"I would rather not make a comment. I am just looking forward to this being over with. I have confidence in that man, right there," Travis added, as he pointed to Greco.