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The land I love: George Sarris stands near his Clifton Park pond.

A Wing and a Prayer

A Clifton Park wildlife rehabilitator runs afoul of neighbors and local zoning laws—and has no intention of backing down

By Chet Hardin
Photos by Chris Shields

 

Robert Newell steps out of his house with a small, decorative evergreen tree in his arms. It is a warm December Sunday afternoon in Clifton Park, and he and Theresa Schillaci are decorating a little before the holidays. He carries the fake plant over to the fence that closes in part of their front yard. Apparently, he is contemplating placing three of these small trees on the posts of that fence.

From his neighbor’s yard, a duck lets out a call. Newell snaps at the unseen bird.

“Whoa! Whoa!” he yells. “Simmer down!”

The duck, however, is pleasantly undeterred, and she lets off a string of similar expletives.

“Quack, quack, quack, quack.”

“Yeah,” Newell says to himself, “Quack, quack, quack, quack, quack, quack.”

Newell and Schillaci live in Woodcrest Pointe, a quiet development of townhouses tucked in between Moe Road and Stoney Creek Reservoir. The reservoir, a large manmade body of water roughly 100 yards to the west, feeds wetlands that run along the north and through the southern part of this neighborhood. Their two-story home predates the development, and sits back from the street, giving it an unusual seclusion. Schillaci says that there is an assortment of wildlife that can be found in her yard, next to the tiny creek, and in the woods behind. Standing in their backyard, looking off into the wooded wetlands, one easily gets the sense that this development has pushed itself into a virgin environment.

The property of their closest neighbor, George Sarris, starts about 14 feet from their house, with the transition demarcated by a tall, split-rail fence. As the couple continues to fuss about in their yard, Sarris stands quietly in his, watching two wild ducks struggle to free themselves from a large cage. The ducks are so scared that they fail to recognize that the cage door is propped open with a brick.

The chain-link cage stands about 6 feet tall, a little longer in length and a few feet wide. Inside, there is a large bowl filled with feed. Sarris, who operates an animal sanctuary on his property, was ordered by the courts to erect the pen in an effort to curb the unintended feeding of wild birds, as part of an ongoing legal battle with Newell, who drives a delivery truck for Sysco, and Schillaci, who works for Carbonic Sales and Service in Albany.

Before he set up the cage, Sarris says, he would place handfuls of food in out-of-the-way areas, under shrubs and such, so that only his resident birds would know where to go to eat. Now, with the court order, he has to feed the birds in one spot only—inside the cage, in a big, attractive heap of food.

“So now the wild birds that fly over know exactly where to find the feed. Before, they couldn’t see the food from the air. Now it’s right there,” he says, and sighs. “This is the learning curve that I am dealing with.”

Sarris, along with his wife, Joy, bought this property back in 2000, and he has since worked tirelessly to transform the once-neglected land, roughly 2.5 acres (much of it federally protected wetlands), into a thriving sanctuary. He hosts 23 wild and exotic birds, including domestic ducks, geese and a pair of Muted swans, some with genetic defects, others that have been injured and are incapable of surviving in the wild. Sarris has both a federal and state license as a wildlife rehabilitator, he says, with more than 25 years of experience in the field.

“I grew up in New York,” he says, “and when we came back here, we were specifically looking for protected wetlands. We knew that this area here couldn’t be developed, and that’s what we wanted and we bought it.”

Sarris is a serious man, an ex-cop, and he has that grave disposition that must come from spending years on a police force. He has a deceptively dry sense of humor and a seemingly boundless supply of energy, and when he engages in conversation about wildlife, there is no telling where it will lead. A onetime law student, he has encyclopedic knowledge about animals and natural areas that lends itself to tangents on biology, chemistry, law, history and politics.

“We have the highest rate of success with waterfowl of any sanctuary this side of the Mississippi,” Sarris says. “I have people call me from Iowa, Illinois. We’ve had other sanctuaries send their animals to us. And they survive here.”

Nearly two years ago, Newell and Schillaci sued Sarris, claiming that the activity in his sanctuary was creating for them an unbearable situation. He has made his land so attractive to wildlife, they allege, by increasing the size of the natural pond, by putting out feed, by keeping resident birds, and so on, that flocks of ducks—60, 70 at a time—are drawn to his property daily. At points, Schillaci claims, the number of birds on Sarris’ property can reach 150.

Before Sarris moved in, Schillaci says, she would see maybe a few birds now and then, but the wildlife was rare and unobtrusive. At least, she says, she could use her backyard before Sarris. And she could get a full night’s sleep.

Now, she says, “The nuisance is horrendous. The noise—this week, three times I have been woken up at 5 AM. As soon as the sun comes up, they quack. I sleep with earplugs every night. I can’t open my bedroom window. We have had ducks in our yard. We have had eggs in our yard. We have had mating in our yard. I have them in our driveway. We have duck waste on our cars, in our driveway, in our yard, on our siding, on our house.”

“You may have read that they don’t quack,” she says, “that they don’t make noise.”

Sarris has argued that none of his ducks could be causing any of the alleged commotion, as male ducks don’t quack, and in a move to comply with the courts, Sarris has agreed to only keep males as residents. In this way, he is cooperating, he says. But, he has no control over the sex of the ducks who fly in.

“I have tapes of being woken up at 3 AM, 4 AM,” Schillaci says, “a brief 30-minute tape—the Greatest Hits, as we call it.”

“The media has presented us as rotten bastards,” she adds, with notable irritation. “I say, ‘Come to my house at 5 AM; stand there in the backyard! Live with it for four years!’ It’s extremely frustrating.”

Behind her house, Schillaci draws a circle in the air to indicate the general area at the back of her yard where a fox chased down and killed a wild duck. It was a bloody affair, she says, the fox leapt upon the helpless bird, ripped it apart and dragged the corpse across the grass.

“Now, do you want go outside after you see something like that?” she asks.

Newell, in turn, points out dried, white splotches on his siding and windows that look like the small splatters of fecal matter.

“Here,” he says, pointing, “and here, and here, and there. We don’t wash our house any more.” There is no point, he says, because the wild ducks continue to fly over his property, venting on his house, his car, his driveway.

The migrating mallards on Sarris’ pond work themselves into a round of quacks, beating their wings against the surface of the water. Newell, a big man with bleary eyes, winces. Each squawk seems to send shudders through his chest. Schillaci looks frustrated, like a woman who has spent years debating an obvious point with a brick wall.

“But ducks don’t quack,” she says. “You don’t hear that, do you? Of course not, because ducks don’t quack!”

Sarris goes through the list of damages that Newell and Schillaci have claimed in court, and in their original complaint: They can’t sleep at night because of the sound of the ducks; they have fecal matter all over their cars and house; their basement has been flooded by Sarris’ pond; Newell no longer takes walks around the neighborhood because he is so distraught; he has gained weight because of the ducks; Schillaci has suffered from pulmonary damage; and Newell claims they no longer have sexual relations, because of the stress.

“I have seen his woman,” Sarris exclaims. “It ain’t the ducks at all!”

The claims, Sarris argues, are flatly false.

“On cross-examination, my attorney, Peter Henner, asked him [Newell] why he thought he was gaining weight and he said, after a pause, ‘I eat too much.’ ” Sarris sneers. When Henner asked what the doctor’s diagnosis was that lead Schillaci to believe that she had pulmonary disease, he was told that she hadn’t seen a doctor.

Sarris takes special offense to the claim that his pond is flooding their basement, considering that his land, as he points out, sits five feet lower than theirs.

“That’s pretty ballsy,” he says.

And this would be funny, he adds, but there is a $250,000 lien against his house, due to this suit. If he loses the case, there is the possibility that he will have to pay for their legal fees, which could easily amount to more than $100,000.

“I have already spent our savings, cashed in our stocks,” he says, to pay his own attorney fees. “I have spent $118,000, not counting my last bill. It is going to be over $125,000 by the end of this month.”

On Nov. 20, Saratoga County Supreme Court Justice Stephen Farradino issued a Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law in the case. In it, Farradino ruled that Sarris’ activities “are egregious in that those actions constitute an intentional and flagrant refusal to acknowledge the application of legally established zoning . . . ” The judge further stated that he would grant a preliminary injunction (which he has yet to do) that Sarris fears will force him to cease and desist the maintenance of his animal sanctuary, in order to abate the nuisance. This could mean that he would have to stop feeding the ducks and geese and relocate or even destroy the rare and vulnerable birds.

“What we have is someone who moved to a wetlands area,” Sarris says of Newell, “who essentially is saying, ‘Wildlife is a nuisance to me.’ Well, why did he buy a house in a protected area? This land is for the wildlife only!”

Which comes right to the heart of the matter, Sarris says: The confusing and contemptuous use of zoning by the town of Clifton Park.

“We have to be clear,” says Louis Renzi, an attorney for Clifton Park. “There are actually two different cases on parallel tracks here.” One is the nuisance lawsuit leveled against Sarris by Newell and Schillaci, to which Sarris has filed his own countersuit.

The other is the ongoing battle between Sarris and the town of Clifton Park over the zoning of his property and the allowed uses within that zone. (It has been reported that Renzi is also a former employee of the Galvin and Morgan law firm, which is representing Newell and Schillaci).

Frustrated by what they claimed was an unbearable situation, Newell and Schillaci approached the town of Clifton Park years ago and complained about Sarris. “Newell had spread the word around the neighborhood that we were butchering the birds here in the fall,” Sarris says. “He sent out a letter saying that there was 10,000 chickens.”

“So the town came out and said, ‘Get rid of the ducks or get a variance,’ ” Sarris recalls. “I said no to that. The ducks belong here. The ducks are zoned here. This is wildlife. I bought these wetlands to use them and restore them.”

At the beginning of 2005, Sarris was ticketed for maintaining wildlife in a residential area without the proper variance. He represented himself in court and lost, paid the $250 fine and contacted an attorney.

He never appealed that case, Renzi says. Instead, he took the ruling to the New York State Supreme Court in Saratoga County and filed a declaratory relief, in essence asking the higher court to rule on the rightness of the lower court’s decision.

At the heart of the case are several sections of the town’s zoning code, Renzi explains. Sarris’ property, he contends, is zoned residential, or R-1. However, on top of that R-1 zone is an overlay of the more restrictive land-conservation zoning, or L-C, because of the state-designated wetlands running through the backyard. However, under either zoning designation, Renzi says, Sarris simply does not have enough land to maintain his sanctuary.

Sarris owns roughly 2.5 acres of land. Under the R-1 designation, the town code requires at least five acres to perform “animal-husbandry activities.” Under the L-C zoning, at least 100,000 square feet are required to conduct nonpermitted uses, the permitted uses being a “park, residential boat launch, nature preserve, game preserve or other similar use.” The town is arguing that his usage of the land does not fall into any of those designations.

But the original zoning of his property, Sarris argues, when he bought the land in 2000, had no mention of an L-C overlay. In fact, most of the land was zoned L-C, as it ought to have been. His wetlands, which feed into a water supply, were delineated by the Army Corps of Engineers as a high-water mark, giving his land top protection, Sarris says. “They call it a ‘unique wetlands.’ ”

The town, in March of this year, released a new zoning map with his wetlands now zoned R-1, with the L-C overlay, which Sarris blasts as a blatant disregard for the federal and state designation of his land.

“You can take a residential zone and put an L-C designation over it,” Sarris agrees. However, he argues, the town cannot take L-C zoned land, federally protected wetlands, redesignate it residential, and then place an L-C overlay on top of it. The only reason to do that, he says, is to weaken the land’s protection to allow for future development.

“The turning point is this: Is this a residential zone or not?” Sarris asks. And if it is not, as he believes, he doesn’t see how the town could sensibly argue that an animal sanctuary is not a permitted use in a land-conservation zone. “The law permits a boat launch, a nature preserve or other similar use,” he stresses.

“It is an unfortunate situation,” Renzi says. “It really is, but Mr. Sarris hasn’t made it a bit easier on himself or on us or on his neighbors. . . . It is a situation I have seen time and time again in the world of land use and zoning. People just assume they can do anything they want, without going to look at what the code says.”

“This case has generated a lot of sympathy,” Renzi continues. “Everybody is looking at these ducks, going, ‘Oh, aren’t they pretty. How could they possibly be hurting anybody?’ But none of the folks that are saying that live next to this man.”

‘I couldn’t be more pro-George Sarris!” declares Layne Zagorski. Over the past the few weeks, a grassroots effort has grown in support of Sarris, and Zagorski is one of the group’s most active organizers. She also happens to be one of Sarris’ nextdoor neighbors. She and her husband, Rich, live with their two young daughters in a townhouse that shares a driveway with Newell and Schillaci, with her backyard facing Sarris’ backyard.

“I’m smack-dab between the warring factions,” she jokes.

Zagorski feels so strongly in her support of Sarris, she has even written a letter to Judge Farradino, arguing on behalf of Sarris and his sanctuary. The value of the resource Sarris has provided, she says, is immeasurable.

“I have spent a lot of time down there,” she says. “In the summer, I take my kids down there everyday. . . . I can’t say enough about how much we love it. He always has some interesting animal that he is rehabbing. We even had one of my daughter’s birthday parties down there—about 15 kids. There were all these baby ducks that had just hatched a couple days before that. He let the kids put them in the water for the first time. He always wants the kids down there. He is always happy to have people down there.”

As far as Newell and Schillaci’s complaints about noise and bird waste, she just doesn’t buy it.

“I have never had it on my deck, the house, anything,” she says. “I am in the same vicinity that he Newell is. They don’t fly over and do it over your head. It’s not like they are pigeons.”

Another of Sarris’ supporters, Tina Hudson, didn’t start out as a supporter. Hudson lives directly across the street from Sarris. From her house, you can see Sarris’ front door. She says that she had been told by Newell that Sarris was slaughtering ducks on his property.

“I didn’t know enough,” Hudson says. “We would hear an occasional quacking from his property and I’d be like, ‘Oh my God, what is going on back there?’ Having grown up on a horse farm, I have always loved animals. So it really bothered me that he was back there killing ducks. I belong to an animal-rescue organization, Capital District Humane.”

And this carried on for over a year, she says. “I used to give him dirty looks.”

Her opinion changed one night, she says, when she was out walking her dog. They had walked down the street and onto the cul-de-sac that abuts Sarris’ property, and there she saw a Canada goose. It had looked as though it had been attacked, she remembers. It was missing a leg, its head was bloody and it was missing past of its back end.

“And being an animal person, I come running home. I call Encon, and they are like, ‘Leave a message and someone will get back to you,’ ” she recalls. “I called animal control. I called the police department, and was advised the only thing they could do was euthanize the bird. And I am frantic about this. And one of my neighbors says to me, ‘Why don’t you call George?’ And I am like, ‘Doesn’t he kill these birds?’ And she is like, ‘No, he is a wildlife rehabilitator.’ ”

So she called Sarris and together they captured the bird and took it back to Sarris’ house. There, she says, he tended to the bird’s wounds.

“To this day,” Hudson beams, “that animal has got a wooden leg and he is over there living his life. So that’s how I found out who Sarris actually is.”

Since then, Hudson has become friends with Sarris. On occasions, she even goes over to his house to feed the birds when he is away.

“That place is absolutely, 100-percent kept-up, clean. There is nothing bad going on over there. I mean, who do you call? Like with that Canada goose—who do you call?” she asks. “That man should be commended rather than chastised by everybody.”

‘When we first met, Uncle Bob didn’t even know I was a wildlife rehabilitator,” Sarris says. (Uncle Bob is his nickname for Newell.) “He used to brag to me about shooting the ducks and squirrels because he said that they were a nuisance.”

“He throws mothballs in the pond to poison the pond to kill the fish,” Sarris says. “He shoots the ducks with a BB gun, and says he is getting target practice. And he is so bizarre, if I am sitting in my chair and not moving, he doesn’t see me and comes out in front of me and does it.”

Sarris says that he has found dead birds that have gotten too close to Newell’s property. “Some of them would get to close to the fence, and I would see heads stuck through the fence on his side.”

Most disturbingly, Sarris continues, a neighbor told him that one morning he had seen Newell run out of his house with a shovel, while still in his bathrobe, and beat an exotic duck to death while the duck was on Sarris’ property. “And while it was still flapping its wings,” Sarris says, “he put it in a plastic bag and put it in the trash.”

The story cracks Sarris’ normally no-nonsense demeanor. “I have healed these birds,” he says, obviously upset. “You know how it feels to see the birds running away from the pond because Uncle Bob is shooting at them with a BB gun?”

Sarris maintains that he is the victim of a concerted effort by the town and his neighbors to shut down his legal sanctuary, to drive him into bankruptcy and to get him off his land—valuable land in the middle of a quickly developing area that any builder would love to get his hands on.

“It is crime,” he says. “It is malicious prosecution. It is organized crime. I am outraged. They are trying to tie me up in court while they develop the wetlands all around me. How can you reason with people like this? They are playing real hardball here.”

“People talk about the animals rights. What about my rights?” he asks. “It is my explicit right as a citizen to have wildlife in a wildlife zone. It is very exciting for me to go out four or five times a day, and sit with them and observe them. People write books on them, but you can’t have the same experience that you can have here in a sanctuary. Watching their behaviors, when they are threatened, how they interact. This might not be exciting for other people, but it is very exciting to me.”

“And by God,” he concludes, “I am not budging.”

chardin@metroland.net


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