ALDEN, N.Y. (WIVB) — Officials call it a junkyard. The property owner Douglas Benzee, calls it a hobby. Will this decade-old property rights battle in Erie County ever end?
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. She said Breeze, her neighbor, has defied town laws to turn his property off Walden Avenue in Alden into a junkyard.
The town agreed, saying that Benzee needs an engineering document, called a site plan, that could cost thousands of dollars. On any given day, one could find 40 or more cars, boats, trucks, and trailers on the property.
“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 (DMV) and Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)—said that they have investigated the matter, concluding that it does not fall under their jurisdiction. 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.
The contents of Benzee’s property is “a bunch of junk,” according to Levan-Banko. “He buys and sells, and—if you look at the dumpster behind me—he crushes vehicles and puts it in the dumpster,” she 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 said he was told that 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.” Benzee also owes some $80,000 in property taxes and interest fees. He said they accumulated when he lost his job and fell on hard times.
Indeed, Benzee is in the crosshairs of government officials, and it’s not the first time he’s found himself in trouble. He was cited for similar code violations at a property in Elma that he owned before he sold it in November 2019.
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 that 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 allows 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, said that Benzee is violating 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, that 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. And when it comes to the town’s inspector. “He don’t like me and I don’t like him,” Benzee said. “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 periodically inspects Benzee’s property, counting the number of unlicensed vehicles on the property to report back to the court. Benzee calls it trespassing, but Snyder maintains a legal right to enter the property, per town code.
These often ugly encounters are recorded on the Ring cameras Benzee has surrounding his property. “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.
“Hey, Chris! You stupid [expletive]. Get outta here!” Benzee is heard yelling at the code officer on one Ring video. He said he used 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. He said it would be considered “self-defense.” He insists that he said, “‘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.”
Snyder filed a complaint with the DMV 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, DMV does not regulate the storage of old vehicles.
Complaints were also filed with the DEC, 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.
Adamski was critical of both state agencies not offering any help. “Maybe it’s small fish to them,” he said. “It’s a huge fish—it’s a whale to the Town of Alden.”
Benzee has run into problems like this before on property he owned with his parents on Gaylord Court in Elma. Local code enforcement officers told NEWS10’s Buffalo affiliate 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. But 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. “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.’”
She said she’s sick over waiting for the courts and the town to settle the matter. Levan-Banko also said she felt like it was time to put more pressure on the authorities to resolve the problem sooner rather than later. “It’s just been going on and on and I’ve tried to email any Assemblymen, Senators,” she said. “Nothing is being done.”