"Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder" - Ancient Greek Proverb
The Wall of Cars
Junkyard Owner Builds Unique Fence to Comply with Town Order
By Carol W. LaGrasse
Gene Crandall has been in business recycling in Port Byron since 1972. One of the products that he developed at his plant in an industrial building he owned near the Erie Canal was land bedding from ground cardboard. He did the first job using the green hydro-seed mulch in New York State.
At the plant, he recycled several paper types from the waste stream, from newsprint to ledger. But, he said, "The municipalities didn't understand it."
This may be because other forces were also at work.
During the 1980's, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation was leading municipalities to centralize solid waste disposal. At the time, many municipalities experienced State pressure to keep the solid waste stream high, even though state law called for maximizing recycling. Plus, the officials in the many counties stood to gain more power from the nascent movement to build regional solid waste disposal facilities, instead of the simple, low-budget landfills located in each individual town.
Mr. Crandall was hit with tax foreclosures by the Town of Mentz, where Port Byron is located. He had sold his land, but kept a mortgage on it. Town and county agencies are obligated to notify the mortgage holder, rather than the individual who has purchased the land, when the taxes are in arrears, but the local officials never notified Mr. Crandall. He also lost his industrial building to tax foreclosure. He fought an eight-year court battle and regained title to his land, but lost his industrial building.
Mr. Crandall had started out as a teacher. One of the features of his high school class was that he involved parents in the classroom. But his now-proven teaching method was decades ahead of the time. The principle told him that he would be fired if he had the parents in the classroom any more.
It was the early 1970's, when the nation first faced solid waste explosion, and before the government had set out to take over. Mr. Crandall's instinct see potential where others missed it took him in another creative direction, recycling.
"I set up a little manufacturing plant to take waste out of the stream and put it into use," he recalled.
He recently explained some of the intricacies of recycling. He had been turning newsprint into cellulose insulation at his plant near the Erie Canal. In keeping with the paramount goal of New York's law dating from the very beginning of modern solid waste legislation to reduce the waste stream, he took waste newsprint out of the stream and turned in into useful insulation that stays in place until a house is destroyed. By losing his industrial building, he had to give up making products like this. He turned to recycling metals, which can be done outdoors.
"I used vehicles as the source of metals," he said. "Then of course I became a junkyard."
In 1994, the town passed a junkyard law requiring an annual license. In 2000, when he applied to renew his license, the town imposed a condition that he put up a fence. Mr. Crandall's business, Pik-n-Pay, is off the road in a way that a person would generally not notice it when driving by.
The officials even gave him a map of where to place the fence. But while he was putting it up, the officials served him a stop work order.
"They arrested me as a criminal," he recalled indignantly.
"They got a Supreme Court injunction to shut my business down and got a summary judgement of $3 million," Mr. Crandall recalled.
He appealed to the Appellate Court, and got a stay. Then, in November 2000, the Appellate Court ruled in his favor. But the Town would still not renew his license.
In all of its battles in court with Mr. Crandall, the Town of Mentz has spent over $70,000. Mr. Crandall, on the other hand, has also had to hire attorneys, and has been fighting for the survival of his business.
This year the Town still would not renew his license. Yet he still tried to work congenially with the officials.
One of the town board members is an activist for the Erie Canal, he said. Mr. Crandall may have run into beautification goals for the Mohawk Valley Heritage Area, which is a major New York State tourism effort. All of the Heritage areas, such as that for the Erie Canal, have goals that run counter to their often productive industrial heritage. This is ironic in view of the growing popularity of tours of modern industry.
"I invited her to come down, to see how nice and clean my yard is," he said, but she did not come. "See how I'm in compliance with DEC and DMV," he asked, to no avail. "They're so blind."
"I'm a taxpayer; you should listen to me," he thought out loud recently.
The Town had said that the fence around his junkyard needed completing. He got to work with his W36 Case payloader and began stacking cars, one by one. Every color and make of car, four high. (see large photo)
The windows in the building he used to own afforded a good view of his industry.
"When I was stacking those cars it was like a beehive, because the town officials were peaking out of the building," he quipped.
When he finished the wall of cars, it stretched for one-quarter mile. Each car sets cleanly atop the one below, and they all run lengthwise, a giant four-layered train of automobiles.
"The reason why the cars ended up stacked like that is when they wouldn't give me my license this year, when I got the injunction, these are the ones I couldn't get off my property." Mr. Crandall said recently. "Eighty percent were moved. Twenty percent are stacked."
"They got kind of popular, stacked up on the property line all the way out," Mr. Crandall said.
"I went up to the farm supply store and got gates. Then I got sheet metal and put it up over the gates," said Mr. Crandall, answering the usual concern of whether the interior of the junkyard was completely shielded from view.
"The fence now meets the DMV junkyard law. When the Town went after me, the State said I qualified," he said.
The wall of cars has a powerful industrial beauty. It is not visible, however, except from restricted vantage points, such as a county nature trail along the old Erie Canal towpath and in a limited way from a road.
"I end up being nothing more than a community janitor, taking up what they leave behind," Mr. Crandall said. "I've spent my whole life doing recycling."
But some would say that Gene Crandall deserves a medal for his service to society instead of the harassment that government officials heap on private recyclers.
"The statue is for sale," Mr. Crandall says.
LaGrasse, who is the president of the Property
Rights Foundation of America, is a licensed professional engineer,
retired from the field of solid waste disposal and also retired
as a town councilman who served during the late 1980's and early 1990's.