Filtration Fiasco

--Everybody Loses This Game

From the Yorktown Observer, June 3, 1996. It is reproduced here by courtesy of the publisher.

Billion Dollar City Water Project Could Destroy Town . . . or Generate Big Tax $$$

The largest development project in the history of the Town of Yorktown -- second only to the creation of the Croton Reservoir in the 1800s -- is swiftly moving ahead without most residents in the Town seeming to know what the Town's rights and responsibilities are. A project which may be the size of the Jefferson Valley Mall, including parking area, could be covered with several huge buildings. Up to 150 trucks per day will be transporting vast quantities of material, initially construction material, and later lesser numbers of trucks transporting filtering earth, some of it containing hazardous wastes, traversing our roads. The pristine southern gateway to the Town may be permanently altered to give Yorktown a the appearance of a sludge plant community, as some areas of Yonkers or Peekskill.

On the other hand, the project may generate $18 million a year or more in new property taxes to the Town, the Yorktown school district and the County.

The Town's elected officials and political parties -- most publicly the Democrats -- have mobilized "petition drives" and issued stern press releases warning the City not to tread on us Yorktowners. A recent editorial in the North County News encouraged residents to get behind the Democrats' petition drive.

In short, little productive work is being done, and people are acting in complete ignorance.

Residents are rightly afraid, and deserve to receive clear answers to their questions about this mammoth project. Some of those who have the foresight to object and demand action are being treated as Chicken Little, suggesting that the sky is falling. But the sky may well really be falling. The huge project could not only destroy quality of life in much of Southern Yorktown, but poses the risk of significant depreciation of property values throughout town if we become the dumping ground.

To add to the picture, the confrontation need not even occur. The City attempted to secure strict watershed controls, so as to protect its drinking water. It was only when those efforts failed that the City opted to pursue the filtration option -- hugely expensive for New York City and with devastating impacts on Yorktown.

The Filtration Plant

Although no specific plan has been put forth, a few facts about the filtration plant can be assumed, based on the size and configuration of other plants and the prior D.E.P. proposals. The water filtration plant would cover an estimated 40 acres of land adjacent to the Croton Reservoir. It is projected to be placed on the South edge of the reservoir, adjacent to the existing pump house. Driving South on the Taconic parkway, the pumphouse is easily visible. However, the new structures may well dwarf the pumphouse, and likely will be very visible from the roadway.

The plant will require several years to be built, with attendant noise and truck traffic. When it is in operation, it is hardly a self-contained unit. The filtration process is expected to utilize a two step process: first, very high voltage electricity will be shot through the water (known as ozone processing); next, the water is run through diatomaceous earth (just like in some swimming pool filters). Diatomaceous earth is fine, white or cream-colored powdered material which comes from shells of small sea creatures. To operate the plant will require tons of this material to be hauled in and out each week.

It is the truck traffic which appears to be the greatest concern to residents of the south end; the visual aspect is a concern to residents throughout the town, since it may give the appearance that Yorktown is an industrial area like parts of Yonkers and Peekskill. In addition, when additional capacity is added to filter the Catskill Aqueduct, it seems likely that the existing filtration plant would be the likely site for the new plant. As can be seen, when one such facility is located in an area, it seems to attract new facilities.

Any Benefits of the Plant?

Many residents have asked whether the new filtration plant will pay any taxes to the Town of Yorktown, or whether it will supply filtered water to us. The answer to the latter question is easy: the plant will not supply filtered water to the Town, except perhaps to a few homes in the south end. The Town recently joined with Cortlandt and Montrose to establish a joint water works, however, and we will be building our own filtration plant.

The question of whether the City will pay tax dollars to Yorktown is less clear. We asked Bob Killeen, Yorktown's Assessor, who reported that some City property is exempt and other property is not. The test is whether the property in question is part of the aqueduct. Thus, hundreds of acres of vacant City-owned land pays property taxes to Yorktown each year; the building housing the D.E.P. police pays taxes each year (assessment: $21,750), as does the smaller structure near the pumphouse bridge (assessment: $13,380). Together, they pay about $15,000 a year on the two buildings alone.

However, the pumphouse/chlorination plant is exempt, and pays no taxes -- it is deemed to be a part of the aqueduct.

A filtration plant designed to filter and treat the water is not considered part of the aqueduct, and will be taxed like any other property. This information comes from two sources: first, we reviewed the City's own environmental filings and related literature, and found that they initially rejected Yorktown because the City would need to pay us huge sums in property taxes. Second, we telephoned the New York State Office of Real Property Services -- which has jurisdiction over all questions of property assessment and valuation in New York -- and were informed by Joseph Hesch of the counsel's office that yes, indeed, a treatment or filtration plant would not be exempt.

So how much would the filtration plant pay? Adding up all the taxes owed, they would pay at a rate of approximately $600 per 1,000 assessed valuation, and using the current equalization rate of 5%. Using $600 million as the cost of construction of the facility, which we are informed is a common manner of assessing a public project, the property could be assessed at $30,000,000, and pay annual property taxes of $18 million. Even if we are off by 100%, it's still a significant benefit to the Town of Yorktown, as well as the Yorktown school district and other special districts, resulting in the payment of as much as 20 to 30% of their annual budgets.

In their literature, the City has agreed that it may need to "put together a package of financial incentives sufficient to one of the Westchester localities to host the plant." This is in addition to the taxes they will be paying, and depends on the negotiating ability of the "host" community.

Wow, what a choice. As one Town insider put it, "my environmental side is fighting with my taxpayer side."

How We Came to Be The Target

The City is required to come into compliance with federal Clean Water standards within a few years, and has been ordered by the New York State Department of Health to build the filtration plant. Current tests indicate the City complies, and that its drinking water is within accepted guidelines. The problem is in the future, as standards become stricter and watershed pollution is expected to increase.

Initially, the City had attempted to place the filtration plant in Jerome Park, in the Bronx. However, local residents there were well organized, and mobilized against the project. The City therefore is looking at three alternate sites, Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, Yonkers and Yorktown.

Given that Mayor Giuliani is up for reelection next year, it seems unlikely that any location within the City will be selected for the plant. Accordingly, the decision will be between Yonkers and Yorktown. Given that Yonkers Republicans have vastly greater political clout than Yorktown's divided party, Yorktown seems the inevitable location of the plant.

Of course, the siting of such a facility is supposed to be based on careful consideration of environmental and financial matters, but the reality is quite different from the theory.

The Watershed Protection Agreement: Yorktown's Fate is Sealed

Last year, the Town, with a number of other watershed communities, concluded an historic agreement for the protection of the Croton watershed -- the same watershed as now requires construction of the huge filtration plant. Although the two topics have been treated a separate issues, they aren't.

The issue of watershed restriction involves Yorktown and other communities repairing or replacing their sewage treatment plants, which are overflowing raw sewage into the Croton watershed. Yorktown has been operating under a sewer "moratorium" of sorts for several years. We put the word in quotes because it's not really a moratorium.

The Town has simply barred any new lateral or trunk lines being connected to the Hallock's Mill sewage treatment plant. If you are near enough to an existing line, you are free to hook up -- and more raw sewage goes pouring into the watershed. Many homes have done so, despite the moratorium, and new developments continue to be processed. Not exactly what one normally thinks of as a moratorium.

Watershed restrictions also involve regulating and limiting the growth in the watershed area -- Yorktown upzoned hundreds of acres of watershed property to reduce potential development -- and other measures.

Although many residents never understood why, Yorktown led the fight against the proposed New York City watershed regulations. Elected officials warned that the restrictions would slow our growth and cede some local control to outsiders. The tough negotiations with the City led to what some labelled as "watered down" rules (sorry for the pun) which amounted to "half a loaf." Substantial benefits were also attained, however, as the City pledged millions of dollars to aid Yorktown and other communities in upgrading or diverting outdated sewage plants.

A "memorandum of agreement" was supposedly reached -- an agreement which no human in the Town of Yorktown seems to possess. Even former Supervisor Aaron Bock, a lead negotiator, had only a late and unsigned draft of the "agreement." Our conclusion is that there is no agreement.

The lack of a watershed agreement may be a boon, however, to those who want to oppose the plant. One of the clearest alternatives to the plant is the possibility of really eliminating pollution at the source. Clean water doesn't need to be filtered. According to any number of tax-conscious New Yorkers, they much prefer the possibility of the City giving us money to fix our polluting, to the billion dollar filtration boondoggle.

A ten-month long study by New York's prestigious City Club led to a recommendation against the construction of the filtration plant, and a preference for watershed protection. According to a March 1996 summary by the New York Conservation Education Fund, "The panel recommended greater protection and more rigorous implementation of existing regulations to preserve New York's watershed system...."

United States EPA Administrator Carole Browner was quoted earlier this month as agreeing, "It is my opinion that the best solution is to keep the pollution out of the water in the first instance." Local activists in the Bronx are also advocating immediate and serious study of the issue, and according to the Riverdale Press, have requested the EPA devote $500,000 to a study "to determine if sewage diversion ... and other protective measures upstate would keep the water clean enough to avoid filtration altogether."

We couldn't believe that no such study had not been done. How could the EPA suggest, and the state Department of Health require, the construction of a billion dollar facility without establishing that it is truly necessary? Yet that appears to be exactly what is happening. A call to the Regional Administrator of the EPA confirmed that they have no study establishing that watershed protection alone will not suffice.

Thus, there is an open door, by which local officials can work with the Bronx and Yonkers communities to study whether watershed protection can protect the City's water supply -- without the filtration plant ever needing to be built.

New York City Controller Allen Hevesi has made exactly this argument, suggesting that over the long run, the City will save billions by giving upstate communities (including Yorktown) millions to help protect the watershed. Perhaps the problem is that, from the City's perspective, the communities fought the City's proposed regulations, and the City really does not have that option.

Can the City Force Us to Accept the Plant?

Residents concerned about the filtration plant have asked if the City can impose the plant on us, though some type of "eminent domain" or condemnation. In fact, the City has no such right, but would not need it anyway; the likely site is City-owned property, and the City can build on it -- subject to getting required local permits.

The SEQRA Process

According to David Golub, a spokesman at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the City is currently involved in preparing a Draft Environmental Impact Statement under SEQRA (the State Environmental Quality Review Act), examining four potential sites for the plant. These sites are Jerome Park in the Bronx, Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, Yonkers and Yorktown. He predicted that the current site engineering would take several months, and that an environmental statement would not even be filed for 12 to 18 months. At that time, he indicated, there will be ample opportunity for public comment.

Some residents don't accept Golub's statements. They note that the City D.E.P. has slated for June 18 a public informational hearing to discuss repairs to the pumphouse bridge -- which connects the City's pumphouse to Route 129. This is exactly the route which the 150 trucks a day would travel, critics warn, observing that the bridge was repaired less than ten years ago. The true agenda, they suggest, is to make ready the bridge for heavier and steady truck traffic. The timing certainly is a coincidence.

The City states that the repair work is not structural, but merely replacement and painting.

The Requirement of Local Permits

Many residents has asked whether the City will be required to apply for permits to the Town of Yorktown. Although no answers have been provided by the Town, the answers are clear: the applicant must apply for three separate permits, a Zoning special permit, a Wetlands permit and a building permit. (In addition, if any roads are to be dug to lay pipe, certain road-opening permits may be required).

Zoning Special Permit -- The City is required to apply to Yorktown's Town Board for a special use permit before seeking to start construction. Under Section 90-19A(20) and 90-61 of the Yorktown Town Code, a special permit is required in a residential zone if the property owner seeks to construct or maintain a "Watershed and water supply facility not part of the town's water supply system." The City may seek to avoid this permit by offering to supply the few homes south of the reservoir near the pipeline -- estimates are 12 homes -- with the filtered water. If the Town has any sense at all, the Town will reject this proposal, so as to retain at least some decision-making authority over issuance of the permit. Even if the 12 homes are included, however, it is unclear if the City can avoid the special permit requirement.

The more significant aspect of this legal twist is that the Town Board must be offered the opportunity, in the SEQRA environmental review process, to be a "lead agency," i.e. to conduct and determine the scope of the SEQRA review. Working with the Town's Planning and Conservation Boards, the Town Board would then have authority to command the City to study and evaluate various mitigation options and alternatives.

Section 90-61, however, only contains four specific restrictions: First, "All . . . facilities shall be located so as not to cause any nuisance to surrounding properties." Second, "The Town Board may require suitable fencing or landscaping around any structures to safeguard the public and to screen the facilities from surrounding property." Third, "No outdoor storage of materials shall be permitted in any residence districts." Fourth, "No water towers shall exceed 100 feet in height [and] shall be located . . . twice their height from all property lines."

If it moved quickly, the Town Board could amend this law -- which has been on the books since 1958 -- to reflect modern realities. For example, the Town might place restrictions on the amount of truck traffic; restrictions on the visual pollution of having such a facility seen from the Taconic; and possible impact fees to the Town.

Town Wetlands Permit -- The City is also required to apply to the Town for a wetlands permit.

Some residents have questioned how the City could build the plant on the shore of -- and perhaps directly in -- the reservoir. As Huntersville Association President Paul Moskowitz noted, "if I tried to do that in a pond on my property, I'd be stopped." When he asked the Town Board if a wetland permit was required, he was told in essence that "the City can do what it wants; it's their reservoir."

In fact, the City was required to secure a Town wetlands permit before drilling in the reservoir, and will be required to apply for a wetlands permit when they start construction. There is no exemption in the Town's wetlands ordinance for the City or the reservoir. Indeed, in the past, the Town has sometimes required other departments of the Town obtain wetlands permits; when he was Conservation Officer, Nick Bianco issued a slew of summonses to the New York State Department of Transportation when they caused siltation of a Yorktown wetland. It is unclear why the Town has become so shy about asserting its wetlands jurisdiction.

Evaluation of Alternatives: How Opponents Can Fight the Plant

If the filtration plant is to be built, those who want to oppose it should do exactly what we have proposed above -- work now with citizens in the Bronx and Yonkers to prove that other alternatives -- such as watershed protection -- are cheaper and will be effective. Even if the EPA and Health Department then decide that the City must build the plant, there must be a SEQRA environmental review. One aspect of the SEQRA process is the evaluation of such alternatives.

Fixing the Yorktown Sewage Plant: Step One

The first step in establishing constructive alternatives to filtration is to compute the true cost of repairing, upgrading or diverting the Hallocks Mill and Lakeside sewage plants to stop polluting the watershed. This work has been done, and sits in the Town Hall, somewhere.

The second step is to perform the same analysis for the Lakeside treatment plant located off Route 202 near Hunterbrook Road. The Town has proposed, and is moving ahead with the proposed creation of a new Hunterbrook Sewer District. Although the contours of that district a wildly drawn, encompassing many residents who have no prospect of ever seeing sewers, the concept is to spread the cost of turning Lakeside into a pump station and sending the sewage to the Annsville facility in Peekskill; an existing line from there, is only a mile or two away.

Once we have the costs, we can ask the City for some money to get the work done now; if the regulatory authorities realize that demonstrable progress is being made to protect the watershed, they will afford the City additional time to filter. Once again, it is a matter of negotiating with the City.

Petitions and nasty letters serve no useful function.

What to Look For Now

The most significant current activity is quietly occurring in the New York State Department of Health, where New York City is begging for another year extension on the D.O.H. command that the City build the plant. If the City fails to get an extension, then they are forced to build it at the Jerome Park location, since that is the site which was the focus of their environmental review and has been their first choice. They simply would not have the time to evaluate another site, go through a full environmental review, and still comply with D.O.H.

However, if the City gets an extension, expect them to go forward immediately with a carrot and stick approach to Yonkers and Yorktown. The stick is the threat that they will build it, even if we don't want it. The carrot is substantial property tax dollars and other financial "incentives," such as free water or other mitigation measures.

If indeed the City has zeroed in on Yorktown -- as appears to be the case -- then an application will be forthcoming later this year, and the environmental process will move swiftly.

Let's hope that, by then, local officials have decided what we want to do, and have evaluated some of the legal pitfalls and opportunities described above.

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