Jan. 13, 2010: Fairness need for upstate residents

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Editor’s note: The following letter was written to New York City Mayor Bloomberg. The author asked that it be reprinted here as a letter to the editor.

Dear Mr. Bloomberg,
I am writing from a small town called Andes in the Catskill Mountains, a place I call home, and you and your constituents call your watershed. My wife and I are landowners here having purchased 370 acres, some of it 24 years ago, and are planning to keep it as open space maintaining fields and forest. What I am writing to you about are two things, natural gas drilling and fairness.
I am a dedicated conservationist and land steward and have been all my life. You may say after reading this that I want to have my cake and eat it too, well I wish I could, as I wish we all could, but I know better. Natural gas drilling in the watershed is potentially a threat to the water that hydrates your constituency, some nine million people, myself and neighbors inhabiting the area. There have been many loud voices asking that gas drilling be prohibited by law. Never is there a word about fairness to the private landowners whose land ownership includes the mineral rights existing below that land. These rights were deeded upon purchase of the land with hard earned dollars and also maintained continuously by the payment of very high town and school taxes even though the open land which includes trees, streams and springs (which supply our water) need no infrastructure or schooling. Although unfair, I don’t mind paying these taxes as I understand the societal need.
New York City’s nearly nine million inhabitants benefit from me and my neighbors keeping our lands open and undeveloped. Our land, along with state and city land, is the primary source of their clean unfiltered drinking water. I often wonder how many of these nine million people recognize this fact? This is where the issue of fairness comes into play. Let me say first that I am not asking for fairness, as I recognize that we live in a majoritarian democracy and as one of our forebears said, “In a democracy the minority lives under the tyranny of the majority.” All I am asking for is a smidgen of fairness and recognition by NYC and its inhabitants as to what private landowners in the watershed are doing: protecting their water supply by not developing, not bottling our precious water and selling it, both of which could be quite lucrative and paying very high land taxes. If this recognition of the need for fairness were to prevail, it could be expressed by NYC paying at least 50 percent of our onerous land taxes. A very small amount added to the water usage fees would pay for this and help get users to realize the value of this commodity and in turn do more to conserve it.
I am fully aware of the DEP Land Acquisition Program that purchases private land in fee and conservation easements on those lands in perpetuity. This program, to alleviate the pressure by the Federal EPA to build a filtration plant, saves NYC billions of dollars. I am also aware of the funding of the Catskill Watershed Corporation and the Watershed Agricultural Council by NYC which in effect saves the city billions and protects against the loss of the Filtration Avoidance Determination by EPA. Conservation easements with the City of NY looking over the shoulder of the landowner in perpetuity are not for everybody, including myself.
Mayor Bloomberg, if you want to get your way with arbitrarily taking the inherent and paid for right of landowners to drill for natural gas for the protection of clean water for your nine million constituents, I believe you should consider a smidgen of fairness by having them pay what would be a very small fee to the Catskill private landowners for what we are doing for them.

Jack McShane,
Andes