Loss of 'home rule' feared in DEP's watershed rules

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By Geoff Samuels
Catskill Watershed Corporation (CWC) President Georgiana Lepke called a special meeting at CWC headquarters last Friday to begin the analysis of a pair of “internal” documents that are certain to have far-reaching effects on watershed communities.

Spurred by Irene
CWC Executive Director Alan Rosa gave meeting attendees a brief history of the two documents. “This all came about because of Hurricane Irene,” he said, adding that the texts had only been available for examination by the CWC staff for about a week.
Rosa explained that back in 2011, with the realization that climate change would most likely continue to wreak havoc in the area, the Delaware County Board of Supervisors passed Resolution #147, calling for the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to re-allocate a portion of its land acquisition funds towards flood mitigation. Many of the surrounding municipalities also passed similar resolutions calling for the same action, all of which Rosa characterized as “having a large effect.”

Soon after the resolutions had been received by both federal and state officials, Judith Enck, the administrator for Region #2 of the Environmental Protection Agency (which includes New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands), called a meeting between the five county chairs in the watershed, plus the Coalition of Watershed Towns (CWT), the Catskill Watershed Corporation, the Watershed Protection and Partnership

‘Home Rule’ issues
As Cox made his way through the texts, one thing became apparent. He was ready to throw out the proverbial red flag for any wording (or lack thereof) that could be construed as forfeiture by watershed townships of “home rule.” And there were apparently a handful of those instances that fit the bill.

No town references
According to Cox’s analysis, in the various sections of the document governing the relationships between organizations involved in the flood mitigation process, there were no references to town board involvement to be found; expressions like “approval of the town board” appeared to be missing.

Cox also noted that although the term “project sponsor” was also mentioned, it was never defined. “If it’s anyone other than the town,” he said, “then the town board would not have the final say over the wording, the contents, or the recommendations...”

Polite controversy
Several comments were made by various board members during Cox’s roughly 40-minute recitation. In one of the instances where reference to township involvement was again deemed missing, CWC Board Member and DEP representative Jeff Graf spoke in defense of the document saying, “In a series of meetings…there were a bunch of people with different views trying to come up with some ideas, all with one goal which we all shared…to try to help communities. We put together a document, there’s nothing high and holy about it… (it was) our best shot at the time.”

Executive Director Rosa replied, “…we appreciate you stepping up to the plate…certainly… but this is the first time that (we) as a board have seen this document…the staff have only seen the document for about a week, so we’re just going over it…” Rosa went on to say that because the board of the CWC is elected by its member towns, it’s then the board’s responsibility to safeguard “Home Rule” for those towns.

Graf answered, “I only point this out to say that the original document of September was not a perfect document…if there is dissonance in these documents…we appreciate you highlighting the fact, but I just want to point out that it wasn’t an attempt to do anything…nefarious.”

Supervisors have their say
Town Supervisors Bruce Dolph of Walton, Marjorie Miller of Middletown, and Innes Kasanov of Halcott all spoke briefly about their recent experiences with the flood mitigation process. Even though they were appreciative of the CWC Board’s vigilance, a consensus emerged from the three that since their town boards and the flood commission were in many cases the same people, there wasn’t too much cause for alarm.

Dolph, who spoke first, claimed that although he understood the board’s skepticism, the current process had been working very well for them in Walton. “We have been very successful with it… there has never been a time since we’ve been working with the flood commission that we’ve been told we had to do anything. The information and the science is presented to us, and then we make a decision whether we’re going forward with the project or not.” Dolph said they had probably done in excess of a million dollars work in Walton. “It’s been a great program,” he said, “We would never have done any of it without (the city’s) help. We just don’t have the funds to do it.”

Miller, who is also the chair of East Branch Flood Commission, echoed much of Dolph’s sentiment. She pointed out that the commission is made up of members from virtually all the surrounding municipalities. “It’s part of this regional planning, she said, “Because if Hardenberg gets 12 inches of rain, it ends up in Arkville in Middletown. We need to plan together, we need to work together. I understand the points that came out, but any specific projects going forward in the future would have to be decided on by the Town Board. I think everyone on the Commission understands that…
Town of Halcott Supervisor Innes Kasanov, who is also a member of the East Branch Flood commission, was emphatic about having townships involved. “I go there (flood Commission) every month,” she said. “I know what’s happening, but I don’t always translate back to my town board. And I think it’s very important that everybody understands that…we should involve the town board, and it should be said here…very clearly.”

Final say
In a final reference to the flood mitigation documents under review, CWC Board of Directors President Georgianna Lepke had this to say: “I feel my obligation is that if the CWC is going to be supportive of a document, that we review as a whole the draft and the final document. We may need to have another committee meeting…there could be changes. My goal is, before we actually go on record and adopt something, that the board members…everyone, has the ability to review what that final document will be.”