Delaware supervisors call for NYC to end watershed land buys

By Matthew J. Perry
The Delaware County board of supervisors on January 23 unanimously passed Resolution 27, a strongly worded document that questions the validity of a State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) and protests what Middletown Supervisor Len Utter described as New York City’s “blatant disregard” for the county’s economy.
The resolution calls for no less that a freeze on money allocated for land acquisition under the 2007 Filtration Avoidance Determination, an EPA requirement that gives New York City 10 years to spend $300 million to protect its watershed through land purchases in lieu of building water filtration facilities.
The supervisors contend that the SEQRA conducted to support the 2006 Long Term Watershed Protection Program did not sufficiently consider the impact of the land acquisition on local townships, brought on by tax reassessments, restrictions on development and a debilitating increase in real estate values.
Attention was called to a negative declaration within the SEQRA, which declared that no substantially detrimental effects will occur to the environment or existing townships should the land acquisition continue as mandated. The supervisors and county Watershed Affairs Com- missioner Dean Frazier believe that eco-impact studies performed did not acknowledge the severity of the burdens placed on watershed towns.

Assessment challenges
In addition, Utter noted the deleterious effect on tax rolls presented by the city’s challenges to assessments of lands and buildings within the watershed. Funds to combat the challenges are provided to the townships through a CWC Tax Consulting Fund, “a godsend” according to Utter, which has been exhausted. Frazier confirmed that the entire fund has been either spent or committed. Resolution 27 calls for the city to replenish the fund.
“These challenges could break a town,” said Utter. “We’ve seen this early in Margaretville, but I predict the city will challenge assessments throughout the county.”
The supervisors’ resolution echoes many points made in a November 2007 resolution passed by the Catskill Watershed Corporation (CWC), which state that New York City filed lawsuits against “11 municipalities based upon claims that city-owned property, including reservoirs, dams, and wastewater treatment plants, in those municipalities were over-assessed.”

Most serious issue
The CWC resolution also concluded that reassessment battles are “the most serious issue presently facing the towns in the West of Hudson Watershed” and noted that a standard for resolving these disputes has yet to be created by any court.
Utter stated that a new eco-impact study that more thoroughly investigated the economic conditions created by the FAD was a necessity. Frazier told the Catskill Mountain News that funds had been reserved for a new study. “We’ll be looking for a good study that quantifies the impacts on these towns,” he said. “It’s hard to get people to listen to anecdotal evidence.” The county hopes to produce the study by 2009.
Resolution 27 also calls for the DEC “to serve as the lead agency to ensure the proper execution of the SEQRA” as a means to create more oversight in the land acquisition process.
Hamden Supervisor Wayne Marshfield offered a particular example of the FAD in his community. “Land is going for $3,100 an acre in Hamden,” he said. “There aren’t many local residents who can pay that price.” As a result, he says, land ownership by local residents becomes harder, and even housing prices are driven up beyond what many can afford.
Resolution 27 also states that the county has supported the 2007 FAD as it was described in the Memorandum of Agreement, and has “invested substantially in local watershed protection and stewardship initiatives through the Delaware County Action Plan.” Supervisors seemed to be asking for the city’s interests to play by the established rules.
“They should be buying land that protects the water quality,” said Chairman Jim Eisel. “But it’s been a shotgun approach.”