As legislators agree to expand sewer district, towns plan to sue

| 22 Feb 2012 | 01:33

    GOSHEN — Orange County’s sewer district will expand to include the former Camp LaGuardia campus in Chester, legislators decided in a very close vote on Aug. 5. The 11-10 vote was a cliffhanger, with several legislators wavering until the last minute. The expansion will provide the sewer infrastructure Mounto Development Corp. needs to build 907 houses and develop expansive commercial space on the county-owned property. But legislators made it clear they will honor their legal obligation to the towns of Chester and Blooming Grove, who will make the final decision about whether to change their zoning codes to accommodate Mountco’s plans. Still, the project can now move forward, although a host of obstacles remain — including legal opposition from the host towns of Chester and Blooming Grove. Blooming Grove Supervisor Frank Fornario said he had wanted to avoid suing the county for illegally taking control of the sewer district. He was angry that the room full of representatives refused to table the vote for one more month to give the towns a chance to tell their side of the story. Chester Supervisor Steve Neuhaus made a similar plea. Not only had he and Fornario been side-stepped in the decision, he said, but Mountco’s president, Joel Mounty, was also not consulted. Negotiations over zoning changes and the number of houses to be allowed means the entire contract will probably be rewritten, he said. There is some talk of lowering the purchase price in return for fewer houses. The county says it will consider offers from other prospective developers, but is not actively advertising for them. Neuhaus said it is not yet known how much sewer capacity Mountco will need. He encouraged legislators to call Joel Mounty directly to get the true story. After the session, Neuhaus said Chester and Blooming Grove will do their own environmental review of whatever development ultimately comes to the property. Tension in the chambers The stepped-up police presence added to the tense atmosphere in the legislative chambers. Chair Michael Pillmeier of Florida strictly limited speaking time, breaking into speeches at the three-minute time limit and halting applause. “This is not a production for clapping,” he said. “Applause is not necessary....This is not a party.” He stopped Neuhaus as he said it was wrong for the Town of Chester to have taken the Camp LaGuardia property off the tax rolls for the benefit of the county. “Stick to the subject,” Pillmeier told him. Some complained about the county responses to comments made in public hearings, saying the comments were “cherry-picked.” Tracy Schuh of The Preservation Collective said she had sent an e-mail asking about the lack of response to her questions but never received a response. Robert Fromaget, a local Democratic leader, addressed the audience, saying, “If there are any Tea Party representatives here, this is an example of taxation without representation.” Seven legislators — Tom Pahucki, Katie Bonelli, Daniel Castricone, Kevin Hines, Myrna Kemnitz, Chris Eachus, and Roxanne Donnery — pleaded their case before voting against the expansion. Michael Amo of the Independence Party, who represents Monroe, Woodbury, Harriman and Kiryas Joel, was a critical vote in favor of the expansion. Pahucki called the vote a dangerous precedent that would encourage other developers of high-density projects to threaten legal action if denied the right to unlimited sewage service. Most legislators acknowledged it was inevitable that the sewage treatment plant at Harriman will have to expand. The more users are combined into one district, Dan Depew of Wallkill said, the more efficiently it can be run, and the lower the cost for each user. But the host towns are in doubt, citing the lack of good communication in the past, contested inequities in chargebacks for infrastructure upgrades, and the failure to establish an oversight committee or successful governance committee. Woodbury Mayor Michael Queenan argued against expanding a system that already has a multitude of problems. He pointed to the many inequities that have plagued towns involved in the first sewer plant expansion. “Woodbury is still paying for capacity and not getting any,” he said. The Harriman plan has many ongoing problems, including odors and leaks. Jeffrey Berkman, the head of the Democratic caucus, said he voted against the expansion because of his deep concern for the way the host communities have been treated throughout the process. He said he would not put his name on a resolution reflecting such poor communication and lack of environmental review. Supporters of the expansion said they voted yes to recoup tax revenue and the purchase price of the property, along with interest on the bond that the county had to float to buy it. Legislator Keven Hines of Cornwall disagreed. The $9.5 million the county paid for Camp LaGuardia is far less than the $25 million needed to upgrade the Harriman plant so that it can handle all the additional sewage flowing from the new development. The Ramapo River, which receives the effluent from the plant, and which supplies water to millions of New Jersey residents, will also be adversely affected, he noted. New figures indicate that the Harriman plant may already be at 79 percent of its capacity, even without factoring in the many housing developments in the southeastern corner of the county already well along in the approval process. In his settlement with Kiryas Joel, the county executive has a legal obligation to expand the plant when it reaches 85 percent of capacity.