Denied a seat at the table, Woodstock officials have enlisted legal muscle to help defend its watershed rights in the discussions about a proposed Niagara bottled water plant in the town of Ulster that would draw water from Cooper Lake in the Woodstock hamlet of Lake Hill.
Unconvinced by Ulster Supervisor James Quigley’s assurances of involvement and inclusion, the Woodstock Town Board on November 25 voted unanimously to hire attorney Jim Baker of the Albany firm Young Sommer Ward Ritzenberg Baker & Moore LLC. Baker and the firm will be paid $210 per hour for partner time, $185 per hour for associate’s time, $115 per hour for paralegal time, plus expenses for computer research, office and travel expenses. The Albany firm touts “broad experience with New York’s SEQRA process,” and has represented towns and villages on environmental issues.
The Ulster Town Board recently voted unanimously to deny the city of Kingston and town of Woodstock involved-agency status in the state environmental review process. In doing so, Ulster asserted neither Kingston nor Woodstock have legal standing during the review.
Woodstock officials were unaware of the bottling plant proposal until reading news articles this fall. Since then, Woodstock Supervisor Jeremy Wilber has tried to make the point that the town faces most of the impact from tapping a massive amount of water within town limits and has nothing to gain. It gets no financial compensation from the city of Kingston for drawing of water from Cooper Lake.
Though Woodstock’s action, encouraged by an 800-signature petition, drew applause from members of the group Save Cooper Lake, Supervisor Jeremy Wilber said he didn’t take using taxpayer money lightly.
“I’ve made this complaint to the DEC. I’ve made this complaint to the town of Ulster. I’ve made this complaint to anyone that was interested in hearing it, that it chagrins me as a fiscal officer to have to go into your pockets to hire Mr. Baker, to hire the hydrologist that we will eventually have to hire to study the assertions that are likely to be made during the SEQRA process,” said Wilber, referring to the State Environmental Quality Review Act proceedings.
California-based Niagara Bottling proposes to build a 414,800-square-foot plant off Boice’s Lane, initially employing 41 people and expanding to a workforce of 120.
Niagara plans to purchase up to 1.75 million gallons of water per day from the city of Kingston, which draws the majority of its supply from Cooper Lake in Woodstock. Water is fed through pipes to a filtration plant on Sawkill Road in the town of Kingston.
Woodstock, like many towns, often gets flack for spending taxpayer money on legal representation, but Councilman Bill McKenna thinks public support of this particular cause makes it a bit easier to swallow.
Wilber, in a recent letter to Quigley, asked that the town of Ulster reimburse Woodstock for the legal expenses, but he’s not holding his breath. Wilber said he asked Baker if it was ethical to try and recoup legal expenses. “He said ‘Fat chance you’ll ever get it, but it’s not unethical,’” Wilber said.
Wilber said he reiterated in recent conversations with the town of Ulster “as far as this whole Niagara Bottling proposal is concerned, our sole concern as was expressed in the resolutions on the table is with the Woodstock watershed.”
Added Wilber, “That’s the whole watershed. That’s not just the Sawkill watershed. It’s also the Beaverkill watershed. It’s the entire watershed for the town of Woodstock.”
A 1929 decision by the precursor to the Department of Environmental Conservation entitles the town of Woodstock to the use of up to 500,000 gallons per day from Cooper Lake, though the town has never asserted that right.
A SEQRA review is necessary for any project of this scale. The process must include a statement summarizing the environmental impacts of construction and daily operations of the plant. Public hearings must be held where interested parties have the opportunity to provide input.
There is no separate review for the increase in Cooper Lake water demand itself. Instead, that is intended to be encompassed in the review of the plant.
“To all of you who have expressed your concerns, don’t let up,” Wilber said, while cautioning people to focus their message to better drive the point home.
“I know that people transcending the boundaries of the town of Woodstock are paying very acute attention to all this,” Wilber said. “It’s not all for waste. You’re not all just blowing in the wind.”