Municipal officials in many places are sometimes moved to joke ruefully about town meetings being stormed by citizens waving torches and pitchforks, like the enraged peasantry in the movie Frankenstein. The tempestuous January 15 New Paltz Town Board meeting came closer to that imagery than any in recent memory, with purple prose, heated exchanges, claims of victimization and accusations of lies and bullying issuing from both sides of the rostrum. Opponents of a possible site near New Paltz High School for a solid waste treatment plant loudly and repeatedly heckled board members and engineering consultant David Clouser as they tried to lay public misconceptions to rest, and supervisor Susan Zimet provoked shocked reactions by comparing recent attacks via social media on the board to the “mob mentality” seen in racial lynchings.
The meeting began with more than an hour’s worth of public comment, mainly concerning what has come to be known as “Sewergate.” Saying “There’s got to be a better place,” KT Tobin said that a petition against siting a sewage plant next to the high school had generated more than 400 signatures on the Change.org website. She read from a letter that she, Michael O’Donnell and Terrence Quinn wrote to last week’s New Paltz Times claiming that Moving Bed BioReactor (MBBR) system sewage plants — like the model approved for Park Point and recommended by Clouser if the high school site is ultimately selected — pose “a significant health risk” to students, especially “immune-compromised individuals” and “those with already existing respiratory issues.”
Rhetoric about the potential plant quickly escalated in heat, with Doug Gilmour accusing Town Board member Kevin Barry of conflict of interest because he owns land adjacent to the high school and calling Barry “fanatical.”
Steve Greenfield, a New Paltz School Board member whose erroneous assertions that a site for the sewage plant for the South Putt Corners Road corridor had already been approved and funded led the School Board to issue a resolution opposing further consideration of the high school site and accusing the Town Board of “an attempt to preclude public knowledge and participation,” threatened legal action against the town if it did not immediately drop the site from consideration.
Richard Webb said that the lengthy screenings at the December 18 Town Board meeting of footage of past meetings discussing the need for sewer service on South Putt “amounted to a filibuster,” and former Town Board member Kitty Brown said that she regretted voting yes to authorize an application for the Shovel-Ready Grant from the Ulster County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) funding the current feasibility study.
Several other commenters called for better communication among the Town Board, the School Board and New Paltz residents. The calmest voice belonged to Fran Wishnick, who independently researched existing documentation of public records regarding sewage plant site investigations in the Putt Corners corridor going as far back as 1990, compiling her findings in a “white paper” that she presented to the board at the end of the meeting. Her white paper can be read online at https://considerationofnewpaltzsewageinfrastructure.wordpress.com.
Town Board member Jeff Logan wrapped up the public comment segment by stepping out into the audience to make a personal plea for a ratcheting-down of what he termed “pure bile and abusive language used on social media” regarding the Sewergate controversy, in which not only Town Board members but also “our family members are attacked.” Calling the tenor of the public discussion so far “sad and disheartening,” a clearly beleaguered Logan was assailed with catcalls from the audience even as he begged, “I hope we can go forward and be more civil.”
Following some routine announcements of appointments and vacancies, Supervisor Zimet returned to the topic of the search for a sewer plant site, beginning with a walk-through of the timeline of past discussions. She reminded the crowd that two options initially thought feasible for processing sewage generated by potential light industrial development in the Putt Corners corridor were ruled out early in the process: Tapping into the village sewer system could happen only through annexation, according to village law; and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) refused to allow expansion of the Sewer District 6 plant to accept additional sewage because of system failures at that plant.
DEC also responded negatively to a potential site near the high school because wetlands in the area had not yet been delineated, but recently withdrew those objections and approved a nearby stream as a discharge point for treated sewage after sending representatives to walk the site with Clouser. Zimet said that the town was coming under pressure to complete its studies as a result of Ulster County Department of Transportation plans to widen South Putt within the next few years, creating an opportunity to lay sewer lines without excavating the road twice. “The wastewater treatment site should be designated by summer 2016,” she said.
Zimet concluded her summary by listing four possible options currently under investigation, reiterating her statements from past meetings that her first choice is not the high school site but a collaboration with the village to “develop a new state-of-the-art plant” off Huguenot Street, north of the existing village sewage treatment facility, that would serve both municipalities. She said that considerable grant money is available to help fund such a project, but added that “The village government needs to be a willing partner.”
Second in preference on the supervisor’s list was to hook up Putt Corners sewer lines with the wastewater treatment facility already designed for Park Point, should the town lose its lawsuit against the IDA and the project goes forward. That plant design — the same as the one suggested by Clouser for the high school site — has already been approved by the town’s Planning Board and now awaits approval by the DEC. Zimet said that the high school site came third in her preferences because it is potentially “expandable” — as opposed to the fourth option, a plant on a North Putt Corners Road site that would “only meet the partial needs” of the corridor’s development potential.
Before turning the floor over to Clouser, Zimet decried public statements being circulated by project opponents as “furthest from the truth” and called for the community to back off on misrepresentations and virulent personal attacks on the integrity of the Town Board, the engineer and herself. Gasps erupted from the audience when the clearly exasperated supervisor used an analogy comparing the social media furor over the high school site to “saying ‘That black man raped that white kid,’ then they hung him from a tree — but he actually didn’t rape the kid.” Footage of a video clip of the statement, taken out of context and posted on social media and some TV news sites, soon ignited a firestorm of protest, accusations of racial insensitivity and even some calls for Zimet’s resignation.
Clouser followed with a status report on his investigations and reiterated the detailed description of the recommended MBBR plant that he has presented at previous meetings, saying, “This is not an industrial-scale plant, but domestic,” and that the facility would not accept wastes from factories unless they were pre-treated at the source. “The only smell that might occur would be at the intake point, which is inside the building.”
Saying “I really do dislike the misinformation I’ve heard tonight” during the comment period, Clouser specifically contradicted a number of Greenfield’s recollections of a meeting between the two, including the School Board member’s claim that the engineer had told him that a FEMA grant had been secured to finance purchase of the property next to the high school and construct the plant. The pending FEMA grant in question, he said, was for the renovation of the failed Sewer 6 facility. From the audience, Greenfield repeatedly interrupted Clouser’s presentation, calling the engineer a liar and attempting to refute each point he made about their meeting, the MBBR facility and another sewage plant sited closer to a school in the Town of Middleburgh.
Clouser finished up with a description of the town’s preferred “very automated” replacement plant for the village’s existing treatment facility on Huguenot Street, which is currently under a consent decree from the DEC due to frequent overflows caused by stormwater infiltration. The site envisioned for the new town/village plant lies at a higher elevation, above the Wallkill River floodplain, he said.
In response to a flurry of Freedom of Information Law requests from residents, town officials then provided attendees with copies of a long string of e-mails circulating among Town Board members, Supervisor Zimet, Clouser, Greenfield and superintendent of schools Maria Rice between November 25 and December 14, 2014, which have been the subject of extensive bickering over who knew what and when about the sewer feasibility study. Town Board members Barry and Logan took turns reading excerpts from the e-mails, and then it was their colleague Dan Torres’ turn to be on the hot seat: Barry and Logan asked him repeatedly to explain why he had not contradicted Greenfield’s misstatements of fact before the latter presented the plant siting to the School Board as a fait accomplí instead of a mere feasibility study, thereby inciting the School Board resolution denouncing the Town Board.
Visibly uncomfortable under their grilling, Torres declined to explain his unwillingness to challenge Greenfield’s assumptions even after being updated by Clouser on the status of the study. Several in the already riled and restive audience protested vociferously, some calling Barry and Logan bullies. Greenfield began yelling again, to the point where another audience member, Jonathan Cohen, finally outshouted him, telling Greenfield to “Shut the f*** up!”
Glumly observing that “At the end of the day, people are going to believe what they want to believe,” Zimet brought the long and disorderly meeting to a more measured close by inviting Wishnick and Clouser up to the table so that the engineer could address some of the questions raised in her white paper about gaps in the documentation of the plant siting discussion over the past several decades. But even the dry policy-wonk jargon that ensued in that discussion was not sufficient to quell one last outburst, with Jonathan Cohen and retired New Paltz United Teachers president Ron Simon shouting at one another and nearly getting into a scuffle as the audience filed out the door. As Logan commented earlier in the meeting, “This is why we have trouble getting people to serve in public office.”