There was both good news and bad news coming out of the joint meeting of New Paltz’s town and village boards held on January 23, hastily (and unusually) scheduled for a Friday evening due to time pressure for a decision on how to provide water to village residents during impending shutdown periods for repairs to the Catskill Aqueduct. The bad news was for the residents of Plains Road, who have organized in vocal opposition to the option of tapping the aquifer in their neighborhood after test drilling in 2014 dewatered or contaminated some of their wells. The good news was that the town and village governments have agreed to work together not only on the water issue but also on finding a joint solution to their separate sewage problems, potentially alleviating anxiety over the option of siting a treatment plant adjacent to New Paltz High School.
The meeting agenda originally included discussion of the planning firm to choose to conduct a joint comprehensive master plan for the two municipalities. But that was tabled after town supervisor Susan Zimet announced at the outset of the meeting that she would not stay for the discussion, since village officials had in her view been unresponsive to the town’s need to tap into its sewage system, so that building a plant on the South Putt Corners Road site would become unnecessary.
“There are issues that have to be resolved before we talk about a master plan,” said Zimet. She added that she was delegating the lead role in the alternate water sources discussion to town board member Jeff Logan because he’s a Plains Road resident.
Zimet’s take-my-toys-and-go-home maneuver, though risky, succeeded. The village board agreed to take the master plan off the night’s agenda. Discussions of a joint approach to both municipalities’ sewage problems are expected within the master plan at a subsequent meeting. Town board member Dan Torres said that he would support the change in plans “as long as we reschedule soon.” His fellow councilman Kevin Barry’s motion to have the town board discuss the master plan within 30 days passed unanimously.
The two boards opened the floor for public comment on the water issue. They then retired into executive session with their attorneys and representatives of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] to negotiate a proposed intermunicipal agreement. Distributing a chart comparing the long- and short-term costs of various options and displaying posters of the village’s reservoirs that he joked that he had made in fourth grade, village environmental commission chair Don Kerr advocated expansion of the existing treatment plant to process Wallkill River water for drinking. Citing lower capital costs for this option, which he estimated would cost around $3 million, Kerr argued that the combination of the Plains Road and Plesser aquifers would not provide enough water in cases of emergency. “What if there’s a big fire?” he asked. With a modular expansion of the existing plant, he said, “If there’s a terrorist attack on the reservoir, you’re covered.”
Several representatives of the Plains Road Water Watch spoke against the option of drawing replacement water from the aquifer that replenishes their private wells. Amy Donnelly contested the argument put forth by the village’s hydrology consultants that aquifers in buried river valleys are renewed through cracks in the bedrock and protected by caps of clay.
“Studies show that contamination in such aquifers is a problem,” she said. Recharge is “drawn in horizontally and downward from surface water.” She called the Plains Road “not nearly big enough to hold ten weeks’ worth of water without recharge,” as will be required when the aqueduct is shut down for several ten-week periods in 2017 and 2018.
“Drinkable water is being mined out and will be replaced by water that needs extensive treatment, not just chlorination,” Donnelly warned.
Carol Cryer raised the issue of who would pay for Plains Road residents’ hookups to water supply lines if a new water district were created in their neighborhood. The village government had issued contradictory statements on that matter, she said. “Our municipal water usage should be free into perpetuity.”
Gail Friedman questioned the village’s estimates of its water-flow needs. “The magical number of 610 [gallons per minute] is not real in terms of present and future demand,” Friedman said. She also raised the spectre of an Article 78 lawsuit by Plains Road residents, warning, “If non-SEQR-based decisions are made, the town will pay.”
Go, team infrastructure!
Following the public-comment period, both boards went into executive session to discuss an intergovernmental agreement resolution that had been drafted the previous week by village trustee Tom Rocco, sent to the town board for review, and tweaked the day of the meeting by Logan, Barry and town attorney Joe Moriello. Upon emerging, Logan asked DEP representative Todd West to reiterate what options the agency would be willing or unwilling to fund.
“We are accepting of the recommendation for the development of the groundwater sites, the Plains Road and Plesser, to provide a backup water supply to the village, along with the reservoir improvements that were suggested,” replied West. The Wallkill River source, he said, was not an option. “We don’t believe that can be permitted in a timely manner, if it can be permitted at all,” he said.
Village mayor Jason West asked Todd West whether his agency would consider funding a treatment system for Wallkill River water if the health department agreed to expedite the permitting process, as the village has requested. “No,” the DEP representative said.
Logan added that the environmental organization Riverkeeper was preparing litigation to have the Wallkill recategorized as a 303D-type stream, in which even swimming, much less human consumption, would not be allowed. “If that should happen. it would derail everything,” he said.
Rocco read aloud a resolution saying that the town and village governments were both committed to performing infrastructure improvements to their water systems to help alleviate the supply problems. Three separate intergovernmental agreements would be drawn up: one between the Village and DEP, in which the New York City water agency would fund the reservoir overhaul; another between the town and DEP, in which DEP would fund the infrastructure at the Plains Road and Plesser groundwater sources; and the third between the town and village, with the town agreeing to supply adequate water to the village during the shutdown periods “at a negotiated rate.”
Both boards voted to pass the resolution, with only village trustee Rebecca Rotzler voting against it, saying that she would rather wait for the response from the health department before deciding. She was “disappointed” that the Wallkill River option had not been explored sooner.
Trustee Sally Rhoads agreed that “I don’t think that we can run the risk of waiting for the Wallkill.” Rhoads then moved to amend Barry’s motion from the beginning of the meeting to include a commitment on the village’s part to work with the town during master-plan discussions. She wanted to find “possible sewer solutions that the village of New Paltz could work with the town to provide, to relieve the controversy that is before you,” a reference to the highly controversial option of siting a sewage plant near the high school.
Zimet thanked Rhoads. The village’s jurisdictional roadblocks to alleviating infrastructure problems had been the sole reason for her lack of enthusiasm for participating in further discussion on a joint master plan, Zimet said. She suggested that building needs also be part of the infrastructure discussion. Amendments to the motion to hold at least one joint meeting on the master plan within 30 days were unanimously passed by both boards.
Rhoads summed up this apparent new spirit of intermunicipal amity by saying, “The more we can talk together and work together, the better off this community is.” Whether Plains Road residents will be amenable to such amicable solutions remains to be seen.