Though one might think that the establishment of a conservation easement protecting New Paltz’s newest parkland jewel, the Mill Brook Preserve, would be a feel-good measure provoking no controversy, the town and village governments aren’t seeing eye-to-eye right now on what exactly that easement ought to entail. Meetings of the two municipal boards last week failed to agree on several provisions in the proposed text of the environmental protection measure, and mixed feelings arose even within those two governing bodies.
At the May 25 Village Board meeting, discussion of easement language proposed by the Wallkill Valley Land Trust (WVLT) was kicked off by trustee Don Kerr, advocating strongly for the most restrictive measures possible, or what he called “plans to keep it wild forever.” Specifically, Kerr said that he wants to rule out the possibility of any sort of mining, subdivision or resale of any part of the sprawling property, which spans an undeveloped area stretching from the rear of the Duzine Elementary School to the borders of the Woodland Pond retirement community. “I don’t want to be part of a board that created a preserve and then cut off its foot,” he said.
“I agree with Don,” said deputy mayor Rebecca Rotzler, who served on the previous Village Board that had negotiated the sale of the property. “I recall being scared about the amount of money we were investing into the land.” As mayor Tim Rogers reminded the board, the decision to purchase and “preserve the whole thing” to the tune of $650,000 — a joint acquisition by the village and the town — had been precipitated by the danger of previous owner Peter Bienstock selling off 22 of the parcel’s 60 acres to a developer.
But Rogers was wary of adopting an easement that would strip the municipalities of all rights to use the resources of the Mill Brook Preserve in perpetuity. In particular, considering the headaches that both the town and the village have been facing of late with regard to finding backup water sources when the Catskill Aqueduct shuts down for repairs, he said that he did not want the village to rule out future use of the aquifer under the property. “I’m all about preserving open space, but it’s irresponsible to forfeit water rights on municipally owned properties.”
The mayor cited a hydrogeology report prepared by Russell Urban-Meade, indicating that a water well drilled on the Mill Brook Preserve might be capable of supplying between 100 and 125 gallons per minute of groundwater that would require minimal treatment. He also noted that the price of water from the aqueduct that the village buys from the New York City Department of Environmental Conservation had undergone “a 230 or 240 percent increase in the last eight years.” Based on these figures, Rogers estimated that drilling a well on the preserve could save the village $90,000 per year.
“It’s more a question of principle than a question of finance,” Kerr responded to Rogers’ argument, reverting to his long-held position that the village ought to use the Wallkill River as its backup water source. Trustee Tom Rocco joined Rogers in quickly squelching the possibility of discussion veering off on an extended tangent on the feasibility of using Wallkill water.
Kerr then insisted that the village needed to “codify” its definition of what constituted a preserve, but neither Rogers nor Rocco seemed willing to lock themselves into a permanent set of regulations applying to all conservation easements. “There is no single definition of ‘conservation easement’ that fits all circumstances,” Rocco argued. “It has no single meaning in law until you specify what rights you’re giving away…. I want a legal and financial analysis first.”
Two New Paltz Town Board members, Marty Irwin and Dan Torres, were in the audience during the Village Board meeting, but did not participate in the discussion. But they did debate the issue with town supervisor Neil Bettez the following night at the Town Board meeting, with councilman Jeff Logan absent and councilwoman Julie Seyfert-Lillis recusing herself because she is the executive director of the not-for-profit Mill Brook Preserve organization.
Reporting on what he had learned the previous evening at Village Hall, Irwin said, “They want to reserve the right to drill for water anyplace they want. That was not the intent of the Conservation Management Plan… That is not what a preserve is.” He also contested Mayor Rogers’ estimates of how much money could be saved by using the preserve as a water source, noting that hydrogeologist Urban-Meade had suggested the site as a potential temporary backup rather than a “sustainable” one.
Citing the impending June 30, 2016 deadline for adoption of a conservation easement specified in the Intermunicipal Agreement (IMA) between the town and village for the joint purchase of the property, which he called a “legally binding contract” with a “date certain,” Irwin urged swift approval of the most recent draft developed by WVLT, including the proposed bans on water mining, subdivision or widening of hard-surface trails. Supervisor Bettez urged more caution, pointing out that “We have the power to change the IMA, to change the date. Consensus takes time. If you want to get to the right decision, it’s okay to slow things down…. We want the easements of the town and village to be as similar as possible.”
“I don’t think we have that many fundamental disagreements,” said Torres, adding that he thought that “making water available to constituents” was a valid concern. “It’s likely that within my lifetime, people will go to war over access to water.”
The town has three more meetings before the IMA deadline, including one jointly with the village on June 15, to seek consensus and finalize the language of the conservation easement for purchase of the Mill Brook Preserve — or act to buy itself more time.