Final easement for New Paltz preserve does not reserve the right for water exploration

New Paltz resident Rachel Lagodka and her dog Paco on a hike in the Mill Brook Preserve. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

New Paltz Village Board members concluded a year or more of wrangling over the conservation easement for the Mill Brook Preserve at their May 24 meeting, but it wasn’t clear that anyone at the table understood what they were voting upon when they approved the document. The vote came after oral changes were made at the table to the agreement with the Wallkill Valley Land Trust, and in spite of advice by the board’s attorney to afford him the opportunity to resolve some lingering issues. The discussion was punctuated by a loud slam of the table, and resulted in an easement which does not reserve the right for water exploration, which Mayor Tim Rogers considers a missed opportunity. Rogers cast the only dissenting vote, with Tom Rocco abstaining as one of his last official acts as a trustee.

Confusion and misunderstanding were present from the start of the discussion. Land trust officials never received the most recent attorney-reviewed draft, and had been given the impression that the mayor didn’t want the issue discussed with them at all. In fact, the village’s attorney had not forwarded the document because he was waiting for authorization to start billing on the project again, and the instruction to cut land trust officials out of the loop turned out to be an administrative remark in one e-mail chain that their addresses had been removed from a particular reply.

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Rogers, who had delegated Deputy Mayor Rebecca Rotzler to work on finalizing the document, pressed her for its status. “I really don’t know what happened,” she admitted.

Rogers had stopped taking the lead because, in the words of trustee Don Kerr, he and the board’s attorney were “very much opposed” to the direction trustees wished to take, which per a vote some months ago was to have a draft prepared with the “most restrictive language” regarding water extraction being included for review. During the revisions overseen by Rotzler, all references to water extraction were simply removed.

Tensions between Kerr and Rogers reached a head during the exchange on whether that directive was one that represented meaningful instruction for an attorney or not; Kerr slammed his hand on the table and demanded the mayor cease interrupting him. What Kerr wanted, and ultimately got, was a vote on the easement at that very meeting.

The vagueness of some of the language has always given Rogers pause. Incoming trustee KT Tobin indicated she agrees with the mayor about some passages, asking how “emergency” might be defined as a criterion to drill for water. Kerr’s solution was that all five trustees should agree that one exists, which rests that solution on judgement rather than a metric which could prove overly restrictive no matter how defined. Land trust executive director Christie DeBoer, however, said the trust’s attorney called that approach a “disaster,” and suggested a resolution might be preferable to laying out such details in the easement itself.

Rocco dusted off a suggestion he had made, which lays out circumstances of last resort that would require officials to explore alternative reasonable water sources, whether known or likely, before bringing heavy equipment to the preserve. At Kerr’s insistence, Rocco located the e-mail in which he had first offered the suggestion, and attempted to offer it as an amendment on the fly.

Meanwhile, Rogers reached village attorney Will Frank by phone and tried to identify the remaining issues. They had largely to do with indemnification with some other issues, and Frank was confident they could be ironed out with ease. He only was awaiting board approval to proceed, he explained.

Village planner David Gilmour was concerned that the easement might make it more difficult to build the intended trails because of the restrictive language. This is another subject DeBoer thought best not to be in the easement at all; she suggested it be moved to a “living document” such as the management plan.

Bolstering Roger’s position that it would be irresponsible to forgo the possibility of establishing a water source on the property is a state grant program being offered through the Department of Environmental Conservation. Through it, money to expand the preserve might have become available by virtue of the fact that more land acquisition would bolster the safety of the water. “This is how you protect your water,” the mayor said.

Kerr was not dissuaded, saying that the construction itself would do “great violence” to land which they sought to protect. He pushed for a vote, which came without making any of the changes sought by Frank or DeBoer, and seemingly without a clear understanding of exactly what amendment Rocco had offered at the table. Draft minutes were not available by press time to confirm the exact language which passed by a vote of three to one, with Rocco abstaining.