Not long before midnight on February 6, at the end of a long and arduous evening that began with a joint New Paltz Town/Village Board meeting filled with rancor over unexpectedly astronomical water bills, the Town Board came out of an executive session to take a few more actions before calling it a night. Hardly any of the citizenry were left in the courthouse to take note that yet another controversial water-related story was inching forward. This time, the issue in question was creating a new Water District #5 in the Plains Road neighborhood. The board voted to authorize town supervisor Neil Bettez to sign a document identified as the Fifth Rider to a Purchase Option Agreement negotiated in 2016 with David and Judi Roehrs, extending the time limit for the town to purchase the Roehrs’ 58.3-acre property at 101 Plains Road until June 30, 2021.
Looking through the long lens of a process that dates back to 2014, when municipalities along the route of the Catskill Aqueduct were first informed by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that they’d need to find alternative water sources during a succession of ten-week periods while the century-old aqueduct would be shut down for major repairs, this resolution looks like merely another small bump in a roller-coaster ride of legal wrangling over the creation of the water district. But it might prove to be one of the last such bumps. That’s because the latest in a series of lawsuits against the town and the DEP filed by Plains Road residents Ingrid Beer, Gail Freedman and Donna Liebman, seeking to annul a groundwater withdrawal permit issued by state Department of Environmental Conservation officials in February 2018, was rejected in early December by the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court.
The lawsuit, which alleged fraud on the town’s part in developing plans for the district, was the fourth to be filed by the Plains Road citizens’ coalition and then fail in the courts. This most recent appeals ruling let stand State Supreme Court decisions made in September 2016 and April 2018. And this time, noted Bettez, “The judges’ decision was unanimous. It would be hard to appeal that. It’s probably our last big hurdle.”
According to the supervisor, in addition to absorbing the town’s legal costs for the series of lawsuits, the DEP has agreed to make a $75,000 down payment to the Roehrses for the option to purchase, to be subtracted from the ultimate purchase price for the parcel. “That’s a sign that DEP is interested in moving forward,” following the appeals court victory, Bettez said. “I’d take it as a good sign.”
The Roehrs property is particularly significant to the $10 million project going forward because it is the site of the test wells drilled at the beginning of the process to determine whether the aquifer underlying the Plains Road neighborhood could supply adequate drinkable water to supplement other town sources in the event of an emergency during periods when the aqueduct is shut down. A number of neighbors expressed concerns that tapping the aquifer might have negative effects on water quality and supply in their private wells. The town offered to allow the 86 landowners in the immediate area to join the district and obtain their water from municipal supplies as needed, but some have so far rejected this option. Soon they may have no other choice, other than to bring in bottled water at their own expense.
All costs for construction of the Water District #5 lines will be borne by the DEP, per an intergovernmental agreement with the town and village that was signed in 2015.