Village of New Paltz Mayor Tim Rogers made the case for upgrades to the municipal water system to members of the town’s Planning Board on July 26. What village officials are trying to do is connect wells drilled near the water treatment plant on Mountain Rest Road to the water system, as a way to reduce dependence on purchasing what’s being extracted from the region via the Catskill Aqueduct. A public hearing on the project was opened at the July 26 meeting.
Normally, plans like this would never come before a Planning Board, because there are rules in place to minimize the bureaucratic friction that might ensue, but this is a special case. The village trustees are empowered to handle the environmental review themselves, and in fact they did this, but that’s not quite the end of it. The water treatment plant for the village system is not actually in the village itself, which decades ago was the focus of controversy over whether that land was exempt from town property taxes. The solution to that quandary is that the treatment plant now stands on town land, which is under a long-term lease agreement to put it under village control. If this were a town water treatment plant rather than a village one, zoning immunity would be presumed. With that lease in place, however, the town board will have to decide on a request from a village attorney to vote to exempt the project from site plan review and related permits. Planning board attorney Andy Willingham has signaled an expectation that this will come to pass.
Control is an aspect that’s scrutinized when it comes to public water supplies. The municipality in question must have control over a certain amount of land around any well, to ensure that contamination can be prevented, or at the very least addressed swiftly. When one of the village reservoirs was contaminated by a oil from a broken underground pipe around the beginning of 2020, that control made it easier to identify and fix the problem than it would have been if the leak had been on private property. One of the several wells drilled and tested is actually on Mohonk Preserve property, and because of the “control” requirement, almost two-and-a-half acres of preserve land must be sold to the town for this scheme to work. The money for the land acquisition and other improvements is coming from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the agency with oversight over the water-extraction process that uses the aqueduct. Reducing local dependence on aqueduct water makes it easier to conduct aqueduct maintenance without having to provide a backup supply of drinking water.
With it likely that this project will be deemed immune to zoning, what’s left is the lot-line revision to shift the land from preserve to town ownership. That’s the part being handled by town Planning Board members. Several neighbors testified during the public hearing, seeking to understand how pumping up to 132 gallons per minute from four new municipal wells to top off village reservoirs might impact their private wells. Rogers was given the opportunity to explain that the geology of this area, as confirmed through pump tests, makes any impact unlikely. In areas where wells are dug into sand and gravel, the mayor explained, pumping water in one spot will affect the level of the water in wells all around. However, the wells here are drilled into mountain bedrock, and the water comes from fissures in the bedrock. Wells that tap into a different fissure — even one quite close by — do not “communicate” the way they do in a sandier area, such as along the river on Plains Road. Several 72-hour pump tests resulted in no problems in neighboring wells, confirming that this system won’t cause those wells to run dry. While this testimony shows that there is little chance of this occurring, Rogers did add that anyone who does experience problems should contact village officials to find a solution.
Environmental review drives development in New York and must be performed in all cases. For this project, it was the Village Board that assumed the status of lead agency and determined that there will not be significant environmental issues to address. Authority to approve the subdivision makes the town’s Planning Board an involved agency. Board members also decide on any waiver requests, and there were several based on the fact that this isn’t a typical development. Board members agreed to waive much of the detail ordinarily required on plans, because the actual project is only going to result in a third of an acre of disturbance and by design none of it will be near property lines. They declined to waive showing the location of utility lines on the map, which were not included because the design has not been completed. As board members held firm on that, village consultants will have to complete that part of the engineering before the subdivision approval is granted.
Of the trees that have the minimum 12-inch diameter to be counted, 15 will meet their doom if this plan is executed.