The race is on to avoid new threats from the state to start looking at local septic system failures more systematically, and likely levy fines, to stem rising pollution levels that the state Department of Environmental Conservation has found in the Esopus Creek as it enters the Ashokan Reservoir, the city's key water supply.
More importantly, pressure is rising for the town, and Phoenicia residents and business owners, to finally get past the referendum that narrowly defeated the building of a new municipal sewer system with $17 million in grants from New York City three years ago.
The Catskill Watershed Corporation, the regional regulatory watchdog and economic development agency that has partnered city and upstate interests for the past 13 years, has offered to step in and ensure something gets built while simultaneously assuaging local fears of future surprises regarding property owners' share of operations and maintenance costs.
The new sense of urgency in this longstanding standoff came in the form of a letter from the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation to town supervisor Rob Stanley dated March 30. In it, DEC official Kenneth Kosinski noted that studies of the Esopus Creek have turned up pollution problems downstream of Phoenicia and the time has come to act, or face remediation actions. The letter was copied to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the state Department of Health, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Ulster County Health Commissioner, the Catskill Watershed Corporation, and the Coalition of Watershed Towns.
"Our department believes that the long term solution to the sewage disposal options is the installation of a public sewer system," wrote Kosinski, the section chief of the New York City Watershed Section for the state agency. "Furthermore, it is the department's understanding that if MOA funding is not utilized then the entire financial burden of constructing such a facility would be the responsibility of the residents and commercial businesses within the hamlet."
When the Coalition of Watershed Towns reached the compromise Memorandum of Agreement Kosinski refers to in his letter in 1997, part of the deal was that New York City would invest millions into the building of sewer systems for the region's population centers. That process had gone smoothly for a decade, with no municipal objections and dozens of systems planned and/or built, including one in Boiceville, when Phoenicia voters defeated a $17.2 million proposal from New York City to build a system for the hamlet by a 156-123 tally in February, 2007. Worries had mounted that local property owners would end up saddled with operations and maintenance costs. Attempts to revive the project since have been bogged down by anger over how that vote was interpreted and analyzed, the nature of alternatives offered (several of which were turned down by New York City), and some opposition to revisiting the issue at all.
"Our Department has recently become aware of a number of septage issues within the Hamlet of Phoenicia at both residential and commercial facilities," Kosinski wrote. "Actions are necessary to address this situation. Recognizing that the problems are throughout the area, a community wide approach appears to represent the best solution."
Shandaken politics intrudes
The DEC letter, it turned out, was sent to Stanley within a week of two other letters outlining growing concerns on the part of the Catskill Watershed Corporation, which has offered to coordinate planning, bidding and oversight for construction of the wastewater treatment plant for Phoenicia, within the city's still-pending funding offer.
Those letters, from CWC Executive Director Alan Rosa, referred to recent meetings held with the Shandaken supervisor, councilman Vin Bernstein, longstanding restaurateur and sewer system critic Mike Ricciardella, Olive-based attorney Jack Darwak, and former Ulster County Health Department director Dean Palen, who was relieved of his position last summer.
In his first missive, Rosa outlined a history of city offers to build Phoenicia a sewer system dating back to the original watershed negotiations of 1996, as well as the town's discussion of handing over its wastewater troubles to the CWC last autumn. He directly refuted a statement made by Darwak, an attorney known for his work on Article 78 lawsuits and other property rights and tax matters in the area, that the Town could not put a sewer project out to a vote by pointing to the actions of other towns, including Olive, which is currently having a system built for it under CWC sponsorship in Boiceville.
In a second letter, Rosa corrected figures Ricciardella had presented regarding O&M costs in the Village of Fleischmanns, which he pointed out was incomplete. The CWC Director then noted that he was looking forward to taking a formal request for CWC aid, passed in resolution form, to his Board of Directors to see if they would take on the Phoenicia Sewer System as a CWC project.
This past Tuesday, May 4, the Catskill Watershed Corporation's Wastewater Committee met to consider whether the CWC should get involved with Phoenicia's long festering sewer debate. Meanwhile, at Shandaken Town Hall, another sewer plan - this one for an extension to Pine Hill's sewer system - was held back as lawyers were sent back to the drawing board to straighten out extension allowing language.
The regional entity seemed poised to go ahead with management of Phoenicia's sewer system from here on in. But it moved with clear trepidation about the changing and obstreperous nature of Shandaken politics.
At its April meeting, with Stanley away, the Shandaken Town Board passed a resolution to get help from the CWC, who would manage the ensuing project as it has similar projects in Boiceville and other sites throughout the Catskills. Before the vote, however, the resolution that Rosa asked to be passed was changed substantially.
Where the resolution had originally been a request by the town board to the CWC to "take over the design and administration of the proposed sewer project," it instead became a request, "that the Catskill Watershed Corporation ASSIST the Shandaken Town Board." Furthermore, where Rosa specifically asked that the town ask the CWC "to assume administration of proposed WWTF for Phoenicia," it eventually referred to how, "the CWC has graciously offered to assist the Shandaken town board in evaluating the various options available..."
At its May 4 meeting, CWC's wastewater committee tried to figure out what Phoenicia actually wanted CWC to do. After a briefing on the decade-long history of Phoenicia's efforts to plan for and build a sewer system by CWC member Jeffrey Graff, and some explanation by Stanley, the committee unanimously agreed to recommend that the CWC Board of Directors agree to get involved.
Now the matter goes before the CWC Board of Directors at its next monthly meeting on June 1. That entity can either agree to the plan or turn the idea down. To date, it has never turned any town's request down...although in recent conversations, Rosa expressed considerable frustration with the Town of Shandaken.
In April, Rosa pointed out that the CWC would gladly step away from their offer of help if the town decided it didn't want a sewer. He also questioned what Ricciardella, Darwak and Palen were doing at local meetings on the issue.
"We don't want to do anything that hurts businesses," he said, pointing out the many business granting and loan programs the CWC runs, as well as the lengths it will go to ensure new businesses don't compete unfairly with existing ones. "I don't get what they're so opposed to here..."
Rosa added, on several occasions, that the CWC Board entered into the responsibility of administering sewer systems not as a planning gesture, but an investment commitment. He indicated that it was still in the best interests of the region to go along with Phoenicia to ensure something gets built, but said there were limits to how much they could do, financially, without clear lines of authority.
As for the question of the Kosinski letter's seriousness, which town board members pooh-poohed at their April meeting, Rosa said Phoenicia's options were indeed narrowing significantly.
"You know DEC doesn't give out letters if they're not serious," he said. "I'm glad I'm not in Rob Stanley's shoes."
Also asked about the seriousness of Kosinski's warning to the town, DEC Region 3 Director Willie Janeway said "This needs to be addressed. A letter like this is not sent lightly...The City has said they're ready to help this community. We at the DEC would also rather help them than to have to enforce our regulations."
Pine Hill extension indecision, too
In similar sewer talk at a Shandaken Town Board meeting this past Monday, May 3, a public hearing was held on whether the Pine Hill sewer district should be extended to include another 30 properties in accordance with an agreement reached over a decade ago between the town and the city.
Pine Hill, one of the few communities of the Catskills that took advantage of a sweetheart deal offered by the City back in the 1920's that gave landowners absolutely free sewage treatment forever, agreed to increase the size of its district as part of MOA talks in 1997. But some in Pine Hill now believe such a deal could inadvertently shift responsibility for O&M costs for the system to local property owners.
Kevin Young, the attorney representing the town in the matter, said that the rights of the existing district users are preserved and that he felt the written agreement represented that.
"But if it is not clear in here we can make it absolutely clear," he added, speaking to the board and not the rancorous audience. "You are the judge."
While it is true that the City put up money in the 1990's for septic replacements and did so again in 2007, Young warned that the program that allowed that was set to end soon, and there still thousands of systems watershed wide that the program is supposed to replace. If 30 homes in Pine Hill can be taken care of with this extension, he said, the town should do it.
"If you think the City of New York is going to keep extending that money in perpetuity during these economic times you are dreaming," the lawyer said. "If you are in government today in the watershed, your job should be to get everyone in your community the best septic deal you can because the money is there. At some point the money is not going to be there. They (the City) are not going to need us, so get the money while you can."
Young added that he will rewrite the proposal to include language to clear up the legal confusion about existing sewer users. It is expected that another public hearing will be held to give residents a chance to weigh in on the new draft.++