Vol. 13, No. 9 May 18 - 31, 2000


Judge OKs Filter Plant in Van Cortlandt Park

Groups Vow Appeal


A federal judge delivered a devastating defeat Friday to opponents of city plans to construct a 23-acre water filtration plant in the Norwood section of Van Cortlandt Park.

Residents and park advocates had brought two lawsuits arguing that the city failed to seek the state legislature's OK before moving forward with siting the plant at Mosholu Golf Course on Jerome Avenue.

But Judge Nina Gershon of the Eastern District Federal Court ruled that legislative approval is not necessary because she agreed with the city's contention that the plant would be constructed underground and that parkland would be restored on top of the facility after the project is completed.

"Since the parkland available for public use will not be reduced, this underground use of parkland may be approved by the City without the need for ratification by the State Legislature," Gershon wrote in her 22-page decision.

Local park supporters and community activists were stunned by the ruling.

"I'm speechless," said Norwood resident Ora Holloway, who was a plaintiff in one of the suits, upon learning of the ruling. "I never thought that that was actually going to happen. How could they do that?"

Holloway and many of her neighbors believe that the drilling, blasting, and truck traffic during 5 years of construction (some residents fear it will be many more) will wreak havoc with the neighborhood's quality of life and threaten its stability. Residents and some experts also worry that dust from the project will exacerbate asthma, which is already a public health crisis in the borough.

Holloway led the effort to revive the southeast corner of the park, which is now a beehive of recreational activity and a regular site for cleanups and plantings. Though that portion of the park, which is adjacent to the golf course (see map) is technically not in the footprint of the plant, residents insist that it will be unusable during construction because of safety concerns and noise.

But the judge's narrow ruling did not mention these issues and was primarily based on her view that the plant was to be constructed underground and, therefore, did not constitute a change in the permanent use of the park.

Opponents of the city's plans have long scoffed at the claim that the plant would be built underground and that the park would be recreated on top of it. Park advocates in particular said Gershon was setting a dangerous precedent for the disruption of parkland in the state.

"Construction of a chemical plant that will process over 63,000 tons of chemicals a day, that will protrude over two-and-a-half stories above the existing surface prominently restricts the use of these 23 acres of land," said Elizabeth Cooke, a plaintiff and executive director of the Parks Council, a nonprofit advocacy organization. "We are sorry that the city is getting a go- ahead to build this enormous plant and that by putting grass on the roof is getting away with placement of this huge, inappropriate facility in a park."

Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, a vocal opponent of the city's plans, agreed.

"I am deeply disappointed that the judge has supported the decision of the mayor and the City Council to build this monstrosity in Van Cortlandt Park," he said in a press release. "Unfortunately, this ill-advised decision to allow the destruction of parkland will also open the door for other projects in the future. It seems that it is now open season on parkland."

Though the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park and the Parks Council said at press time that they would appeal the ruling, plant opponents have reached the eleventh hour of the campaign to save the park from the bulldozers scheduled to roll into Van Cortlandt Park on Sept. 1, 2001. Gershon's decision is only the latest in a string of defeats that began on Dec. 1, 1998 when the city picked the golf course after years of preferring Jerome Park Reservoir for the facility. (Years of community opposition eventually doomed that choice.) And though Community Board 7 and Borough President Fernando Ferrer weighed in against the facility during the land use review, the plant sailed through the City Planning Commission and the City Council, nullifying the local objections.

Gershon's decision was issued exactly one week after a federal judge in Boston allowed environmental officials there to forego filtration as demanded by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Activists here hoped that the decision would influence Gershon, who presided over negotiations between the city and the federal government that resulted in a signed agreement stipulating a strict schedule for the siting, design and construction of the filtration plant.

"This will be a tragedy on two accounts, given the decision in Massachusetts," Cooke said. "It might yet be possible for the city and the state to work out a filtration avoidance plan that will cost far less than the construction of a filtration plant, and if a filtration plant has to be built, it should be built on one of the industrially zoned sites in Westchester that is available and workable."

The town supervisors of Westchester and Greenburgh have expressed interest in hosting the plant on two neighboring sites once occupied by Union Carbide.

Back at ground zero of the filtration controversy, Holloway translated the years of public hearings, environmental impact statements, and court rulings into simple language.

"How could they build a filtration plant that close to a residential neighborhood?" she said. "It's only like across the street."

Ed. note:
Previous filtration articles from the Norwood News can be found at www.bronxmall.com/norwoodnews. Click on "Ongoing Stories."

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