Vol. 12, No. 20 Oct.  21 - Nov. 3, 1999


Filtration Battle Goes to Court


xfiltration.jpg (19829 bytes)Having exhausted their opportunities in the political arena to stop the city from building a filtration plant at Mosholu Golf Course in Van Cortlandt Park, five Norwood residents are turning to the courts in hope of preventing the project.

The group, which is calling itself Norwood Community Action, filed a lawsuit in federal court earlier this month on the grounds that the city cannot disrupt parkland without approval from the state legislature.

The suit, filed by attorney Jack Lester, claims that the city "will alienate approximately 23.2 acres in the southeast portion of Van Cortland [sic] Park, permanently alter the park's landscape, will cause the closing of Mosholu Golf Course, the loss of 268 trees, negatively impact the forested wetland area, and create permanent noise, congestion and pollution generated by the plant."

City officials insist they do not need the legislature's approval because they say the plant will be constructed under the park. Local residents, however, counter that after five to seven years of construction, the affected area of the park will be flattened and will rise 35 feet above its current grade. Lester said that parkland will be used for purposes related to the plant even when construction is complete, and that truck traffic to and from the site will be permanent.

Lester has fought City Hall many times before, specializing in a field he calls Community Law. He has come to the aid of Manhattan residents fighting a large Toys "R" Us on the east side and last year he helped the Tribeca Community Association fight a battle that may have implications for the Van Cortlandt suit.

"The city wanted to extend the West Side Highway [into Canal Street Park] and we prevented that based on the same principle," Lester said.

One of the plaintiffs in the filtration plant suit, Sonia Rivera, said she got involved because her granddaughter has come to love playing in the Norwood corner of the park, the part that is closest to the plant site. She has several relatives who live locally who suffer from asthma, a respiratory disease that plant opponents say will be exacerbated by the dust raised by digging and blasting in the park. Rivera, a Mosholu Parkway resident who has lived in Norwood since 1976, is active as a parishioner at St. Ann's Church and as volunteer at the COVE teen center in the Knox-Gates section of Norwood. The four other Norwood residents named as plaintiffs in the suit are Fay Muir, Lena Burger, Hariet Gwynn Smalls, and Ora Holloway.

Holloway, who has also lived in Norwood since 1976, helped engineer the rebirth of the southeast corner of the park by leading neighborhood cleanups and flower plantings. That work paved the way for Saturn of the Bronx to donate a playground for that part of the park.

Though the plant will be constructed just beyond the playground area, Holloway and her neighbors contend that the noise and dust during construction will render the park unusable.

"If they build a filtration plant there," Holloway said, " it will keep families and children away and then it would go back to the way it was before." During those bad old days, the park was that in name only. Weeds and grass grew untended to for years, attracting litter and loiterers. The children and families so prevalent now were nowhere to be seen.

The Friends of Van Cortlandt Park is also readying a similar suit, to be filed in the next couple of weeks, said the nonprofit's executive director, Vicki Kilanowski.

The city has moved to have the Norwood Community Action heard in federal court, where city arguments might find a more sympathetic ear since it was a federal judge that presided over the agreement with the federal government in 1998 that bound the city to a strict timeline for constructing the plant. That agreement, known as a Consent Decree, did not tell the city where to build the plant, however. The Department of Environmental Protection passed over four sites in Westchester, two in industrial areas of towns that requested the facility, in favor of the Bronx site at the golf course.

Even if park supporters win their day in court, the city insists it will have the last laugh. DEP officials are threatening to put the plant in Jerome Park Reservoir, a site that drew even more heated opposition, if they are prevented from building at the golf course.

The reservoir is not parkland and would not be subject to the same legal arguments, though legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz to designate the reservoir as parkland passed the Assembly last spring. The Senate has not yet acted, however.

DEP's Jerome Park Threat Raises Hackles

It was only a two-sentence, four-line press release, but it was enough to send local elected officials into orbit.

In response to the filing of a lawsuit by a group of Norwood residents attempting to block a plan to construct a filtration plant at Mosholu Golf Course in Van Cortlandt Park, the city's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued this terse statement:

"We do not believe this action will be successful in blocking construction of the Croton filtration plant at the Mosholu site. However, should that not be the case, the most expeditious path to comply with the federally-ordered schedule, given land use considerations, would be to site the plant at Jerome Park Reservoir."

At that, Congressman Eliot Engel cranked up his own fax machine. "When the Jerome Park community forced the DEP to abandon the reservoir as a plant site, the city chose Van Cortlandt Park to locate the plant," said Engel in his press release. "Now [Norwood residents] are fighting to save their community, and the city is trying to play one neighborhood off against another -- Jerome Park vs. Mosholu. It's a shabby game of divide and conquer and it won't work."

Engel continued, "The people know better than anyone that this plant belongs upstate where there is room for it, and where several communities have expressed interest in having it built there."

Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz and State Senator Eric Schneiderman, both of whom represent the area containing the golf course site, have scheduled a strategy meeting next week with community leaders to discuss how to respond to the DEP's Jerome Park threat. Dinowitz, a Democrat, shepherded a bill designating the reservoir as parkland through the Assembly over the summer, in an effort to make it more difficult for the DEP to site the plant there. But the Senate has yet to act. Controlled by Republicans, the Senate is less likely to go against the wishes of Mayor Giuliani, a fellow Republican who is likely to be his party's nominee in next year's U.S. Senate race.

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