Commission Grills DEP on Plant
By JORDAN MOSS
Expected to be the first bump in the road for opponents of a city proposal to build a filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park, a hearing before the New York City Planning Commission April 7 proved more troublesome to the city agency planning the project.
After swift and unanimous rejections rendered by the three Bronx community boards surrounding the park and the borough board, observers predicted the plan would score its first victory at the commission, a 13-member body controlled by the mayor's seven appointees.
Instead, the commissioners, irrespective of their political pedigrees, listened hard to testimony from community members and closely questioned DEP officials.
A vote was not taken at the hearing, and the commission's chair, Joseph Rose, said commissioners would take a tour of the project site. Agency spokeswoman Suzanne Chasanoff said the site visit would be led by the agency submitting the application, in this case the Department of Environmental Protection. As of April 19, no date had been set for the tour.
Dozens of Bronx residents showed up for the 10 a.m. hearing, which lasted well into the afternoon. Councilwoman June Eisland and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer set the stage for the hearing, which took place in the old Board of Estimate chamber at City Hall.
"I'm here to personally convey that the Bronx is unanimous in its unequivocal opposition to the Croton water filtration plant," said Fernando Ferrer. He added that "this is not a NIMBY [not in my backyard] issue." He criticized the DEP for failing to adequately protect the watershed and stressed filtration avoidance. "Filtration avoidance is not just a well-intentioned concept trumpeted by filtration foes, but a viable alternative which will cost a fraction of the filtration option."
Eisland said the plant would disrupt a viable neighborhood. Norwood "is primarily populated by working class and predominately minority residents, who together with a major teaching hospital, have struggled for year to attain stability in the housing stock, business district and quality of life," Eisland said. "Government's role should be to continue to assist the community and its organizations in these efforts, not to hamper and discourage reinvestment."
Some of the commissioners pressed the politicians on how the city could seriously pursue filtration avoidance, when it signed a legal agreement with the federal government to build a plant according to a strict schedule.
Eisland said it was the responsibility of Giuliani administration officials to "reengage" the U.S. Environmental Protection agency and ask for more time, so the results of pilot studies now being undertaken by the DEP could be learned.
Other commissioners questioned the DEP about negotiating with federal regulators.
"If these possibilities do exist, why is it so urgent that the commission act upon this immediately?" asked Alexander Garvin, a mayoral appointee to the commission.
DEP officials deferred to an attorney with the city's Law Department, who said the city was "obligated under the Consent Decree to construct the filtration plant." But, she conceded, "The city can apply under federal law to modify the Decree. [There is a] high standard but the possibility does exist."
Citing the unfinished studies, the Bronx's representative on the commission, Jacob Ward, told the DEP: "I don't see why you can't go to a court and get this amended."
Told by the DEP that the EPA was firm in its decision requiring filtration, William Grinker, a mayoral appointee and former head of the Human Resources Administration, also pushed the agency.
"Then we ought to fight it out with the feds a little more maybe," Grinker said.
After grilling the DEP, community residents and park advocates streamed to the microphone, listing one reason after another why the commission should reject the plan.
Calling Norwood a "very decent place for people to live," Monsignor Patrick Boyle, pastor of St. Brendan's Roman Catholic Church, said residents' "quality of life will be seriously affected by this project." Boyle also conveyed the concern of Archbishop John Cardinal O'Connor regarding the plant.
Jane Sokolow, of the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park, told the commissioners that siting the plant in a park was a dangerous precedent. "No parkland in New York City is going to be safe if this gets built in Van Cortlandt Park."
Norwood resident Sirio Guerino took a whistle from his pocket and blew it. "Annoying, isn't it?" he said, asking the commissioners to imagine what a constant assault of loud noises from digging and blasting at the site would do to him and his neighbors.
Speaking for the plan was was Frank McArdle, head of the General Contractors Association and a former DEP commissioner. McArdle called the Golf Course "the best of the sites that have been presented for this plant."
Thomas Maguire of the International Union of Operating Engineers said the jobs involved in building the plant should not be sacrificed to Westchester. (Short of filtration avoidance, many activists and officials support building the plant at an industrial site in Mt. Pleasant or Greenburgh, two towns that have been lobbying for the facility because of the increased tax revenues it would bring.) "These are the kinds of jobs that should stay in New York City neighborhoods," Maguire said.
The City Planning Commission is expected to vote on the Croton filtration project on May 5. If they approve the city's plan, the City Council will take up the matter.
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