Vol. 12, No. 13 July 1 -   28, 1999


Council Committee Moves to Put Plant in Van Cortlandt Park
Vote Closer Than Expected


The City Council's Land Use Committee voted nine to six Tuesday to approveeisland.jpg (16830 bytes) the city's plan to build a water filtration plant at Mosholu Golf Course in Van Cortlandt Park Tuesday, surprising plant opponents and Council observers who expected a more lopsided defeat. The committee's approval included conditions intended to mitigate the project's impact on the park (including the restoration of the golf course to an 18-hold executive course, renovation of the Shandler Recreation Area, and improvements to the Saturn playground at the southeast corner of the park), an action which requires the City Planning Commission to review the plan again before the full Council takes its vote in July.

The action gives critics of the plan a little more time to persuade councilmembers to reject it, although the full Council usually follows the lead of the Land Use Committee.

June Eisland, the area's councilmember, who is also the chair of the Land Use Committee, said she would continue to try to convince her colleagues to vote her way. "This is certainly an uphill battle, but I will continue to lobby nevertheless." Eisland said. "We need to turn this down so we [can] buy more time, so the Department of Environmental Protection [can] continue to finish their filtration avoidance studies."

Local activists, who met with several members of the Council in the weeks preceding the vote, said they felt their work made a difference in the vote.

"We did a lot of lobbying, as did the Sierra Club, and I think it paid off," said Margaret Groarke, president of the Mosholu Woodlawn South Community Coalition. (Disclosure: Groarke is married to Norwood News editor Jordan Moss.)

The last public hearing on the project took place June 22 at City Hall in a session of the Land Use Committee's Subcommittee on Siting. The hearing room, heavily packed with union members and a smaller group of filtration opponents, thinned as the long afternoon went on, with workers leaving in large groups at two points during the meeting.

But both sides had their say. Community members and park advocates decried the destruction of parkland and the harm construction would bring to Norwood residents. Many also argued that protection of the watershed in Westchester was safer and more effective than filtration. Union officials said since the federal government is requiring that the city build a filtration plant for the Croton water system, it was imperative that the jobs associated with the project go to city workers.

Despite the testimony and presence of several Bronx elected officials who oppose the project, including Eisland, who has long fought the siting of the plant in the Bronx, and Councilman Adolfo Carrion, the proceedings had the air of a done deal. John Sabini, the Queens Democrat who chairs the 5-member Siting Subcommittee, told plant opponents a number of times during their testimony, that they would have the opportunity to counter the Council's action in the courts, implying that he and his committee had already made up their minds to support the project. As the day wore on, Sabini appeared to have little patience for testimony, as he shuffled through paperwork, whispered to colleagues, and meandered through the hearing room.

The argument of DEP Commissioner Joel Miele, that the federal government would impose fines on the city if it failed to approve the current site, seemed to carry the day. It would take six more moths to push another Bronx or Westchester site through, a delay Miele said would cost the city $14 million in fines.

"I'm assuming we're on the clock?" asked Priscilla Wooten, a Brooklyn Democrat and ally of Mayor Giuliani.

"Absolutely," Miele responded.

But John Klotz, an attorney for the Croton Watershed Clean Water Coalition, countered that the fines for the delay of the city's land use procedure might not be imposed since the City Council should not be bound by the promises of the mayoral administration.

"Nothing in the consent decree in any way ... prevents the application of any state of local laws, especially ULURP [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure]," Klotz testified.

Even if the fine for a delay in the land use review procedure is imposed, a penalty that would total about $450,000 over three months, the rest of the fines would not be imposed if their later deadlines were met.

"Should the Council reject the catastrophic decision to build this industrial facility on parkland, there is ample time to acquire another site within the parameters of the consent decree milestones" Klotz argued. The consent decree requires the completion of any land acquisition necessary for the completion of the filtration plant by September 2000.

Eisland told Miele that he should be in court arguing for more time to finish and learn the results of his agency's filtration avoidance studies.

"Even going to court and losing is better than giving up the ship," Eisland said.

Massachusetts environmental officials did just that recently and succeeded in getting a federal judge to give the state more time to make its case for filtration avoidance. The judge said the federal Safe Drinking Water Act gives the courts leeway in determining the need for filtration.

Park advocates testified that the taking of parkland for an industrial facility would set a dangerous precedent for open space throughout the city.

"As you debate this issue, please think about a park in your district," said Victoria Kilanowski, executive director of the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park, one of the groups that is likely to take the city to court. "A proposal like the one before you today may never threaten Central Park, but it may threaten a park like Alley Pond Park in Queens or Prospect Park in Brooklyn. If a park with over a hundred years of history [Van Cortlandt Park] can not be protected from flagrant industrial use, what park can be?"

Councilman Stephen DiBrienza, a Brooklyn Democrat and member of the Land Use Committee who sat in on the hearing, agreed. "How could you possibly present this project as not being an alienation of parkland?" DiBrienza asked Parks Department officials, who testified that the agency would work with the DEP to completely restore the parkland over the plant, which will rise three stories higher than the current grade of the park.

Adding the weight of legislative authority to this argument, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz wrote a letter to the mayor, signed by 32 of his colleagues, warning that the siting the plant in the park would require an act of the state legislature.

"The Court of Appeals and other New York State courts have held that Section 20 (2) [of the New York State General City Law] prohibits a city from converting public parkland to non-park use without specific and direct approval of the State Legislature," the lawmakers wrote, adding, "We assert the authority of the State Legislature in this matter and ask that there be compliance with the law."

The officials asked the mayor for a statement of his position on the matter and for a meeting to discuss it.

Norwood residents and community leaders said the stability of their community would be determined by the outcome of the battle.

Monsignor Patrick Boyle, pastor of St. Brendan's Church, conveyed the sentiments of John Cardinal O'Connor. "His eminence has indicated serious concerns about building the filtration plan at the Jerome Park Reservoir and now he has indicated his concerns about building the filtration plant at the Mosholu Golf Course. He feels that the project ... may impact seriously on the 40,000 people who live in Norwood." Boyle went on to respond to the city's assertion that the site it chose for the plant is where it would have the least impact.

"Does the least impact mean that the mainly poor, low income, minority people of Norwood are less likely to make a public outcry at the prospect of living with the plant than the outcry of citizens from other communities?"

Norwood resident Lyn Pyle said the future of her neighborhood was at stake. "We are one of the few ethnically and economically diverse working class communities in New York City. If the city builds this filtration plant in our park, anyone who can afford to move will move, and our community will be destroyed."

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