Vol. 13, No. 25    Dec. 28, 2000 - Jan. 10, 2001


Attorneys Gear Up for Van Cortlandt Park Case
State's Top Court Will Put Filtration Saga on Road to Resolution


You thought the Florida Supreme Court had an important decision to make?

For Norwood residents and city officials duking it out over whether or not to build a water filtration plant in the northwest Bronx, the recount case in the Sunshine State pales in comparison into what will be at stake when the Court of Appeals - New York state's highest court - hears arguments from the two sides on Jan. 3.

By determining whether or not the city broke the law when it decided to build the $600 million water filtration plant at Mosholu Golf Course in Van Cortlandt Park without asking the state legislature first, the seven judges could be putting the decade-long controversy on a quick track to resolution

If the court rules that the city must go to the state legislature for permission, then it is likely that the city Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) would have to go back to the drawing board to find a new site in the Bronx or Westchester. That's because Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the Assembly, has indicated that members of that body will follow the lead of Jeffrey Dinowitz, the local assemblyman whose district includes Van Cortlandt Park.

It's usually up to the legislator from the affected district to bring up what is called "park alienation" legislation. Dinowitz said he wouldn't bring the bill up and his counterpart in the State Senate, Guy Velella, has said the same thing.

Opponents strongly believe that the construction of the plant will devastate quality of life in the area, generating unbearable noise, traffic tie-ups, and air pollution that some medical experts believe could make things particularly difficult for asthmatics. Many environmentalists in the Bronx, Manhattan and Westchester also insist that a filtration plant is unnecessary and is potentially harmful to water quality, mainly because it will encourage development in the upstate watershed area and lead to greater pollution.

However, the Court of Appeals will deal strictly with the parkland issue. Lawyers for the filtration opponents believe that the project is a clear case of parkland alienation. "What we need to show the Court of Appeals is that the law in New York is for the benefit of the entire state," said Howard Epstein of the law firm Schulte, Roth & Zabel, who is handling the case for the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park and the Parks Council, a citywide advocacy group. "It's not for the benefit of the city. When you look at the intent of the law, the overarching responsibility lies with the state legislature, not with local city government, to make that determination. That's why parks are for everybody, not just for people living in city where those parks are located."

Epstein added that the six-year construction period alone constitutes alienation. "We believe that the law in New York [holds] that a disruption for that period of time is legally equivalent to alienation," he said.

City officials obviously disagree. "We believe at the end of the day the city will prevail. [There is] no park alienation," said Charles Sturcken, chief of staff at the city Department of Environmental Protection. "We intend to break ground for the plant this spring."

The attorneys on both sides will have their work cut out for them. Epstein said that the court is known as a "hot bench" in legal circles, which means that the judges come to oral arguments well prepared and ask many questions.

But after that, a resolution should come relatively quickly. The seven judges usually hand down their rulings within six to eight weeks after oral arguments, said Gary Spencer, a spokesman for the Court of Appeals.

Many Norwood residents and Van Cortlandt Park supporters are planning to make the trip up to Albany for the important hearing. For more information, call the Mosholu Woodlawn South Community Coalition at 655-1054.

Ed. note: All filtration articles that have appeared in the Norwood News over the last two and a half years are available on this website. Click on "Ongoing Story."

The Judges

As they appear in picture above from left, except for Victoria Graffeo, who will take the place of retiring judge Joseph W. Bellacosa (third from left) by the time the park case is heard on Jan. 3.

Richard C. Wesley - 51, born in Canandaigua, NY. Appointed by Gov. Pataki in 1997. Former member, New York State Assembly.

Howard A. Levine - 68, born in Troy, NY. Appointed in 1993 by Gov. Cuomo. Served as Schenectady County District Attorney.

Victoria Graffeo - recently appointed by Gov. George Pataki. To take office after the New Year in time for Van Cortlandt Park case. No other information available.

Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye - 62, born in Monticello, NY. Appointed February 1993 by Gov. Mario Cuomo. First woman to occupy the state judiciary's highest office. Former director of the Legal Aid Society. Was engaged in private practice in New York City at the time of her appointment.

George Bundy Smith - 63, born in New Orleans, LA. Appointed September 1992 by Gov. Cuomo. Judicial service began in 1975 when he was named to an interim term on the Civil Court of New York City.

Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick - 58, born in New York City, and grew up in Washington Heights. Appointed in 1993 by Gov. Cuomo. Former staff attorney with Legal Aid Society and New York City Criminal Court judge.

Albert M. Rosenblatt - 64, born in New York City. Appointed by Gov. Pataki in 1998. Former Dutchess County District Attorney and Judge. Nationally ranked squash player, certified professional ski instructor, and former Vassar College lecturer.

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