Testimony to Orange County Legislature
July 1, 2004
The events of this time are nearly overwhelming. I want to take three of them and weave them together into a proposal.
First, should KJ get a permit to tap the Catskill Aqueduct. Orange Environment has already asked the NYDEP to deny this permit on several grounds.
Second, the issue of casino gambling just up the street has brought home our vulnerability to a road system that is about to become dysfunctional making our lives miserable, polluting our air and destroying our health. Incrementally, we have seen Rt 17 and many main roads through our communities move to higher levels of congestion and lower levels of service. I testified last week in Monticello for OE, listing us as a potential party of interest and calling for an administrative hearing to adjudicate the impacts to Orange County, which are played down to the point of absurdity in the Mohawk DEIS. I know that others are organizing to try to collect some impact fees. That is fine, but that negotiation allows the injury and then provides some compensation. Our tactic of intervening directly into the decision making process is an effort to either stop the injury or to build in mitigation. Yesterday, at a meeting of mayors and supervisors that I crashed, County Executive Diana properly placed the county at the helm of addressing the casino issue. I concur and urge you to question the approval of casinos without first having a proper cumulative impact assessment that addresses our impacts and without assuring that these impacts, once acknowledged, are mitigated properly. An alliance of OEI and the county on this will be powerful indeed.
One cautionary comment is needed here as well. Eddie yesterday recalled a time in his childhood when Rt 17 was bumper to bumper with traffic for the Catskill resorts. As the resort business died to a trickle, we have filled Rt. 17 with new traffic from development in Orange County, from commerce and trucking, passthrough traffic now spurred by Rt 86, and from development further upstate. The casinos, their employees, and their induced growth, in conjunction with the racino, the art center and other projects, will return the volume of traffic of the old Borscht belt and more but now on top of these other traffic streams. As we work to address the casino threat, we also need to address our own trip generation. At a minimum, rail restored along the main line has got to be a main priority.
Third, today you finally vote on the Orange County Open Space Plan. Having participated in this effort, I understand just how much work went into this project. I understand how revolutionary it is for this county to finally step forth and begin to address the growth dynamic that has ravished our landscape, farms and communities. I cannot tell you just how important this step is. If the casino and KJ issues are reactions to what we do not want, then here we find a clear statement of what we do want. Orange Environment held meetings across the county in the development of the plan in conjunction with the County Planners. It was important to hear that people from every stripe fear that we are becoming or have become unsustainable because of the changes that are occurring. OEI gave the Orange County Open Space Plan its annual government award this year. We laud in particular Sue Metzger and the Orange County Planning Board and Dave Church and his fine planning staff for their effort and leadership. Please pass this plan.
Fourth, the passage of this plan is not enough. The plan has some important shortcomings that should be addressed as a next step. Let me touch on three issues that this legislature can address to be out in front of water issues, traffic congestion and preserving the vitality of our county ecologically, aesthetically and in terms of quality of life.
The first step is to recognize the absence of wetlands from the open space plan. Touched on only in the section on biodiversity, it is glaringly absent from the section on water. Yet, water, which is at the top of our priorities, is intimately tied with wetlands. Groundwater serving some half of our residents is recharged through wetlands which serve to purify the water as it is transferred downward. We have lost far more than half the wetlands of the county. Yet, our communities make decisions daily that compromise the health of our wetlands systems. And there are those who would further streamline the taking of wetlands for development in this county. This is precisely the kind of short sightedness that has created the water and wastewater problems of our county and which floods our roads with cars. We may blame KJ and casinos for these problems, but their threats merely mirror what our own planning boards have been approving.
What do we do. Under Section 10.1 of the Municipal Home Rule Law, Orange County has the authority to pass a county wetland law that is more stringent than the modest state law and the unevenly enforced federal law. Therefore, I offer to work with this body to develop the Orange County Wetlands Protection Act as a step toward reversing the negative effects of our past and current behaviors and assuring clean and plentiful future water supplies.
Second, because Section 10.1 allows for a sweeping authority to enact laws that “enhance the physical and visual environment,” we can also address more broadly a weakness of the Open Space Plan, namely its lack of teeth. I offer to work with this body and with county planners to develop county legislation that will appropriately enforce the plan’s vision. We can today pass good intentions. We must tomorrow address how to achieve them.
Finally, given the county’s renewed capacity to assess the consequences of change in Orange County, Orange Environment looks forward to working with the County to greatly enhance the use of impact assessment under the State Environmental Quality Review Act so that it becomes a real planning tool. In this way, we hope to steer the county in more sustainable directions, making this a more livable and healthy community in which to live and work.
Michael R. Edelstein, Ph.D
President, Orange Environment, Inc.