In a move that has angered local residents and town officials, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection has walked away from the bargaining table over the building of a sewer treatment plant for the hamlet of Phoenicia.
Last month, after the Shandaken town board tabled a key vote on the project, town supervisor Rob Stanley wrote a letter to the DEP asking for more time, and raising several unresolved issues with the project. Among the town's concerns, Stanley wrote, was the fact that the most recent proposed design would not be fully built to serve the entire sewer district, putting the brunt of the plant's operating costs on the shoulders of a few downtown businesses and leaving plans for the rest of the sewer district in limbo.
Stanley's letter to the DEP also brought up the issue of liability. Many of the project's critics want the DEP to agree to put a cap on the sewer district's liability in the event of a massive flood or catastrophic plant failure.
“We are uncomfortable moving this project forward knowing there is an open-ended liability cost to those residents that will befall them following a possible future crisis when they can least afford, financially and psychologically, such expenses,” Stanley wrote.
In a response dated June 1, DEP commissioner Carter Strickland announced that because of the town's delay in moving the project forward, the agency was terminating its agreement with the town of Shandaken. Instead, the money will be granted to a different town in the watershed.
“Unfortunately the town of Shandaken has not established a sewer district, as required for the project, and will not be able to do so by the Aug. 6 2012 deadline,” Strickland wrote . “While we view this outcome as unfortunate, DEP can no longer justify reserving funds for a [wastewater treatment plant] for Phoenicia.”
Stanley blasts city's response
Stanley was incensed by the city's response.
"As is typical with the city of New York, they are not answering any of the issues that were brought up in the letter that we sent to them. We felt that those concerns are legitimate, and feel that they need to be addressed," said Stanley. "I'd also like to point out that they themselves are admitting that they have spent $1.9 million of city taxpayer funds with nothing to show for protection of their water supply, when all we asked for was a simple extension of time."
The original block grant set aside for the project was $17.2 million. The grant would have covered a complete system if the town had established a sewer district in 2007, but residents narrowly defeated the establishment of the district in a public referendum. Nearly $2 million of the grant has been spent, mostly on system design and the study of alternative proposals.
Stanley said he was also angered by the fact that local news outlets had the news of the DEP's response before the town of Shandaken did. Stanley said he received the city's letter on Thursday morning -- when a Woodstock Times article about the issue was already on newsstands, and Daily Freeman reporter Jay Braman was seeking a comment before Stanley had had a chance to read the letter.
"[Braman] was in my office when I came in," Stanley said. "We didn't even have an electronic copy of it."
The Watershed Post obtained a copy of the DEP's letter from the agency on Thursday, after the Freeman's story ran.
Stanley said the city has walked away from negotiations before, only to return.
"We received letters [from the DEP] after the 2007 vote stating that they were reallocating the funds [to other watershed communities]. And they came back," he said.
Stanley said the town is preparing a response to the DEP's letter, and would be willing to work with the city if they would address the town's concerns with the current proposal.
"I appreciate that there are people in Phoenicia who are supportive of a sewer, as I am myself. I just felt that the details were not there. And we will be sending a formal response in the coming days," he said.
Local business owners respond
Several Phoenicia business owners who would have benefited from the building of a sewer plant were disappointed by the latest turn of events.
Suzanne Taylor, the owner of Sweet Sue’s on Main Street, said she was dismayed that the project is now off the table. Taylor's restaurant was shut down for several months last year by the Ulster County Board of Health after a septic system failure.
"My feeling has always been that the growth of the area will be inhibited if we don't do public sewers,” Taylor said. “I have two apartments upstairs that I cannot rent, because my septic system is too small to allow it. I am losing $1,400 to $1,500 a month by not being able to do that."
Declan Feehan, who runs Phoenicia Wines and Liquors and owns the former site of the Phoenicia Hotel on Main Street, placed the blame for the latest development on the shoulders of the town board and local project opponents. Feehan said he would like to rebuild the hotel, but has been stymied because there is not enough room on the property to install a septic system.
"There are a few people around here who for their own selfish personal interests don't want [a sewer in Phoenicia],” Feehan said. "I spent a half million to buy and clean up that property and now I can't do anything with it. The town board dropped the ball on this."
Phoenicia restaurant owner Mike Ricciardella, who has long been one of the sewer project's main opponents, could not be reached for a response by Friday afternoon.
CWC to fund some septic work in Phoenicia
In a press release about the latest turn of events on Thursday, the Catskill Watershed Corporation announced that it would continue to fund some septic work in Phoenicia, but only for homeowners that had already come forward asking for help with failing systems.
In the years that the project has been under discussion, 12 on-site septic systems in the hamlet had failed and were being pumped out and monitored under the CWC’s Managed Septic Repair Program for areas within prospective municipal system boundaries. CWC Director Alan Rosa said the corporation would now replace those systems, but owners of systems that fail in the future cannot depend on CWC reimbursement for repairs or replacement.
CWC director Alan Rosa told the Watershed Post that he was not surprised by the DEP's decision to walk away from the project.
"I knew this day was coming. I kept trying to tell [the Shandaken town board], the city's going to walk away," he said. "They just didn't believe it, I guess."
Andrew Wyrich contributed to the reporting of this story.
Documents related to his story (click the link to read):