New York City's land-buying program meets local resistance

On Monday night, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection's plan to buy more private land in the upstate watershed met a skeptical crowd at a public hearing at SUNY Delhi. 

The Land Acquisition Program, as the DEP calls it, is the linchpin of New York City's plan to avoid building a multi-billion-dollar plant to filter its drinking water, most of which is collected in upstate reservoirs in the Catskill-Delaware watershed.

The idea is simple: The city will buy as much land near the reservoirs as it can from landowners who are willing to sell. That land will remain undeveloped, and will act as a giant buffer between the city's water and pollutants. 

The city has been in the upstate land-buying business for the past two decades. It already owns about 100,000 acres in the Catskill-Delaware watershed. Their current land-buying program is set to expire in 2012. The agency is seeking to extend the program another ten years, through 2022.

The DEP's ten-year plan must be approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.  An Environmental Impact Statement about it is due to the EPA by next January.  The agency is circulating a draft of that document now -- you can read it below -- and is accepting comments on it until September 15.

Monday's public hearing was the first of three meetings held this week in upstate communities that will be affected by the land buys. (There was one last night in Hunter, and there is another scheduled at 6pm tonight in Grahamsville, at the Tri Valley Central School at 34 Moore Hill Road.)

The turnout In Delhi, of about 40 people, was up from an earlier series of meetings in March.

In Delhi on Monday, DEP representatives Dave Tobias and Esther Siskind spoke first. They summarized the Environmental Impact Statement, ticking off the reasons why the DEP felt that the program should continue. As the land-buying plan goes forward, Siskind said, '"the focus ... will be Delaware County and Greene County."

During the public comment section, it was clear that the city's plans to become a major upstate landowner aren't very popular in Delaware County. Objectors included Leonard Utter, the supervisor of the town of Middletown, whose red pickup truck sports a "DEP get off our backs" sticker; Amy Kenyon, the director of Farm Catskills; and Dominic Morales, a professor at SUNY Delhi.

County officials were the first to speak. Peter Bracci, the supervisor of the town of Delhi, and Jim Eisel, the chairman of the Delaware County Board of Supervisors, both said that there was a lack of scientific evidence that land acquisition would lead to clean water.

"Show us the science, please," Bracci said.

(In its presentation, the DEP cited a joint study by the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies called "Predicting Future Water Quality from Land Use Change Projections in the Catskill-Delaware Watersheds." Yale has it available for download here.)

Eisel called the program a "shotgun approach," and said that the plan was an attempt to give vast tracts of land to environmentalists.

Utter, the Middletown supervisor, told the crowd that he had "witnessed the displacement of thousands of people" because of New York City's upstate water system. He added that the village of Margaretville is "already being strangled" becuase of a shortage of buildable land.

Middletown sits at the edge of the Pepacton Reservoir, which was built in 1955 by flooding the valley where the towns of Arena, Pepacton, Shavertown and Union Grove once sat. The towns' residents were displaced when their lands were seized by eminent domain, and the memory is still a bitter one for many locals.

Dean Frazier, the commissioner of the Delaware County Department of Watershed Affairs, said that the DEP's plan for land acquisition did not take into account the amount of money landowners could make by leasing their land to gas companies for hydraulic fracturing. "Natural gas should be part of the cost-benefit analysis," he said.

Andes resident Jack McShane, a former president of both the Catskill Forest Association and the Catskill Landowners Association, said that he mostly supported the land acquisition program, but was concerned about assessments, restrictions on bluestone quarrying, and gas drilling.

The current plan, he said, "will put a lot of my bluestone quarrymen friends out of business."

The most vocal supporter of the land acquisition program was Andrew Mason of Jefferson.

"It protects our waterways, for us," he said. "Somehow, the Board of Supervisors sees this as a negative. I don't understand that."

Mason added that the county's embrace of gas drilling seemed at odds with its opposition to New York City's purchases of private land from willing parties.

Amy Kenyon, the director of Farm Catskills, said that the DEP underestimated the importance of agrilcuture to the upstate economy.

Dominic Morales, the SUNY Delhi professor, called the program "one big land grab," and cited the lack of collaboration between the DEP and upstate governments about managing the land.

Sharon Moyse, a real estate appraiser in Delhi, said that although the city's lands are technically open for public recreation, they aren't mowed.

"Yes, you can hike," she said. "You're going to hike through brush up to here. Good luck. Bring your machete."

Joan Townsend, another Delhi resident, warned the DEP that while water is important, so is farmland.

"Selling farmland is going to be a major problem down the road," she said.

Near the end of the night, Sally Scrimshaw, whose family still owns the local farm it settled 200 years ago, tried to explain to the DEP why the agency was getting so much upstate resistance to its plan.

"I think what upsets people most is that somebody from out of the area is telling them what to do," she said. "Do a study on that."

Read the city's draft Environmental Impact Statement:

Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the extended New York City Land Acquisition Program