Coalition seeks more protection for hamlets in DEP land buying

By Jay Braman Jr.
At a time when regional planning is coming back into play locally in the form of efforts to coordinate economic development projects along the Route 28 corridor, there’s another layer of planning that’s beginning to take shape thanks to the Coalition of Watershed Towns. The current planning asks watershed communities to revisit some of the same questions that were asked back in the early 1990s when the historic watershed deal was reached between upstate and the City of New York.
Those questions are being asked again because there is an opportunity looming that could provide benefits to all the hamlets that dot the Catskills, but the coalition needs feedback from the leaders in those hamlets in order to know how to proceed.
In the early 1990s there was a fear that the city and its enforcement arm — the Department of Environmental Protection — were poised to condemn all the private property in the region as a way to protect its water supply. This fear led to a long battle between the city and the coalition that resulted in an agreement that the city would not condemn land but would only solicit lands and buy only from willing sellers.
Recognizing that the strength of local economies was concentrated within all the existing hamlets, the coalition convinced the city to respect designated hamlet zones as areas that were hands-off to solicitation.
In other words, the city couldn’t even try to get land in those zones, the idea being that it was in those zones where growth would occur over time, and the coalition wants the land in those zones to be filled with shops and restaurants and services, not wire fences, posted signs and DEP Police.
Those zones were set up in 1997, but now there is an opportunity to greatly expand those zones.
Dennis Lucas, the chairman of the Coalition’s Executive Committee, said Monday that the city is now armed with no less than an extra $300 million to buy land in the watershed over the next 10 years. With about 90,000 acres under city control already, Lucas said his organization did not like it when the Federal Environ-mental Protection Agency gave the city the right to buy so much more last year. So much so that the coalition has refused to support the deal. Such stubbornness has led the city back to the bargaining table, where Lucas says all are enjoying a spirit of cooperation.
“The city asked us what kind of a land acquisition plan could we live with,” Lucas said.
The coalition’s answer was, in part, larger hands-off areas.
Now Lucas awaits input from the coalition’s member communities, but so far the reaction has varied from some places that don’t want any hamlet expansion to others where committees have been at work establishing the maximum size of hamlet expansion they feel they can get away with.
The good news, Lucas said, is that there is plenty of time for communities to think things over and learn as much as they need to know about the pros and cons of the plan.
“There is no time limit for communities to weigh in on this,” Lucas said.