County land study blasts NYC buying

Matthew J. Perry
Delaware County unveiled a completed environmental impact study last Wednesday that may well figure into negotiations with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and other downstate interests for years to come.
At a meeting of the board of supervisors, representatives of Downeast Group Development Consulting presented a digest of their findings. Their full report will be made available in the watershed affairs section of the county’s Web site later this week, according to Glenn Nealis, director of the county’s economic and industrial development office.
Many of the findings will confirm what local residents and officials have long claimed: that there are grave potential consequences to the city’s land acquisition program, which extends through 2017 and, through a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), mandates that the city purchase $300 million worth of land to protect water sources and avoid building a costly filtration system.
Nealis, who worked closely with Downeast, says that the study will help the county “interject” itself in debates over the complicated issues concerning water, land easements and acquisitions.
“This can give us a seat at the table,” he said on Monday. “We’ve never been consulted on these matters before.”
The study identifies a variety of downward trends that could affect local interests, including a wind down of natural resource based industry and inflated land values. It also supports a concern, frequently voiced in town and county politics, that local residents might continue to be priced out of the region due to the combination of jacked up real estate values and lost job opportunities.
Nevertheless, Nealis claims that the study is not meant to serve as a lightning rod for anti-city sentiment.
“We don’t think [the acquisition program] is ever going to go away,” he says. “Nor are we philosophically opposed to it. We just think there’s a better mousetrap. The study can help adjust the program in Delaware County so that it not only meets the water quality goals but also lessens its local impact.”
Some findings are bound to be controversial. By combing through the records of county and town clerks, Downeast found that 63 percent of the city’s land acquisitions, conservation and agricultural easements originated on property owned by people with non-local addresses. “If you focus just on acquisitions, it’s 78 percent,” Nealis says. This indicates a trend that may, over time, skew real estate values if landowners continue to find the city a willing and deep-pocketed buyer.
The cost of the study was a line item in last year’s Watershed Affairs budget; originally $250,000 was earmarked. Nealis says that Downeast’s fee, together with payments to three independent consultants who augmented the research, represents most of the roughly $160,000 that has been paid out to date. The rest of the money can be used for follow-up studies, such as a survey that will be conducted with a statistically significant number of Delaware County residents. Nealis says that the survey will be run through Pennsylvania State University and will likely solicit opinions from 500 people. The purpose will be to better gauge local concerns and bring a human character to the data.
The county is also planning to present and discuss the findings at town meetings. No arrangements have been made at the present time.
Debate over the findings will likely stir conversations over the coming months. During the presentation last week, supervisors expressed a variety of opinions about possible actions the county might take.
Middletown Supervisor Len Utter confirmed that the board is not yet unified. But at this early stage, disagreements are inevitable.
“One supervisor wants out of the MOA. One says we should compromise,” he says. “The DEP affects one part of the county in a very different way from another part.”
Utter also stated that it is too soon to know if the county got its money’s worth with this study.
“It’s hard to attach a dollars and cents value. It all depends on how it’s used. The purpose of the study was to gather information. We have it in our hands now; the next question to be answered is what we do with it.’
There may be more than one purpose to the study in the long run. Nealis stated that its findings could also be used in ongoing legal maneuvers between the Coalition of Watershed Towns (CWT) and state and federal agencies. CWT claims that oversight of the MOA should shift to the state’s Department of Health.
Downeast will also present findings at another meeting, likely to be held next month, with officials from DEP, DEC, state DOH and the federal EPA.