The 1996 Clean Water, Clean Air Bond Act

What It Is, What It Isn't,
And What Some Of It Might Be

An Exposé by John Wolcott

First of all, New York State's "Clean Water, Clean Air Bond Act" is, on the surface, just about what it's title says it is. Unlike the Environmental Bond Act promoted by Governor Cuomo in 1990 (which was defeated by the voters- ed.) , Pataki's Act is not a general Environmental Bond Act. I wish that people would stop calling it that. More importantly, for land acquisition groups, like Save the Pine Bush, The Clean Water, Clean Air Bond has a very very much smaller proportion of money slated for land acquisition than did the $2 million 1990 Environmental Bond.

The present bond has $150 million dollars allocated for open space acquisition which is 8.6% of the $1.75 billion bond. This is limited to "projects to protect bodies of water" which is as it should be by the bond's title and definition. This allocation and category comes under title 3, section 1 for those who want to look up more details about it.

A significant emphasis on land acquisition is widely believed to be the reason for the defeat of the 1990 Environmental Bond Act. Harvey Lipman wrote in a Times Union article of July 17th, 1996, "The 1990 proposal was heavily weighted toward land acquisition, which drew heated opposition. This time, the vast majority of the money is slated for clean water and clean air projects." It would be interesting to know where most of the "heated opposition" came from. Could any of it have been from some of those who supported the 1996 Bond Act? I don't know, but when I looked at the 1996 Bond Act Campaign finance reports, I found that a lot of money was donated in support of the Bond Act by a number of construction and engineering firms and by contractors and builders associations and some real estate development interests.

How will this bond benefit such donors? Well! For one thing, its simply that cleaner air and water makes any place more attractive to live in and in turn favors development. Public sewers and water lines are more attractive to large scale developers than septic systems and wells. These latter, however, serve many places well enough provided that ground water is adequately protected. I don't like this part of the bond because I'm anti-suburbs. Suburbs are insatiably devouring farmland and open space.

Now, with bond money, water lines and sewer lines can be built or extended, without increasing local taxes as much as without the bond. However, the usual tax per foot will be introduced where lines are built where there were none before. In addition to the indirect benefit to development and realty interests, there seem to be assurances of a lot of environmental infrastructure construction. These are generally spelled out in the Bond Act.

Considering the non-stop proliferation of suburbs and attendant shopping malls everywhere, it is a great tragedy that the new bond wasn't a more general environmental with lots of land acquisition. It is furthermore highly ironic that the sewer and water line funding from the bond act will, at least incidentally, help to promote more malls and suburbs.

Exactly just how extensive was the construction and realty support of the Clean Water, Clean Air Bond Act? I will try to give you some idea with an abstract of data sifted from four thick folders and the State Board of Elections.

The following gave $10,000 or more mostly to the main campaign committee: Building and Construction Trades Council $12,500; The General Contractors Association of New York $25,000; New York State Conference International Union of Operating Engineers $25,000; Real Estate Board of New York $10,000; Federal National Mortgage Association $25,000; The Crisis Program $30,992.32. This last one is an association, mainly of construction companies and material suppliers which lobbies for the repair of New York State's infrastructure. They conducted a separate campaign in support of the bond.

The following are construction and development related organizations that donated under $10,000: New York Building Congress; General Building Contractors of New York State; Mason and Concrete Contractors Association; Building and Construction Trades Council of Nassau and Suffolk Counties

In addition to these associations, there were numerous contributions, great and small, from individual construction, engineering, design, realty, mortgage, and title companies. These included at least two companies which, by their names, specialize in housing construction: the Affordable Housing Construction Company and First Atlantic Housing which donated $25,000.

There were also very large donations from General Motors and Chrysler Motors and from several corporations not recognized, to me, by name or specialty.

None, however topped the State Republican Committee's donations, which added up to $386,000.

Rensselaer County is the first in the region to apply for bond money for water and sewer mains. Their application probably will be given speedy and preferential treatment. After all, they applied early, as theirs was the only County IDA that I saw listed for having donated to the bond campaign. This is an early opportunity to see how the Bond Act will be helpful to developers by funding water and sewer lines. I recently talked to someone in the Rensselaer County Planning Department about this. I asked if new water and sewer mains were being planned to be extended to undeveloped areas to aid developments. They said no, not now, and not likely ever due to an application priority ranking system based on need. However, they pointed out that developers planning projects near the ends of these systems can privately pay to have them extended. They also said that new "infill" developments in vacant parcels in otherwise built up areas, can tap into these new lines.

Saratoga is not far behind Rensselaer. They are, reportedly, applying for bond money for a $17 million sewer district expansion in areas parallel to the Northway. I don't have any further details on this one, but it bears looking into, especially considering the suburban development track record of Saratoga County.

Water and sewer funding are being applied for in our region, but has any open space funding been applied for yet? Is any application being made or contemplated for bond money for the Pine Bush? It haven't hear of any yet. It's unknown if the Pine Bush aquifer would quality for funding.

I doubt if any surface water in the Pine Bush would except perhaps the beautiful still wooded Hunger Kill and its's tributaries. This kill once supported brook trout and with restoration and full protection of it's banks and bordering woodlands, it could again.

I think that The Nature Conservancy should be expected to apply for something like this. They published an appeal to "vote yes on the Bond Act" in their last Fall's Newsletter. In this, The Conservancy cited the Pine Bush among places that could be preserved with bond monies. It was used to campaign for the bond. We should all call them at 518/272-0195 or write to The Nature Conservancy, at 251 River Street, Troy, NY 12180, and urge them to apply for the Hungerkill. Lets try to get what we can.

In light of what has been outlined here, I suggest the following courses of action: Submit Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests to the Rensselaer and Saratoga County planning boards. In these, ask to see their bond application and associated water and sewer line plans. See for sure whether or not any bond funded lines are planned to run into presently undeveloped areas. If any are so planned, then cry foul!

Band together to lobby for additional dedicated revenue sources for the purpose of public land acquisition and lobby for a separate land acquisition bond.

John Wolcott

Printed April/May 1997


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