Albany: At the July Save the Pine Bush dinner, the Honorable John McEneny, Democratic Assemblyman for the 104th District, opened his speech by noting the last time he had spoken at a Save the Pine Bush dinner was a happy occasion to honor SPB member John Wolcott with an resolution from the NYS Assembly for John’s work on the environment and historic preservation.
Mr. McEneny came to speak about a serious issue — taking (or alienation) of park land to be used for an expansion of the landfill in the Pine Bush. In his state-of-the-city speech on January 19, Mayor Jerry Jennings proposed to take land out of the Pine Bush Preserve to expand the Albany landfill in the Pine Bush. In order to alienate this land, the NYS Legislature must pass legislation removing the land from the Preserve. This legislation is usually carried by the assembly member in whose district the park land lies. Mr. McEneny’s district encompasses 80% of the City of Albany.
Mr. McEneny explained the history of this bill. He said that Mayor Jennings had contacted him in January to present the plan to expand the landfill into the Pine Bush Preserve.
“The Mayor is losing options in Coeymans,” said Mr. McEneny. Over 100 acres of wetlands were discovered on the site. “The Army Corps advised the City that it was not feasible to put a landfill at the Coeymans site,” said Mr. McEneny. “I never endorsed the Coeymans plan. I rarely criticize how the city is run and I normally do not get involved in the day-to-day operation.”
Neither Mr. McEneny nor any member of his staff heard another word about the Mayor’s proposal to take Preserve for the landfill from January until June 1, when a paid consultant from the City offered a model bill to Mr. McEneny. It was very late in the legislative session – the session would end on June 23. Mr. McEneny questioned how he was supposed to get this bill to the DEC committee, and how would he have time to research it? Everything was “hurry, hurry, hurry, stress, stress, stress.”
At first, Mr. McEneny said no, he would not carry the bill. Then he received a letter from the communities in the ANSWERS consortium who dump their garbage in the landfill (all the communities except the Town of Guilderland and one other signed the letter) asking for passage of the bill. The municipalities argued that their taxes would go up, and they would have no place to dump their garbage. Mr. McEneny said “pressure, pressure, pressure.“ Mr. McEneny spoke to people at the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission, his staff, and members of Save the Pine Bush and realized that the bill would have to have some changes.
At one point, the Mayor pressured Assemblyman Ron Canestrari to put in the bill. Mr. McEneny put in changes for the bill, increasing the tipping fees to go to the Commission and other provisions to make it less of a “bitter pill.” But, Mr. McEneny realized that it was not right to have Mr. Canestrari put in the bill and asked for the bill back – sort of like passing the hot potato – and Mr. Canestrari graciously agreed.
That Friday, Mr. McEneny put in the bill. The next Monday, June 19 (just 4 days before the Legislature was to leave town), the Albany Common Council held a vote on whether to ask the Legislature to pass the bill to alienate the land. It was a split vote (11 to 4) in favor of the alienation.
Supporters of Pine Bush preservation who spoke against the bill surrounded Mr. McEneny after the meeting. He asked them to show him a precedent that demonstrates that the alienation bill did not have to be passed before the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQRA) process could begin.
The City of Albany kept telling Mr. McEneny that they had to have this bill, that the City had to have the land alienated before the SEQRA process could be started and an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prepared.
“I was looking for something that was wrong, but I did not know what it was.” Mr. McEneny knew that he had until Thursday, the last day of the session to find what he needed.
Then, Mr. McEneny was told about the court case about Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. In this case, the City of New York wanted to avoid going to the NYS legislature to alienate park land for a water supply project. So New York City did a very thorough SEQRA review and wrote and EIS. Friends of Van Cortlandt Park sued. The Judge ruled that proceeding with the SEQRA process prior to alienation of park land was the proper procedure.
In fact, the new brochure from the Office of Parks and Recreation strongly recommends that prior to approaching the NYS Legislature for alienation of park land, that the State Environmental Quality Review proceedings be done first.
Mr. McEneny said that was all he needed. He did not kill the bill, however, the bill is now resting comfortably in the Rules Committee. Bills are not acted upon until the sponsor moves them. As a matter of fact, the bill is resting so comfortably that it might as well be dead.
“I don’t think there was a conspiracy to avoid doing the planning first.” said Mr. McEneny, referring to comments made by some advocates for Pine Bush preservation who accused the City of slipping this bill through at the very last minute with no public input. He said that prior to Van Cortlandt Park case that many people, with good environmental intentions really believed that alienation of park land must precede SEQRA review.
Mr. McEneny asked questions and offered possibly solutions to the solid waste problem. If this bill was so important, has the City held hearings this month on the issue? What if one or two of the larger ANSWERS municipalities were to take their waste elsewhere? Would that extend the life of the landfill for a few years? What about the unused landfill in Northern Saratoga that has never opened up? It was approved in 1996 but no one uses it.
Mr. McEneny began to discuss the fiscal issue. He suggested that the figure he has seen is that the City receives about $10 million a year from landfill revenues. He suggests that the City wean itself from the landfill revenue gradually.
Mr. McEneny looked to the future, when the City will come to him again with this or a similar bill. He said, what is going to happen next January? “I know everyone here is against this. But, if at the end of a public process, when everyone has looked at all the alternatives, and the only alternative is somehow expanding that landfill in one direction or another, and the City of Albany wants it, and they have done it properly, then I will pass that bill.”