ENVIRONMENTAL COALITION: Members say agency's ideas ignore ecological impact

By LAURA BOMYEA, Johnson Newspapers, Friday, November 20, 2009

MASSENA — Local environmentalists say a storm is brewing over the way the proposed St. Lawrence River Valley Redevelopment Agency will handle $16 million and 20 megawatts of hydropower offered to the community by the New York Power Authority.

One of the activists' major concerns is their belief that the county's Industrial Development Agency is too focused on luring smokestack industries and big business to be allowed significant control over the money and power.

The environmentalists are also afraid a lack of environmental sensitivity in the proposed agency's mission statement will lead to unsustainable growth, wasteful spending and ecologically harmful business practices.

They also warn a $300,000-per-year agreement between the county IDA and the fledgeling redevelopment agency will cause the power authority funding to be squandered, rather than invested in projects that further economic development and environmental protection.

Over the past several months, St. Lawrence Valley Environmental Coalition members such as Richard W. Grover, a former county planning director, have offered scathing reviews of the redevelopment agency plan.

As the four river communities represented by the Local Government Task Force — Massena, Louisville, Lisbon and Waddington — work with the county and the IDA to push the plan forward, Mr. Grover and his peers are calling on the public to "take a long, hard look" at the proposal before allowing local officials to sign off on it.

"The task force/IDA/RVRDA plan is to spend the vast majority of the settlement funds on industrial development strategies that, in our view, are at best outdated and highly speculative," Mr. Grover wrote in a letter to NYPA Chief Executive Officer Richard M. Kessel.

"There is a great risk that these funds will be exhausted on speculative, short-term infrastructure projects, unsustainable hiring and funding of programs that do little toward sustainable economic development and environmental management."

Mr. Grover is particularly critical of some of the sample projects included in the redevelopment agency proposal, such as the creation of a $7.5 million "super industrial park" that allegedly would offer large swaths of land or facilities for "large, transformational economic development projects."

Officials responsible for drafting the redevelopment agency plan have said the super industrial park and the other possible projects included in the document were provided only as examples after the agency was asked by officials at the county and state level to illustrate how assets might be used.

But Mr. Grover said the agency, using those examples as a directive, could focus on funding "pet projects" rather than investing the money for the "widest public good."

The involvement of the IDA in administering the funding, in exchange for being paid $300,000 per year, creates additional concerns for Mr. Grover. He portrays the IDA as having a "single-purpose agenda that is limited to luring big industry and business to the area."

In a letter to task force attorney Eric J. Gustafson, Mr. Grover argued that "there is nothing in the agreement as presently written that indicates that environmental impact is a genuine consideration of the IDA."

Mr. Grover said the environmental coalition wants the redevelopment agency to put the money away in an endowment and use only the interest to fund projects and pay for administrative costs from year to year. It also has called for the creation of a "greenway plan," similar to the one in the Niagara region, which provides an environmentally friendly framework for judging future development projects.

Coalition members also have requested equal representation on the five-member St. Lawrence River Valley Redevelopment Agency board, initially asking to add five posts for environmentalists. Most recently, they proposed a 14-member board made up of representatives from the four towns, the county legislature, the IDA, the county planning office and seven members at large to be selected based on their ability to represent interests such as education, environmental management, farming, small business, industry, transportation and energy.

Mr. Grover said this approach would be more community-centered and would help the redevelopment agency avoid the short-sightedness he believes the board will be prone to as currently envisioned.

"We feel this balanced approach is more realistic and will yield quicker and greater local benefits than the present IDA approach that is laden with administrative overhead, devoid of environmental sensitivity and limited to luring big industry and business to the area," he said.

The environmentalist also has called on Mr. Kessel to intervene and help redirect the community's focus on the bigger picture his group is advocating.

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