Letter to David Forsythe in response to News Article

December 3, 2009

Mr. David W. Forsythe

564 Murphy Road

Lisbon NY 13658

Dear Legislator Forsythe:

You raised a valid question in the Watertown Times (“NYPA Official: heed group”, WDT, Nov. 28, 2009) regarding what appears to be our organization’s late hour entry into the NYPA money re-allocation issue.  We are writing to set the record straight, in hopes of putting the past aside and focusing on what should be done now to secure the NYPA money and put it to work for St. Lawrence County as efficiently as possible.

Our involvement is this issue began in earnest in May this year.  Note, however, that the environmental community has been a consistent and active participant in all river-related proceedings including the FERC re-licensing process from its beginning.  The Aquarium & Ecological Center was meant to address needs of the community and appease those who had  advocated vigorously for the protection of the St. Lawrence River ecosystem, an enhanced local education initiative, and economic development in the form of tourism.  The current debate over the re-allocation of money from the aquarium goes back over two years to September-October 2007.  Since then, there’s been an on-going controversy surrounding this issue.  Again, it is noteworthy that two of our members, Pete Skomsky and Don Lucas, both from Massena, have consistently participated in most if not all public meetings on the subject.  

The controversy over the re-allocation has centered mostly on who will manage the money.  The key question of what the money will be used for was not discussed and debated.  It was simply stated that it would go towards “economic development”.   In May this year, it was announced that the feuding parties, i.e., the Local Government Task Force and the County Industrial Development Agency, had worked out a Memorandum of Understanding.  The MOU would pave the way for the release of $16M and 20MW of electricity by NYPA to the county;   this news alarmed many in the the local environmental community.  How would the money be managed?  What kinds of projects would be eligible for funding?  Would the river ecosystem be protected and enhanced? 

Four of our members (Peter O’Shea, Robin McClellan, Luke Dailey and Richard Grover) expressed their concerns at the NYPA Trustees meeting in Massena on May 19.  They framed their views by putting the issue into its historical perspective, citing the FERC re-licensing process and the dual-purpose mission (economic development plus environmental education, research and management) of the failed Aquarium & Ecological Center.  Their stated concerns were well received by NYPA President and CEO Richard Kessel and the NYPA Trustees, and they were encouraged to engage with the local officials working on the matter.  Within a few days

Bob McNeil, Chair of the Local Government Task Force, was contacted.  Bob promised that he would put us on the agenda of the next Task Force meeting, but weeks passed and the invitation never came.   

A meeting of a dozen citizens representing various environmental groups was organized and held in Lisbon on June 17.  The group voted to form the St. Lawrence Valley Environmental Coalition (SLVEC), adopted a mission statement, and elected a Steering Committee to guide its participation in the local political process that was underway.  On July 24 the Steering Committee drafted a plan suggesting an endowment be set up with the NYPA money, and that environmental projects and programs receive a substantial portion of each year’s allotment, that the environmental community be represented in the decision-making process, and that the process be transparent.   Shortly thereafter we tried to reconnect with Bob McNeil, but two calls went unanswered.  On July 30 we finally made contact.  Mr. McNeil again promised to give us a voice at the next meeting, but again, no invitation came forward.  We continued to press for a meeting and it finally came, with two days notice, on September 24, over four months after the original 'promise'.   

The September 24 meeting was in the afternoon, in Massena.  Because of the time of day and short notice, only one person from our Steering Committee could attend.  At the meeting Steering Committee member Richard Grover spoke for about five minutes, summarizing the Coalition’s ideas.  The Task Force had no questions or comments.  Mr. Grover asked how the NYPA money would be spent, and attorney Gustafson gave him a copy of a report titled St. Lawrence Valley Redevelopment Agency, Economic Development Proposal, April 2009.  This report includes a plan for a $7.5M 'super' industrial park and other ideas our Coalition finds questionable.  To our knowledge, these ideas have never been publicly discussed or debated.  In the public comment part of the meeting several local citizens commented on our proposal and one offered the opinion that the environmental argument had merit. 

We continued to study the situation, including acquainting ourselves with the work of the Niagara River Greenway Commission, that has undergone a similar process.  On October 9 we received an email from Bob McNeil stating the Task Force would be meeting on October 15 with the intent of approving an agreement with the IDA.  We promptly requested a copy of the agreement, but did not receive it until October 14.  The Task Force meeting was in the evening in Louisville.  Representatives of the IDA were present, and numerous citizens including several from SLVEC.  For about two hours the agreement that would put the IDA in control of the NYPA money came under heavy questioning and criticism from the citizens present.  Nevertheless, the Task Force approved the agreement, with Waddingon Mayor Janet Otto-Cassada voting 'no.' At the conclusion of the meeting attorney Gustafson approached Richard Grover and asked him to submit some language to incorporate into the agreement.  Mr. Gustafson stated "I cannot guarantee it will be accepted, but I can guarantee it will be considered."  We responded to his invitation with a letter, dated October 28, 2009, wherein we suggested a comprehensive 'Greenway' approach similar to that undertaken in the Niagara region.  After almost a week we had not heard anything from Mr. Gustafson so we contacted him.  We learned our letter had not been circulated to the Task Force, and he suggested we call Bob McNeil, which we did.  Mr. McNeil confirmed the letter was not circulated to the Task Force, but promised to promptly distribute it.  Another month has passed, and to date there's been zero feedback on the letter or its recommendations from the Task Force.  We have also learned no one from the Task Force made contact with the Niagara River Greenway Commission. 

Frustrated by our inability to engage with the Task Force, on November 12 we sent a copy of the Gustafson letter to all local elected officials in the four river towns and to each County Legislator.  On November 17 we sent the letter to retired County Court Judge Eugene Nicandri and other NYPA Trustees.  Through all of this we kept Mr. Kessel informed of our unsuccessful efforts to engage with the Task Force, and he encouraged us to keep trying.  During this period we also presented our ideas to the County Environmental Management Council.  The EMC endorsed the Greenway approach and communicated its sentiments, via Legislator Laura Perry, to the Legislature's Finance Committee on November 23.  The WDT story that quoted you was published a few days later, on November 28. 

As you can see, we have been diligently trying to engage with the Task Force for almost seven months, but we have been systematically ignored.  When Eric Gustafson invited our suggestions on October 15, we thought we finally had a breakthrough.  Now Richard Kessel has said publicly that NYPA takes our concerns and suggestions seriously, and he wants the Task Force to do the same.  We feel we have offered ideas that would benefit the environment and economy of the County.  We feel our recommended approach will actually accelerate release of the NYPA money rather than delay it.  We desire to work constructively with the Task Force and all other stakeholders and move this effort along as swiftly as possible. 

Sincerely,

Steering Committee

St. Lawrence Valley Environmental Coalition

cc:   Bob McNeil

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