Still in development, redevelopment agency in battle with environmentalists

By Laura Bomyea, Johnson Newspapers

Sunday, December 6, 2009

MASSENA — Local Government Task Force Chairman Robert O. McNeil says a group of environmentalists is dredging up old grievances and making baseless accusations in an attempt to delay the creation of the St. Lawrence River Valley Redevelopment Agency.

He argues the battle being waged by members of the St. Lawrence Valley Environmental Coalition over how to best invest the $16 million and 20 megawatts of hydropower the proposed RVRDA would administer is premature since the New York Power Authority has yet to approve the creation of the agency.

Members of the St. Lawrence Valley Environmental Coalition allege they have been shut out of the task force's deliberations on how to use the money and power. Some, including coalition member Richard W. Grover, have argued the RVRDA proposal is too narrow and does not take into account environmental interests in how it plans to allocate the resources.

But Mr. McNeil said the RVRDA has not yet been formed — only four of the five members have been appointed so far — and discussions about how and where to invest the money and power have not yet begun.

"Before we fight over how we're going to spend the money and power, we ought to at least get it," he said. "We have finally settled this agreement between the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency and the RVRDA to administer it. Now we can move forward with NYPA to get the power. We've got to at least get up and running before we start fighting over how to use the $16 million and the 20 megawatts."

Mr. McNeil insisted it has not been the intention of the task force or the RVRDA to shut out any group with a specific proposal for using the money and power. Once the region has the money and power to distribute, those proposals will be reviewed by the RVRDA.

"If the St. Lawrence Environmental Coalition has a logical proposal for some of that money or power that would accomplish the roles of economic development and proper environmental stewardship, the RVRDA would listen to it and probably embrace it," Mr. McNeil said. "As a member of the RVRDA, I can assure they would get more than a fair hearing on a proposal."

After more than two years of deliberations, the Local Government Task Force agreed to create the RVRDA to manage the money and power NYPA offered to the region to help address concerns that the power authority's 2003 relicensing settlement inadequately compensated some of its host communities.

Four towns and the county already had agreed to the plan and were negotiating with the IDA on its role in overseeing any bonding, grants or other actions the IDA has the legal authority to do, when the environmentalists entered the debate, Mr. McNeil said.

Mr. Grover has complained his group contacted the task force in May asking for an opportunity to meet with them, but was not given the opportunity to do so until September.

Mr. McNeil said ongoing negotiations between the IDA and the task force's executive committee were the only meetings held during that time period, meetings that had not been open to the public because they dealt with the terms of a legal contract.

"I don't see the basis for the allegations that we've been doing this in secret," Mr. McNeil said. "All of our meetings have been public and have followed Open Meetings Law."

Members of the St. Lawrence Valley Environmental Coalition have reached out recently to agencies such as the New York Power Authority and the county's Environmental Management Council to put the brakes on the RVRDA plan.

Mr. McNeil called the push to put the effort on hold as "reckless and irresponsible" because it jeopardizes the progress the task force has made so far, increases the chances NYPA will allocate the money and power elsewhere and means more lost revenue the region could have earned by having the money in the bank.

"We can fight over how we're going to spend the money and power when we get it. We need to move forward," he said.

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