Engineer: Black Dirt road will not worsen flooding

Farmers dispute ownership, use of drainage ditch-turned-access road

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  • Richard Pawelski, Chris's father, looks out over his onion fields after Hurricane Irene in 2011 wiped out his crop. (Photo: USDA)

By Vicki Botta

— Farmers dispute the ownership of a ditch that drains hundreds of Black Dirt acres into Quaker Creek, a tributary of the Wallkill River.

The ditch was once a stream and is now turning into a road that farmer Chris Pawelski says will make his fields even more flood-prone.

But Town of Warwick officials say Pawelski's neighbor, Mark Rogowski of S&SO Produce, has produced an engineering report, verified by the town's own engineer, showing the new road he's building will not hurt his farm or his neighbors'.

Rogowski could not be reached for comment.

Flooding in the Black Dirt area has caused wholesale damage in recent years, most spectacularly after Hurricane Irene, when a bountiful crop was wrecked just as it became ready for harvest. At such times, the low, flat area reverts to the marshland it used to be in the days before European settlement.

Descendants disagreeThe ownership dispute has its origins in 1923, when Pawelski's great-grandfather, Frank Pawelski, brought his sister's son, Ludwig Osczepinski, to the United States from Poland and sold him part of his farm. An old map shows a right-of-way centered around a small brook. The property is now owned by Mark Rogowski, a descendent of Ludwig Oscepinski.

Pawelski objects that the town gave Rogowski a permit so quickly, without consulting the neighbors.

Wayne Stevens, the town building inspector, said Rogowski submitted proof that he owns the land and produced an engineering plan showing the road won't harm neighboring properties.

Rogowski is “improving an already existing ditch," said Stevens.

Pawelski disagrees. He said the property has been in his family for four generations and appears in the tax registry in his name. And, he said, the town approved a plan that does not comply with floodplain regulations or the original engineering plans, with the retaining wall not on the side of the ditch but in the center, and blocks laid in the opposite direction called for in the plan.

“A blind man can see it," said Pawelski.

He said Rogowski has already developed three rights of way to his farm, and fears Rogowski is preparing the new road as an access to a distillery he plans to build. Warwick officials say they know of no plans for a distillery on the property.

The conflict came to a head when the town issued Rogowski a stop-work order at Pawelski's request. After government offices closed for the day, Pawelski said, and trucks started to arrive. A large culvert pipe was delivered, and pipe-laying work started. The pipe has since been removed.

Sweeton said the stop-work order kept the pipe out of the ditch. He said the town consulted many different agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Orange County Department of Public Works, and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

"All declined jurisdiction," Sweeton said. They all said the right-of-way problem is a civil matter.

"What we do have jurisdiction on, which comes under new flood plain regulations we were mandated to adopt, is any work that potentially can produce flooding requires a flood plain permit from the town," he said.

Sweeton said that after the stop-work order was issued, he told Rogowski to submit an engineering report that his plans would not harm the surrounding lands. He hired an engineer, Leman and Getz, which submitted an analysis reviewed by the town engineer. The building department then issued a permit allowing block on the edge of the ditch floor to create a wider travel lane.

The legitimacy of the right-of-way is a civil matter to be determined by a judge, Sweeton said.

"The town did not grant this right-of-way," he said. "Chris's ancestors did."

Editor's note: This article has been updated.

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