It's not about discrimination — our aquifer simply cannot sustain high-density housing like the Greens at Chester

21 Aug 2019 | 11:34

To the Editor:

Residents of Chester received a letter from Joseph Landau, president of “Better Chester,” two weeks ago. The same letter was published in the Aug. 9-15 edition of The Chronicle. The letter goes into detail regarding all the “good things” the Greens at Chester will bring to our town in new tax revenues and in supposedly preserving the rural character of our town. However, the letter is also filled with veiled and not-so-veiled threats against both the Town of Chester and its taxpayers if the town does not accede to their demands.

What the letter makes no mention of is the genesis of this dispute. There is simply not enough water in the local aquifer to sustain a high-density housing project like the Greens at Chester. When the NYS Department of Health required 72-hour pumping tests to be done on this parcel nearly 20 years ago, when Mr. Wilbur Fried was still attempting to develop it into an apartment complex, the state engineer issued a finding that said the water availability for such a project at that time was “marginal.” In other words, there was barely enough water to build a high-density housing development in those days. This finding was part of a bundle of reasons that stymied the project, and why Mr. Fried was never able to move it forward.

In late 2017, the Greens began building the project on the site that Mr. Fried could not receive approvals for over a 20- to 30-year period, and, quite suddenly, all obstacles to the project seemed to be removed. In their haste to construct this project, the Greens ignored the findings by the NYS Department of Health of nearly 20 years ago regarding the marginal availability of water. This was not brought to light until the middle of 2018, once the land clearing for the project was underway.

In the summer of 2018, the NYS Department of Health in concert with the Orange County Health Department issued a demand for new 72-hour pumping tests to determine if the local aquifer could sustain such a huge high-density project. James Farr, water commissioner for the Town of Chester, added an additional requirement based on the requests by residents adjacent to the 120-acre parcel. Mr. Farr issued a requirement stating that the wells on all properties adjacent to the development be monitored during the 72-hour pumping tests. These actions, taken by both state and local governments, were both prudent and appropriate to protect both the environment and the water rights of homeowners. This requirement has effectively stopped the project in its tracks, since no building permits will be issued until after the results of these tests are known. The state, county, and town are attempting to protect the rights of their citizens and the viability of the local environment.

Unfortunately, rather than comply with the completely reasonable and prudent legal order to conduct these tests, the developers have chosen to once again embark on a “take no prisoners” legal approach to vacate these orders and get their project built based on antiquated and dubious findings. They continue to ignore the fact that it has been nearly two decades since the original tests were done, and that the natural availability of water in the water table may have been further degraded since that time due to massive development in and near the town. The developers know that the newly ordered 72-hour pumping test may find that not only is the water availability for a high-density housing project not improved but has likely been further degraded by ongoing development over the past two decades. If this is the case, it will be necessary for them to either drastically downsize the project to accommodate the water availability or abandon it altogether. They do not want to take that chance, hence, the legal maneuverings.

The proponents of this project expect us to believe that the primary motivation for the current test demands is based on religious discrimination. It is not, and townspeople of Chester are insulted to be characterized in this manner. Rather, it is based on water availability and the specter of the people in the vicinity of the development having their well water reduced in both quality and quantity. My home, which is adjacent to the project, has a 40-foot-deep artesian well, which has functioned well for the past 54 years since it was built. I am told by experts that my well might be the first to run dry if this project is built. Other neighbors have similar wells that go down 40 to 225 feet. If our wells go dry, or if the quality of our water is depleted by this project, who will speak for us? The town, county, and state are speaking for us now with the demand for new tests. It is an attempt to protect the local environment from runaway and unsustainable growth.

As we understand it, the case to vacate the legally ordered tests by the state, county, and town will now be taken up in court in the Southern District of New York. No matter what the judge decides in this case, he or she does not have the power to put more water in the aquifer to make this project viable. Though the developers will continue to insist that this is about “discrimination,” it is really all about water quality and quantity, ecological sustainability, and protecting local resources from runaway development.

Through Mr. Landau’s letter, it has been made clear to the good citizens of Chester that if we continue to try and protect our rights and don’t stand clear and let this project go through, we will all be punished by both a court judgment against us and higher taxes in the future to pay damages.

Hopefully, the court will bring back a ruling that protects the rights of all Chester’s citizens. We are now looking into filing an amicus brief with Southern District, written from the perspective of those who stand to have the quality and quantity of their water adversely affected if this project goes forward.

Edward Winters