Opponents of WJWW filtration plant land swap given legislative hearing

Facts, history of opposition disputed
November 9, 2023 at 1:27 a.m.
This aerial view from Westchester Joint Water Works shows their ideal land swap location for the water filtration plant on Purchase Street. The alternate site indicated was previously bitterly opposed by Purchase Environmental Protection Association and Sylvan Development, which now have changed their positions and want the plant to be built in the 2005 location.
This aerial view from Westchester Joint Water Works shows their ideal land swap location for the water filtration plant on Purchase Street. The alternate site indicated was previously bitterly opposed by Purchase Environmental Protection Association and Sylvan Development, which now have changed their positions and want the plant to be built in the 2005 location. (Courtesy photo of Westchester Joint Water Works)

By DICK HUBERT | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Westchester County legislators on the Environment, Energy and Climate Committee—reviewing the County Airport land swap application of the Westchester Joint Water Works (WJWW) to finally start construction of their 20-year-delayed water filtration plant—held their second hearing Oct. 18 with no sense of urgency and no schedule for future hearings.

At the hearing, or participating remotely, were the opponents most responsible for the 20-year delay: the Purchase Environmental Protective Association (PEPA) and its Executive Director Anne Gold; a team from the Quaker Meeting House (which would be next door neighbors to the proposed plant site); and Robert Fleischer from the Coalition to Prevent Westchester Airport Expansion.

The most notable opponent not attending the hearing or even mentioned: billionaire entrepreneur and Purchase Street resident and developer Michael Tokarz.

Not present or yet to be invited for those unscheduled future hearings: any of the 100,000 customers of WJWW water (including everyone in this newspaper’s circulation area) who have been waiting decades for clean filtered water and are on the hook to pay not just the projected $140 million cost of the plant, but more than $75 million in court-ordered fines for the failure to construct it.

Giving one explanation for the Legislature’s timetable was County Legislature Vice Chair Nancy Barr, who represents District 6 (which includes Rye Brook, Port Chester and parts of Harrison) and is a member of the Environment Committee.

She wrote the Westmore News: “We are definitely going to have more meetings and will be inviting others to the table from government agencies, etc. It is difficult to schedule right now because we are in prime budget season. We typically do not have a lot of other committee meetings during this time but we are doing our best to keep this process moving forward.”

The opposition-and the pushback

Among those speaking at the hearing was PEPA’s Anne Gold, who argued that the plant be built at its original location—and not relocated “at the entrance to Purchase” on Purchase Street.

She cited the “overwhelming opposition” to the proposed land swap location from local residents. She called it “not a logical choice” and said that Purchase billionaire Michael Tokarz (not mentioned by name) was now in favor of the relocation he once opposed.

Gold said there’s still time to prevent a “significant environmental and visual catastrophe.”

When Legislator Barr, during a follow-up question, told Gold that while the Town of Harrison originally approved the site, they then “retracted” the approval, Gold replied that “I don’t know if that’s true or not, Nancy.”

Gold then ducked out of the conversation by saying she had other time obligations, and the Quakers (Friends) would deal with the issue. She then disappeared from the Legislature’s remote screen.

Jane Olsen of the Friends followed Gold, insisting there would be significant risks if the plant were built on the proposed land swap property, stating:

*Development on the property would threaten water quality of the reservoir.

*It would force New York City to build a filtration plant of its own at a cost of $10 billion.

*There was no “compelling reason” for the plant to be built next to the Quaker land.

*Taking down trees on the proposed property (for the plant construction) would increase the airport noise impacting the Quaker Meeting House.

*The WJWW failed to communicate with the Friends.

*It was critical to see all the plans for “hydraulic modeling.”

*The Legislators must “ask the questions that need to be asked.”

Friends Meeting House President Peter Close of Greenwich, an attorney, used the remaining time to show the two sites (using a piece of paper he brought for illustration—not the maps that are part of the Legislative record).

He claimed the WJWW back in the 1990’s got the permission it needed to build the plant—and that permission exists to this day.

As he continued, Committee Chair and County Legislator Erika Fields rang her “you’re out of time” bell, which Close ignored. Close then passed his printed map to Fields and tried to explain what he was talking about—a problem since no one else in the hearing could see his map.

Close promised to bring more experts to testify at future hearings supporting the Quaker position.

Olsen then again complained she could not get documents from the WJWW. She was told by Pierce that she could get the documents she wanted from the WJWW from the Legislature. Olsen replied that she was a fifth-grade teacher and didn’t understand how to use the Legislature’s website.

Olsen said the caretaker of their society’s grounds will be impacted, as will the playground on the Quaker Meeting House site. She denounced the “massacre” of trees that would be forthcoming should the plant be built on the proposed site. She quoted from newspaper articles dating from 1993 to show the previous destruction of airport trees for construction purposes.

Richard Ruge, a former 29-year employee (February 1981-December 2009) of the WJWW, testified on behalf of the Quakers that he would like to see the hydraulic plans. He had worked on plans for the original site and could see no justification for moving the plant and changing the design.

Barr asked Ruge when WJWW bought the original site for the filtration plant in 1998 because they had to, and then sold a portion of the land “to a well-established developer for a subdivision,” “why would you sell the property leading up to that facility and if you’re a real estate developer, why would you purchase the property up to the water filtration plant?” Barr asked. “Wasn’t it the same person who sued the WJWW to stop the filtration plant?”

Ruge said he did not know what the developer’s (Tokarz) thought process was.

Countered Barr: “It seemed like a very strange for me that a sophisticated developer bought the property to develop housing.  It sounds to me like nobody thought that water filtration plant was going in here. It doesn’t sound like a deal that makes any sense. The reason I think it is relevant now is that there’s a lot of talk of putting the plant on the property.”

Ruge tried to explain the thinking of Tokarz in being against the original location and now being for that location and against the proposed land swap location.

Since Ruge never claimed to be a spokesman for Tokarz, and Tokarz has yet to testify, the whole issue of Tokarz’s involvement was left for another day.

The Westmore News contacted Ruge requesting an in-depth in-person interview dealing with his testimony at the hearing and his experience as an employee of the WJWW and afterwards in the water industry, but he declined.

Response from WJWW’s Kutzy 

In a post hearing e-mail back and forth with WJWW Manager Paul Kutzy, the Westmore News asked for his response to the charges leveled at the Oct. 18 hearing against the public agency:

WN: What's your take on the testimony? Did you hear anything you haven't heard before?

Kutzy: It was disappointing to hear opponents of the land swap double-down on their campaign of spreading misinformation, which is misleading, distracting, and confusing for anyone who is not educated about the facts of this important public health project. 

We did not hear anything that we have not heard before. 

They inaccurately stated, for example, that WJWW has not been cooperative or transparent throughout the process; that the DEIS was not comprehensive and, specifically, did not include a wildlife study; that the FEIS did not address questions and concerns the public had.

...They are creating false narratives - connecting dots that just don’t add up; for example, that the 10MGD increase in plant design is related to some imagined arrangement between WJWW and Westchester County to provide fire protection to the airport, specifically to Million Air hangar.

WJWW has made efforts to keep the lines of communication open with the Quakers/Friends, including meeting with them on two separate occasions, first of which in January 2020, to address any concerns or questions they had, and offering to meet with them again for a third time in June 2023. WJWW continues to engage in a transparent way and is committed to providing the public with up-to-date and factual information. 

WJWW’s comprehensive microsite (wjwwfiltration.org) was developed to make important project documents accessible to the public and to keep the public up-to-date with project developments. WJWW’s public relations campaign has been necessary to combat the misinformation spread by opponents to the public.

WJWW encourages everyone to get informed about this important project and to take action to urge your local legislator to support the land swap between WJWW and Westchester County, which is necessary for the construction of the filtration plant, by visiting DemandSafeWater.org. 

WN: Legislator Nancy Barr's questions about the history of the original site were revealing. Why do you think the old (before your time) WJWW bought that 40 acres of land and then sold all but 13 to Michael Tokarz who then did his best to prevent WJWW from building there ? In short, what political and legal reasons prevented the WJWW from building at the original plant location site and then deciding to want a site closer to Purchase Street and all the infrastructure there? Was there a screw-up by your predecessors?

Kutzy: I joined WJWW in 2017 and unfortunately I do not have any insight into why WJWW bought that 40 acres of land in 1998 and then sold all but 13 to Sylvan Development in 2000. I would expect that the WJWW Board of Trustees approved the sale at the time. Site preparation at the original plant location began on August 29, 2006, but all construction was halted on September 8, 2006 following a stay issued by the NYS Supreme Court resulting from a raft of lawsuits brought by Sylvan Development challenging different permits and approvals for the proposed filtration plant at the original plant location. 

As a result, the Harrison Planning Board rescinded its approvals and its prior negative declaration issued under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). The Harrison Planning Board then determined that it would serve as the lead agency for the SEQRA review. WJWW completed its obligations as the applicant for full compliance with the SEQRA review process by submitting a proposed Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) to the Planning Board in July 2008. Yet, the Planning Board never completed the SEQRA process by never formally adopting the FEIS for WJWW’s proposal to build at the original plant location. Without completion of the SEQRA review process, no further action could be taken to construct the filtration plant at the original plant location. 

In 1994, WJWW retained Hazen and Sawyer to prepare a site evaluation report to identify possible locations for the filtration plant. At that time the County Airport site was determined to be the overall best location for the facility; however, Westchester County declined to make the Airport site available. At that time the original plant location was evaluated as an alternative, but it was deemed less suitable because it was zoned for residential use.

At some point in 2024, the hearings may continue. In the meantime, the WJWW effort to build the Court, EPA, and Justice Department mandated water filtration plant is once again in an indefinite holding pattern.


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