Rockland County Executive Candidates Debate Environmental Concerns

BY MICHAEL RICONDA

The Rockland Water Coalition hosted an occasionally heated debate between candidates for county executive on the evening of April 18, covering issues ranging from United Water’s proposed desalination plant in Haverstraw to the continued issues surrounding Indian Point.

The debate had five participants: Suffern mayor Dagan LaCorte, County Legislator Ilan Schoenberger, former Spring Valley Village Justice David Fried and political newcomer Vladimir Leon represented themselves as Democrats, but differed only moderately in their positions from the sole Republican, county legislator Ed Day.

Among the major highlights were several instances of verbal sparring between Schoenberger and LaCorte over LaCorte’s record on finances in the Village of Suffern and Leon’s unusual behavior, which included ill-prepared, vague answers, frequent apologies for difficulties and a bizarre request to stand from his seat to better present his arguments.

On the major issues, there was often little disagreement on the general questions, but significant differences between the candidates’ approaches. High-density development, particularly in the Town of Ramapo, proved to be one of the most contentious matters due to Schoenberger’s efforts to discredit LaCorte.

Both candidates agreed high-density development was unsustainable, but LaCorte used the opportunity to advocate a stronger, better-funded county planning department to challenge risky developments, a theme he pressed throughout the debate.

“We’re not going to be able to face these challenges if we’ve cut our planning department by 41 percent in two years and we only have $1.8 million left to totally fund a review of all these projects when we fund our County Legislature by three times as much,” LaCorte said.

Schoenberger argued the county had to work closely with localities rather than overstepping its authority by directing local planning boards. He also criticized LaCorte for characterizing the county’s finances as neglectful of the Parks Department and pointed to alleged deficits in Suffern sewer, water and general funds as evidence that LaCorte was unfit to handle county finances.

Going even further, Schoenberger made a bold move by accusing LaCorte of ignorance of county budget concerns such as Medicaid and social services.

“To say that villages and towns are subject to the same mandates as the county is absolutely ridiculous,” Schoenberger said.

LaCorte vehemently denied the charges.

“I have the Suffern budget here and yes, it’s a lot thinner than the bloated Rockland County budget,” LaCorte said. “It’s 40 pages because the Village of Suffern is a lean, mean, money-saving machine”

Other legislators agreed with the general sentiment that high-density housing was dangerous and unsustainable, with Day calling the hazard an “abomination” and speaking out against the high-density, multi-family Patrick Farm development but disagreeing with Schoenberger by arguing the county can insert itself into local planning decisions in certain circumstances.

“The reality is that in the general municipal law, if there is an application within 500 feet of a county or state road, the county can insert itself,” Day explained.

Fried expanded upon previous water-related arguments, tying Ramapo’s high-volume housing to its inordinate water consumption and proposing a commissioner of planning to review such projects. Leon repeated calls from Day to challenge the proposal for high-density, multi-family housing at Patrick Farm, but offered no specific means to do so.

Candidate positions on United Water’s desalination proposal were not universally opposed to the practice itself, though all candidates agreed on extensive data-gathering and study to determine the full effects of a facility.

Though he had perhaps the least explicit position on the matter, Day explained the county executive should take an active role in regulatory and planning processes above the county level whether it involves desalination or other means of enhancing county water supplies, but rooted in housing issues.

“We’re dealing with a symptom, not the cause,” Day said. “Development is the issue.”

Schoenberger advocated studies of alternative water measures such as conservation and prevention of leaks before resorting to desalination, while Leon advocated the formation of a commission to study the matter. Other legislators took stronger positions, with both LaCorte and Fried expressing outright opposition to the plant.

Another major issue was the renewal of Indian Point, which candidates agreed lacked a reliable emergency plan. While all candidates opposed Indian Point’s relicensing and called for its closure, some such as Schoenberger and Fried used the opportunity to propound their own efforts calling for a closure.

Utility rates were discussed in connection to desalination, with legislators offering different approaches to controlling water rates. Lacorte promoted his plan to strengthen county planning and demand payments for planning reviews of large scale developments in order to review projects.

Fried argued for not only such an examination of past studies on supposed water scarcity, but also limitations on transfer of water to New Jersey, a common suggestion from conservation advocates.

“We should only be sharing the water that we have to share and there should be severe penalties for water that is shared in excess of our agreement,” Fried said.

Schoenberger and Day took a different approach, explaining state authorities such as the Department of Environmental Conservation were the final determinants, though they both advocated a complete, accurate record on scarcity and active engagement with the DEC n the matter. Day specifically proposed spreading costs across areas ranging beyond taxpayers in an effort to soften the blow of rising costs.

On the matter of open space, Schoenberger cited his record of land preservation and listed several areas he helped to obtain protected status. Schoenberger also took another jab at LaCorte for allegedly misunderstanding the county budget, which Schoenberger argued provides for parks under the capital budget.

LaCorte once again contested this point while continuing his common theme of arguing for investment in county departments and giving them the teeth to enforce regulations and care for open areas. Fried presented an unorthodox plan calling for a Central Park conservancy model, which allows for parks to be cared for by a semi-private entity, while Day presented his own record of fighting for open spaces as a civic association leader.

Other topics included discussion of post-Sandy climate change preparation, the Champlain-Hudson Power Electric power line, air traffic and campaign contributions from United Water.