By Jeanne Sager
SMALLWOOD April 22, 2005 The federal government has spoken and a long-debated public access site to the Toronto Reservoir will remain open.
According to Celeste Miller, a spokesperson for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), an October application from Mirant Bowline has been denied.
The energy corporation, which purchased the Smallwood waterway from Orange and Rockland Utilities in 1992, was looking to shut down one of two access sites required by FERC license.
The site in question is on the southern end of the reservoir, accessible off of Town Road 62 and via private property owned by Woodstone Development Corporation.
In exchange for FERCs approval to abandon the access, Mirant pledged to improve the second mandated access site off of Moscoe Road with the help of Woodstone.
The northern access site would be expanded from one boat launch to three, from 15 parking spots to 35 with picnic and restroom facilities added.
The proposal received support from the Town of Bethel Board as well as the U.S. Department of the Interior and Senator Charles Schumer.
But the Smallwood Civic Association and its offshoot organization, Friends of Toronto, made a hefty argument to the contrary.
Association President Bob Barrett said they had less than $1,000 in their coffers to fight the closure, but they made every cent count in their three-year battle.
We were told over and over again, You cant fight the big guys, Barrett said this week, after learning of the FERC decision. But thats not in my psyche.
And the official decision rendered by FERC shows their comments weighed heavily on the minds of government officials.
In the order denying Mirants application, FERC commissioners said, Based on the Form 80 data and comments from users, it appears that both sites are used with equal frequency.
While the improvements to the Moscoe Road site would provide additional recreation benefits to the public, there is no evidence that they are needed, the commissioners said.
The boating access sites on Toronto Reservoir provide two distinctively different types of recreational experiences. The Moscoe Road site is more developed and located closer to the Town of Bethel. The Toronto Dam Access is more remote and less developed.
These areas serve different recreationists at the project and provide different experiences, all of which contribute to the overall development of the project, the decision read. The two recreational sites at the project appear necessary to meet the needs of the public in distinct but equally important ways.
Closing the Toronto dam access site would make it more difficult for some recreationists to access Toronto Lake and would preclude the general public using the remote area.
The decision means Woodstone cannot put up a gate blocking public access to their property something once allowed by the town.
And the Town of Bethel will be making improvements to its own road used by folks who wish to access the site.
Although the town has talked about abandoning Town Road 62 in the past, Supervisor Vicky Simpson said they will be abiding by FERCs decision and making the road passable to improve the access.
We will have to make it more accessible because its going to be open to the public from now on, she said.
Although there will be some cost to the taxpayers to make the road usable again, some of the work done will be covered by FEMA money because of damage sustained during the floods earlier this month.
Although the town had supported the Mirant proposal, Simpson said this was ultimately FERCs decision, and the town was just waiting to hear what the federal government had to say.
Barrett said hes already headed out to the site, and the highway department has already gotten to work on fixing some parts of the road.
He said justice was done here.
This was a decision to have the public access a piece of property theyre entitled to, Barrett said. This is not an issue where privacy should overtake the rights of the public.
In fact, FERCs decision specifically states, in boldface type, We will not allow the interests of private landowners to override the general publics right to enjoy the recreational resources associated with the licensed hydropower projects.
Barrett said he hopes to see Toronto Reservoir become like a mini Lake Wallenpaupack with folks fishing, boating and sitting out on the berm to watch the sun set over the water.
As for himself, Barrett said he might just get out there and enjoy the reservoir this summer.
I didnt have any time to do much fishing with all this falderal, he said with a laugh. But maybe now I will.