By Dan Hust
WHITE LAKE In a move that surprised virtually everyone in the room, Bethel Councilman Dick Crumley successfully motioned to rescind a proposed sewer extension in White Lake.
Wednesday’s town board meeting had the Kollel Averichim Torah Veyirah (KATV) extension on the agenda, as the Sullivan County Supreme Court had barred the town from discussing it or taking action on it at the previous meeting.
That August 27 gathering had been on a Saturday, and the Hasidic KATV had convinced the court to prohibit the discussion because Saturdays are the Jewish Sabbath.
Regardless, most observers expected the town board majority to agree to the extension, which would serve eight dwelling units on five acres along Schultz Road.
Last December, the board voted 3-2 to proceed, agreeing with the town engineer that it was in Bethel’s best interests.
Crumley was one of the three in support, along with Supervisor Dan Sturm and Councilwoman Vicky Vassmer-Simpson.
But councilmembers Denise Frangipane and Bob Blais shared the concerns of some townspeople who worried that the extension would encourage more residential development, rather than commercial for which it was built, and unacceptably increase housing density.
Nearly 100 existing sewer district users petitioned for a public vote on the matter, but the court denied that petition on the grounds that it was filed a day too late.
A new petition with around 200 signatures was filed this summer, but on Wednesday, Sturm insisted the town had no other choice than to allow the extension.
“There is no good reason at this time to deny this applicant,” he told the audience.
“The capacity is there,” Vassmer-Simpson agreed. “... And just so everyone understands, it has to go to the planning board, and there it will get a full review.”
But Crumley parted ways with the two that evening, motioning to rescind the extension order from December.
“I feel like this is the route to go,” he remarked.
Judging by the rest of the board and audience’s faces, Crumley had not shared these feelings prior.
“Was that one of our options?” Sturm asked incredulously.
Town Attorney Rob McEwan confirmed it was, though he did not recommend it.
But Crumley found support from both Blais and Frangipane.
“I think the petitioners should have a right to vote on it,” Blais expressed, with Frangipane adding she’s worried the extension would set a bad precedent.
Sturm’s shock turned quickly to anger.
“It’s going to be a reckless use of town money,” he argued. “I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”
He was referring to the possibility that KATV will sue which KATV’s attorney, Jay Zeiger, indicated to the board is likely.
“I believe this resolution will not be upheld in court,” he said in public comment. “We don’t want to go to court, but you leave us no choice. ... My client’s due process rights were denied tonight.”
In a lengthy letter delivered to the board before the meeting, Zeiger laid out the case that KATV acted in good faith on the belief that the town would proceed, given the prior vote and lack of a public referendum.
A decision not to extend the district, he wrote, would constitute a violation of KATV’s Constitutionally-protected rights, for which “Kollel will certainly pursue all of its Constitutional remedies, including claims for damages.”
“I think what was done tonight was wrong,” he said in his spoken remarks, arguing that no valid evidence supports the rescinsion of the extension, “and I think you should reconsider.”
The board did not, and the new majority found support from some of the audience.
“It’s not just what he [Zeiger] tells you it is,” Smallwood resident Jonathan Hyman stated, urging the board not to hesitate to spend tax dollars on litigation if the town has a good defense.
“Talk to this talented attorney,” he said, gesturing to McEwan, “and see if there is a legal basis to fight. ... And if you’ve got the basis, spend the money and fight.”
After the meeting, Joe Rossiter and Barry and DeeBee Kula who led the petition for a public vote expressed both surprise and optimism that the town may submit future extensions to district users for their approval first.
Meanwhile, Crumley continued to be vague in his reason for switching his position.
“I thought about it,” he told the Democrat. “I changed my mind. It’s about fairness, about fair play, I guess.”
Sturm said the next step is up to KATV.
“They could reapply [for the extension],” he explained. “We’re going to wait on the applicant to see what happens.”
Elsewhere during Wednesday’s meeting, Sturm announced that the town will be bonding $125,000 over five years to settle tax certioraris involving Chapin Estate homeowners.
The homeowners sued the town over assessments they felt were too high, and eventually a settlement was reached the largest being a $104,000 payout to a group of property owners along the Toronto Reservoir.
Sturm said bonding seemed the most economical manner to handle what would otherwise be a large hit to the town’s general fund.
The board unanimously approved the action.
Sunday for now, but not for later
Responding to calls for moving town board meetings to Mondays or another day more conducive to second homeowners and weekenders interested in attending, Sturm said he’ll consider a change from the Wednesday meeting schedule.
He also said this Sunday’s special workshop about prohibiting gas drilling won’t be repeated.
“I don’t want to get in the habit of having meetings on Saturdays and Sundays,” he told the crowd.
The only reason this meeting which involves Bethel’s town, planning and zoning boards is occurring this Sunday is because that’s the sole day David and Helen Slottje are available before October.
The Slottjes are donating their time to the town, he said, to help it draft a law banning drilling anywhere in Bethel.
Also, the regularly scheduled September 28 town board meeting has been cancelled, as that’s the start of Rosh Hashanah.
Interested in ag?
The Bethel Agriculture and Farmland Committee is meeting regularly every third Tuesday of the month and welcomes all to attend and weigh in on the future of the town’s farms and open space, said Frangipane.
The public is thusly invited to the next meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 20 at 7 p.m. in the Duggan Community Center in White Lake.