NPS makes federal case of casino reviews

By DAVID HULSE

MONTICELLO, NY — Fearing impacts to the federally protected Upper Delaware River, the National Park Service wants a fully coordinated federal review of environmental impacts stemming from the proposed state authorization of five major casino resort projects in Sullivan County.

Sandra Schultz, assistant superintendent at the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River last week told members of a New York State Assembly panel conducting hearings on proposed land settlement/casino legislation that “The National Park Service (NPS) questions how rapid regional growth, stimulated by casino development, may impact the Upper Delaware River Valley and the fundamental values that qualified the area for national recognition and designation.”

Asked by the panel if she was speaking on behalf of the federal government, Schultz said that she was.

Schultz also noted that the state has a pre-existing commitment to the Upper Delaware stemming from an executive order by former Governor Cuomo, directing state agency support and compliance to the mission of the Upper Delaware River Management Plan of 1988.

Noting that NPS and the Bureau of Indian Affairs are both affiliated with the U.S. Department of Interior, Schultz said that there should be “coordinated action” of all federal agencies in the Interior review.

Addressing questions of water regulation, Schultz went on to say that there is a need to clarify the existing authority of the interstate Delaware River Basin Commission to continue its authority to oversee water withdrawals and water quality issues stemming from the projects, which are proposed to become sovereign Indian lands under the legislation.

She said these concerns “must be acknowledged, questions asked and answered.”

Jeff Lieberson, a spokesman for Representative Maurice Hinchey said Tuesday that the congressman supports any level of environmental review that would be necessary to satisfy public concern about these projects. “He’s in agreement with what Ms. Schultz is saying,” Lieberson concluded.

The witnesses

The six-hour hearing included individual testimony from Thompson Supervisor Tony Cellini, Sullivan County Attorney Sam Yasgur, BOCES Superintendent Martin Handler and organized labor spokesmen Bruce Raynor and L. Todd Diorio.

Cellini, whose town would host four of five casinos, said opponents say the casinos will bring “highway congestion, higher taxes, and loss of local control, increased crime and school overcrowding…. I can only tell you that high taxes, lack of job opportunities, lack of housing and congested roads and high crime are problems that already exist in Sullivan County. The five casinos will be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

Responding to questioning, Cellini also noted that the $6.4 million that the town would likely receive in host benefit payments exceeds Thompson’s current tax levy by $2.5 million.

Asked if he would lower the tax levy to zero, Cellini said, “I certainly hope to. I’ll probably get reelected forever.”

The assembly panel’s questioning of witnesses, both supporting and opposing the legislation, was considerably livelier than the earlier Senate hearing. L. Todd Diorio of the Hudson Valley Building and Construction Trades Council spoke in favor of the legislation and ended his testimony with a complaint about the panel’s recent Albany hearing, which he felt was “stacked” to favor the opposing faction and hurt the legislation. In what he said later was not a threat, he said that should the legislation die in the assembly, Diorio said organized labor will analyze what happened and who was responsible.

Panel chair Helene Weinstein responded saying that it is generally better to be nice when you’re looking for support, but for the record, she said everyone who had asked to speak at the hearing was placed on the agenda. “I do agree that it is right for the assembly to examine lobbying to block, as well as those supporting this legislation.”

When Handler spoke of study predicted increases in school population, J. Gary Pretlow suggested that many of the new workers could well live in other places and commute to Sullivan.

But Handler noted that the county would likely gain population, because housing and other costs remain lower than those in surrounding counties.

Commenting after Handler, Aileen Gunther said the elements of the legislation have been done behind closed doors. “It’s time to come out in the open…Life is not all or nothing,” she said in reference to Pataki’s earlier claim that the land deal must be for all five tribes. “No one person is going to force this down our throats. Our issues have not been addressed,” she said.

A panel of Orange County officials recounted their concerns about needed improvements for Route 17/I-86 and likely traffic and air pollution problems that casinos would bring to the highway.

Another panel included Rock Hill and Monticello firefighters, Catskill Regional Medical Center president Arthur Brien and Carol Ryan, director of Sullivan County Public Health. They spoke to emergency services and medical concerns that the new casinos could bring.

Rock Hill Fire Commissioner Steve Gottlieb said traffic accidents and rescue are a major portion of his department’s calls and that the department might be overwhelmed by casino related calls. “We’ll do the best we can. Just make sure that emergency services are in place before the casinos,” he said.

Monticello firefighters would need an additional $551,000 annually for equipment replacement in addition to $6.5 million for a new firehouse and equipment. “The infrastructure isn’t there for all these additional homes,” said Monticello Chief Mike Bastone.

Brien said Catskill Regional would look to the county for up to a five-percent share of host benefits funding to provide additional services and buy equipment.

Businessmen Josh Sommers and Ira Steingart, Sullivan County Chamber of Commerce President Jon Westergreen and Sullivan County Visitors Association president Roberta Byron Lockwood spoke in favor of the governor’s plan.

Astrid Fitzgerald of Ulster County Citizens Against Casino Gambling, Noel van Swol of the Independent Landholders Association and Dick Riseling of Casino Free Sullivan County spoke in opposition to the five-casino bill.

Lorraine Haring of the Basha Kill Association, Michael Edelstein of Orange Environment asked the panel to consider the environmental impacts that rapid population growth and development would have on the area. Tom Kane of the Visioning the Upper Delaware River Corridor Committee informed the panel of river valley residents’ priorities for the clean air and water and the preservation of open space and private property rights.

Asked during the break about the legislation’s chances in the assembly, chair of the Committee on Oversight, Analysis and Investigation, James Brennan would not speculate beyond saying that “we all have our concerns.”

Since the April 7 hearing, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision supporting the City of Sherill, which limits the sovereign powers of the Oneida Nation to expand its tax free holdings in Madison County, reportedly has prompted several state legislators to reconsider their support for the legislation in its present form.

TRR photo by David Hulse
Several members of a traditional faction of the Mohawk Tribe appear before the committee in traditional headdresses to speak in opposition to the casino legislation. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by David Hulse
A panel of seven members of the New York State Assembly hears testimony on Governor Pataki’s legislation to expand Indian gaming with three to five Catskill area casinos. They included, from the left, Ryan Karben of the Judiciary Committee, Joseph D. Morelle, chair of the Committee on Tourism, Arts and Sports Development, James Brennan, chair of the Committee on Oversight, Analysis and Investigation, panel chair Helene Weinstein, who is also Judiciary Committee chair, J. Gary Pretlow, chair of the Racing and Wagering Committee, Sullivan County Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther and RoAnn M. Destito, chair of the Committee on Governmental Operations. (Click for larger version)