STRAINED RELATIONSHIP: Inside the Article 78 filed by SMI against Seneca Falls

It’s complicated.

The relationship between the Town of Seneca Falls and Seneca Meadows, Inc. could only be described as such given the current state of affairs.

On Wednesday, November 15th the Town of Seneca Falls was served with an Article 78 from Seneca Meadows seeking annulment of the 2016 local law entitled ‘Waste Disposal Law’. Residents likely remember it as the controversial Local Law #3 of 2016, which was introduced, publicly heard, and passed in the last 60 days of the year.

Town Attorney David Foster, who was hired earlier this year after the resignation of Patrick Morrell, has described the litigation between the Town and SMI as ‘complex’ but said at a meeting on Thursday that he was optimistic about the process moving forward. “Seneca Meadows management and representation has been cordial in my experience thus far,” Foster added at the session.

He was providing the board an update on litigation, which had previously been started, but later withdrawn with the passage of Local Law #2 of 2017. That local law rolled-back the Waste Disposal Law of 2016.

However, Local Law #2 of 2017 was annulled by Acting Supreme Court Justice William Kocher via a decision after an Article 78 was filed by Waterloo Contractors, Inc., which is an affiliate of Waterloo Container.

Seneca Falls Town Supervisor Greg Lazzaro reads Local Law #2 of 2017 moments before it was voted on by the Town Board.

In the application for judgment Waterloo Contractors requested that the court annul the SEQR negative declaration issued in connection with Local Law # 2, and order the Town of Seneca Falls to issue a positive declaration. In that decision, the ‘short’ SEQR form “[failed] to identify a single area of environmental impact from operating the landfill past the year 2025.”

Since the decision by Justice Kocher, an election for two Town Board seats was held, and resulted in outspoken anti-landfill candidates claiming victory. Incumbent Dave DeLelys, and political newcomer Douglas Avery, both Democrats defeated Republicans Steve Turkett, and incumbent Thomas Ruzicka.

Last year, Republicans Ruzicka and Lou Ferrara Jr. won special elections for two seats on the Town Board that had been vacated earlier in the year. Those seats were vacated due to complicating factors involving the relationship between Seneca Falls and Seneca Meadows.

The landfill took centerstage in both election cycles. Interestingly though, the results were as complicated as the aforementioned relationship between the Town and the landfilling giant.

In 2016, those viewed as the pro-landfill candidates received 52- and 54-percent of the vote in both special elections.

This year, those viewed as anti-landfill candidates received a combined 59.42 percent of the ballots cast.

Complicating things even further is a 2018 budget, which nearly-triples taxes for property and homeowners in Seneca Falls. A town homeowner with a house assessed at $100,000 could see their town tax bill go from $361 in 2017 to $923 in 2018. The Town Board framed the hike as a necessity, born out of litigation between Seneca Falls and Seneca Meadows.

The presence of an Article 78 means that the Town could see those payments from Seneca Meadows withheld until a resolution is reached. Seneca Falls receives quarterly payments from Seneca Meadows as part of a host community agreement.

“With the lawsuit, the question now is whether landfill money would be forthcoming. We will defend the town from the Article 78, but can you count on that money? It might not come in with the lawsuit pending,” explained Foster at the special meeting, where the board eventually voted 4-1 to adopt the landfill revenue-less budget.

In their latest Article 78 filling, Seneca Meadows says that the Seneca Falls Town Board failed to comply with SEQR requirements when passing Local Law #3 in December 2016. Specifically, Seneca Meadows asserts that the Town Board, led by then-board member Annette Lutz failed to take the required ‘hard look’ at possible areas of environmental concern.

The 2016 Seneca Falls Town Board, who passed Local Law #3 debates during open session.

Seneca Meadows also says that Lutz was a bias member of the board, who should not have been part of the voting process — and had a conflict of interest. “Prior to the Town Board’s votes to adopt the Negative Declaration and the Local Law, Board member Lutz manifested actual bias against SMI and its operations in the Town,” reads the suit.

Seneca Meadows maintains through a letter to then-Town Attorney Patrick Morrell that SMI’s legal team requested that Lutz recuse herself from voting. They say the Town Board ignored that request, as they did the requests to delay a public hearing, which was ultimately held at the end of November — just days before the vote on Local Law #3.

The calendar may say that only a year has passed since much of this took place in Seneca Falls, but now more than ever, the Town will have to think hard about how it will proceed.

The next court action is set for January 23rd, 2018 at 10 am before Hon. Daniel J. Doyle in Monroe County Supreme Court.

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