Stewardship vs. Acquisition

NYC’s proposed SAP will further hinder DelCo’s economic climate


A recent article in The Reporter provided information about the New York City funded Streamside Acquisition Program (SAP). The SAP has been operating as a pilot program in the Schoharie Reservoir Basin since 2017, which includes portions of Schoharie, Greene, and Delaware counties. In its five years of operation, the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development (CCC) has acted as a third-party agent for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYC), purchasing land with stream side buffers. Over the course of the program, approximately 240 acres of land have been purchased, with program costs being approximately $4 million.   

The concept of a buffer program was initiated during the 2007 watershed negotiations to renew the Filtration Avoidance Determination (FAD). West of Hudson partners expressed concerns that the large-scale acquisition program was in fact more of an open space initiative and had little benefit to water quality protection, but did have a significant impact on community sustainability and growth.

The Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) was signed on the premise that water quality and community sustainability are equally important, making the impacts of open space land acquisition contrary to the foundation of the MOA.

In 2010, the Water Supply Permit issued to NYC by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), included a provision to develop a pilot buffer program in the Schoharie Reservoir Basin with the option to expand it to all of the West of Hudson based on the programs’ success. After seven years of working in-house to develop the pilot program, NYC decided they would be more effective if an outside agent handled the administration. Therefore, in 2017 they entered into an agreement with CCC to develop and administer the SAP as it operates today. 

Over the past five years the SAP program has shown limited success because of several issues that they have yet to completely rectify. The process was originally envisioned to be a locally administered, volunteer acquisition program that would enhance both water quality and preserve buffers along corridors while working toward eliminating the open space land acquisition program. The limited success of the program has led to the majority of the West of Hudson communities passing resolutions in opposition to the expansion of SAP and demanding a more locally administered program that would allow for buffers that are mutually beneficial to be protected and a clear end to the open space land acquisition program.

The problems with SAP as it is currently operating includes the lack of coordination with local leaders and program staff. SAP has been developed to purchase lands within hamlet and village areas previously protected from acquisition under the NYC land acquisition program and there is no acreage minimum as with the land acquisition program that limits the acquisition of parcels under 10-acres. This attack on our community centers has the potential to have grave implications on the growth and economic health of our towns and villages. SAP has also been operating without guidance from local leaders or coordination with local program directors at the Soil and Water Conservation Districts. The lack of continuity with other grass roots efforts to protect water quality through innovative and scientifically driven means, such as the stream and farm programs, is apparent. The lack of understanding by CCC staff regarding local land use laws, economic development strategies and community watershed initiatives already under way has resulted in confusion and a reluctance to participate from local towns and villages.

One specific area of frustration among local leaders is the approach from CCC staff to purchase buffers without being able to comply with local subdivision laws, resulting in lands being purchased that are not only buffers, but have upland areas associated with the parcel that can be developed for housing or commerce in the hamlets and villages. The lands are acquired through the CCC, but are deeded to NYC at closing, requiring these lands to have a conservation easement filed on them to preclude any future development in perpetuity. The SAP easement has yet to be fully developed and has not been given to the communities to review before they are being asked to participate in this program. This can have dire implications as the reuse of these lands as economic drivers - like river walks, boat launches and public park areas - is dependent on the easement language.

In light of the issues surrounding the current SAP, Delaware County and their partners presented an alternative buffer program which focuses on stewardship not acquisition. It is understood that simply purchasing streamside parcels as fee simple acquisitions will not provide any water quality benefits. These marginal lands are already protected by watershed rules and regulations as well as state and federal laws for floodplain protection. Current regulations restrict the establishment of any impervious surface within 100 feet of a stream and no septic systems are allowed within that same distance. Stream corridors will function naturally and react the same regardless of ownership, unless there is active stewardship that is not currently part of the SAP. 

The alternative SAP proposed would keep ownership in the hands of the current owners through landowner agreements with terms of 10 - 15 years. This program emphasizes stewardship in the form of streambank restoration, riparian forested buffers and invasive species control. These are programs that could be funded by diverting funds from land acquisition to stewardship efforts. Active stewardship is a proven management technique that enhances buffer effectiveness for water quality protection as well as flood protection and habitat enhancement. This would allow for only the buffer acres to be protected leaving the developable acres for our future generations and preserving the local tax base.

Lastly I would emphasize the impacts of land acquisition, easements and the SAP on our local economies. As a retired business owner, a lifelong Delaware County resident and chairman of the Delaware County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) for more than 25 years, I am well aware of the struggles of developing and maintaining a business in Delaware County. Land/building costs and regulatory permitting are by far the largest hurdles any business developing here would have. The lack of suitable parcels to meet needs such as access to municipal sewer and/or water, natural gas or three phase electric as well as frontage on state or county roadways limits where industries, affordable work force housing and tourist related businesses can develop. The struggle to find suitable parcels has limited the type of business as well as the size of projects that Delaware County can attract to the region. 

The NYC funded acquisition programs have severely hindered these efforts, making hamlet and village areas that much more important. The use of the SAP to acquire lands in these precious corridors will cripple any efforts of the IDA and the local community to support business growth.

Additionally, the current state held easement placed on NYC owned parcels prohibits the expansion of utilities that could allow areas outside hamlets and villages to grow. These factor essentially cut off all growth and robs our local communities of any opportunities to grow their tax base, create jobs or support housing for our local residents. This was the worst fear of our local leaders prior to the MOA and it appears it is coming true if there isn’t immediate intervention.

In 2020 the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine conducted a review of the watershed programs and concluded a study to assess the impact of the land acquisition program on economic vitality and social character of the impacted communities was necessary.  It is my belief this study must be conducted prior to more land being acquired and the SAP being expanded in any form.  We have a very limited amount of land available for our future and the impacts of watershed programs has had an impact on our communities. We must understand those impacts in an effort to inform programs moving forward so that both water quality can be protected and our communities can grow, sustain and flourish in the future.   

*James Thomson, Delhi

Thomson is chairman of the Delaware County Industrial Development Agency