OC Residents Speak Out on Lawsuit Opposing KJ Annexation
GOSHEN—The Orange County Legislature held two sessions to hear what county residents had to say about the town board of Monroe’s vote on Sept. 8 to allow Kiryas Joel to annex 164 acres from the town.
At the second of the two sessions on Sept. 17 the Orange County Legislature voted 11-1 to join a lawsuit with eight towns opposing the annexation. The legislature needed to act promptly, as the Monroe Board’s decision triggered a 30-day waiting period in which interested parties can respond, negotiate an alternative, or seek other solutions.
Residents who spoke were overwhelmingly against the annexation. Speakers’ statements often concluded with applause and vocal approval from the audience. County Executive Steven Neuhaus presented a status report on the county’s position.
Wawayanda resident Therese Pierce has lived in the county her whole life. She was concerned with long-range financial costs to the county. “In no time at all Orange County is going to be faced with bankruptcy. I urge you to think about all the people in Orange County who say they are entitled.”
Carole Mullouly from Central Valley left Brooklyn in 1971. She said she likes diversity but not the rules laid out in Kiryas Joel. She read the welcome sign at the entrance to Kiryas Joel and pointed out how it said that the visitors should maintain gender separation in all public areas. Mullouly said this welcome sign did not make her feel welcome in Kiryas Joel.
Russ Kassoff called Kiryas Joel “insular.” “How can a community that does not take part in our all-encompassing community decide what can be taken from us?” Kassoff said the legislature has a responsibility to its citizens: “It is imperative that you reach out to the entire community to educate and inform as to what is going on above politics that will affect everyone’s everyday lives.”
Attorney Michael Sussman, who is often involved in public issues in Orange County, opposes the annexation on constitutional grounds. He asked whether “a religious group can create a village based on their religion, effectively exclude others, run that village in a patently undemocratic manner, seek then to expand their territory because their religious custom is to promote larger families, and they have limited space in their current area. The growth of this kind of village constitutes the most basic assault on the cherished separation of church and state.”
The environmental impact study used to support the request for annexation was questioned by several speakers. Michael Egan of Monroe called Kiryas Joel’s SECRA review “grossly deficient.”
Former Orange County legislator Dan Castricone, who is running for the New York State Assembly’s 98th District, said the annexation would have a big impact on Sewer District #1 with the possibility of taking on the cost of a new treatment plant. He questioned the town’s environmental impact study. “We need to have some balance in this.”
Woodbury resident Matthew Higgins pointed out the county’s diminishing water supply, especially wells in Mountainville and Woodbury. Trout-spawning Woodbury Creek is running dry. “Ants could walk across the Woodbury Creek this summer—there’s no water left,” Higgins said.
Vernoica Connolly gave descriptions of the impact of both proposed annexations (Kiryas Joel had proposed either a 164 acre or a 503 acre annexation) by 27 independent professionals: “insufficient, arbitrary, capricious, grossly inadequate.”
Some spoke of negative treatment by Monroe officials. Veronica Connolly said Monroe Supervisor Harlis Doles called her a bigot and treated her and others with “shameful disrespect.”
Russ Kassel got a rousing response from the assembly when he described Monroe officials. “The board of Monroe treats its citizens in the overall community with arrogance, audacity, disrespect, condescension, and blatant disregard.”
Amanda Snell said that many who live in Kiryas Joel oppose the annexation. “It served as a good reminder not to judge everybody based on the actions of a few. Keep in mind that there are so many people in KJ against this annexation who can’t speak up for fear of retaliation.”
The one hold out in the 11-1 vote to take legal action was Michael Amo, who represents Kiryas Joel, Monroe, and Woodbury.
Amo asked his colleagues to better address the problem by trying to understand the other side: “Either we will continue to legislate by magistrate—sue—or we will first seek to understand and then be understood.”
“We have the opportunity not to fail and a chance to do it right,” Amo said. “The judicial environment is not the right climate to reconcile and find a lasting solution.”
Monroe board member Dan Burke said he has grappled with the annexation for the last 20 months. He was interrupted with boos. Burke stood by his vote to approve annexation of 164 acres and not approve the 507-acre parcel.
“My public responsibility was to protect that process scrupulously,” Burke said. “This I did. I attended every meeting, read every document, I spoke with hundreds of citizens, and carefully weighed whether these applications were in the overall public interest.”
The County’s Position
The Chairman of the Legislature, L. Stephen Brescia, asked County Executive Steven Neuhaus to update the legislature on the status of the issue as it directly impacts the county. Neuhaus recommended the legislature sue because the SECRA study was not properly done, pointing out “gross deficiencies concerning environmental, fiscal, and social impact analysis of the annexations.”
Neuhaus pointed to the cost of suing versus future infrastructure costs. “Today the Village of Kiryas Joel uses 17 percent of our sewage treatment plant in Harriman.” The county projects that in just a few decades Kiryas Joel will use 52 percent, Neuhaus said.
Neuhaus said outside counsel was the only way to join the suit since many local law firms represent towns in the county—leading to potential conflicts of interest—and the law suit demands expertise beyond a local firm.
“The lawsuit itself is so huge and you have less than 30 days to vote to put it together,” Neuhaus said. “That is why we are looking at a high-powered law firm that has no conflicts of interest and specializes in this type of action.”
There are presently eight municipalities in the suit—the Village of Monroe, Village of South Blooming Grove, Town of Blooming Grove, Town of Cornwall, Village of Cornwall-on-Hudson, Town of Woodbury, Village of Woodbury, and Village of Harriman. Neuhaus said five other towns support the suit.
The county has avoided the issue for decades—”kicking the can down the road,” he said. Neuhaus urged the legislature to get the process back on track: “It’s a pattern of ignoring the process, of ignoring the law.”
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