Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The School District and the City

Among the communications received at the informal meeting of the Common Council last night was a second letter from Jeffrey Budrow, of the engineering firm Weston & Sampson, about the proposed HCSD capital project, which includes both a new athletic field at Hudson High School and a new addition to Montgomery C. Smith Intermediate School. The letter informed the Council that the HCSD Board of Education, "acting as lead agency," had found that "the proposed action will not result in any significant adverse impacts to the environment" and had "resolved and adopted a Negative Declaration with respect to the proposed action." Accompanying the letter were a copy of the negative declaration and the completed Part 2 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form, the part that identifies potential project impacts. As he did when the first communication from Budrow was received by the Council back in November, Alderman John Friedman (Third Ward) called upon Maria Suttmeier, HCSD superintendent, to "come and speak to the Council, so we can do this as a community." 

The Common Council has a small but crucial role in this project. As Budrow explained to the Board of Education on December 14, a school district project is exempt from review by the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Appeals. There are two things, however, that require the City's involvement and cooperation. The first has to do with land acquisition. In order to carry out the capital project at the intermediate school, HCSD must acquire an acre of land adjacent to the school property so there can be a paved drive around the new addition for access by emergency vehicles. That acre is part of a parcel of land owned by the City of Hudson.

It is the school district's expectation that the City will give them the needed land, but former Council president Don Moore confirmed today that HCSD has made no request for the land to the Council. Whether the land be given or sold to HCSD, the Council must approve it by a three-quarters majority. Given that, it seems a reasonable expectation that HCSD would be going out of its way to keep the Hudson's legislative body informed of its plans and involved in the process--beyond just a periodic pro forma communication, required by law because the City is an "interested party," from an engineering firm. 

The second thing requiring the City's involvement has to do with the storm water plan for the project. This plan must be approved by the City of Hudson before construction can begin. The process for this approval is not clear. Who reviews it? Hudson's superintendent of Public Works? Delaware Engineering, the firm currently retained by him? The Planning Board? Will the Conservation Advisory Council be called upon to weigh in?

Timothy O'Connnor, in a post on imby, exposed the storm water system currently existing at the intermediate school and predicted that the future plan will be the same.

Photo: Timothy O'Connor
Photo: Timothy O'Connor

O'Connor warns, "The planned expansion of the middle school will simply pour more water into the same ravine, which will add to an ever-growing delta in Underhill Pond."

It would appear that the energies of the Hudson city government need to be focused on the plan for dealing with storm water runoff to ensure that the new addition to the school building and the expansion of the parking lot do not result in significant adverse environmental impacts. Of course, there's always the chance that the proposed capital project, which it expected to go to referendum on February 9, won't be approved by the voters in the Hudson City School District.


  1. As to the amount of stormwater runoff entering the badly eroded ravine, the project engineer has explained that the school district aspires to the status quo. In the engineer's own words, the project aims "to limit the post-project rate of runoff to be equal to the pre-project rate."

    That means that the now-concluded SEQR review gave no consideration to the erosion problem which will certainly continue, at best, at the current runoff levels. The review simply ignored the hole in the woods already created by the middle school.

    In a letter to the City in November, which was sent too late to be discussed at the Common Council's Informal Meeting, the school district specified the need to acquire "an adjacent property." What the letter didn't mention is that the required land is owned by the City. (Why would anyone omit that?)

    Even with no one in attendance at the Regular Meeting from the school district/board to answer the Aldermen's questions (exactly like last night), there was every expectation that the Council would vote to accord the school board Lead Agency status for the State-level environmental review.

    After some appropriate grumbling, the Council agreed to the school board as Lead Agency, but without also understanding that by its vote it was, in effect, acquiescing to the land transfer too.

    Had the Council members understood the project which the school district/board failed to explain, the Aldermen would have tasked the City's Conservation Advisory Council (CAC) to look over the Environmental Assessment Form. It wouldn't have taken long to see that the proposal's EAF was riddled with inconsistencies and wrong answers.

    But even if the CAC had been asked to point out these obvious problems, the only opportunity the Aldermen would have had to address the Lead Agency between its formation and the conclusion of its environmental review was about 10 minutes on December 14th!

    The School Board voted itself Lead Agency, and within minutes concluded the reason for its existence, the environmental review. That was our opportunity to comment. (No official Public Hearing was held because, as the Superintendent pointed out, it wasn't strictly required in this case.)

    So I propose that, whether or not the district's Capital Project moves forward, the City request the Hudson City School District to repair the erosion in our City-owned ravine. It is too late to reverse decade's worth of damage to the Underhill Pond, but the damage in the woodlands must be addressed.

    And if the Capital Project does go forward, then we should attach a contractual condition to the sale or transfer of our City-owned property requiring the erosion problem be fully repaired.

    With the use of local rock as filler, perhaps encased in "gabion baskets," the project cost may be very reasonable.

  2. I wanted to respond to this thread before it was buried or forgotten, but I have not conferred with the other board members for their thoughts on these matters. This response is mine alone and may not represent the rest of the board. However, I wanted to clarify a few items from the district's end.

    Firstly, the completion of a capital project is not entirely contingent on the acquisition of the parcel of land owned by the city. Should the city decide not to sell or grant the land to the district, we would be forced to modify the plans proposed by the engineers to have the addition onto MC Smith be vertical, adding another floor instead of expanding laterally.

    Secondly, at least on a personal note, in the midst of the five hour meeting when the EAF was presented to the board, I felt that the proceedings were happening too quickly for the board to make a sound decision on the validity of the statements within the EPA. When I voiced these concerns, I was assured that the details of the project and how we may mitigate any effect on the land of the surrounding area will be discussed and negotiated at length. It is extremely important to me that the Board's position as leading agency be taken seriously. In particular, I will not agree to a plan that has a negative environmental impact.

    The proceedings of our meetings have been a flurry of information. The pace at which we are conducting business comes out of our concern for striking while the iron is hot. Meaning, at this point in time, we are taking advantage of bond maturation, state aid, and other available funds that, largely, are not dependent on tax-payer dollars. Should the City of Hudson vote down the proposal for the Capital Project, it would likely mean that our buildings which need updates will fall into greater disrepair. When this happens, the cost to fix them will be higher, and the funding from other sources may no longer be available, forcing more of the burden onto tax-payers.

    It has been downright handicapping to our communication that Common Council Meetings and School Board Meetings are usually on the same night. At the next regular Common Council Meeting on the 19th, I will be in attendance, hopefully with some of my colleagues to try to answer any questions that the council may have.

    I look forward to our future collaboration!

    Maria McLaughlin
    President, Hudson City Board of Education

  3. Ms. McLaughlin, thank you for your candor and your obvious concern.

    So strictly speaking, it's only the one (evidently preferred) project design which requires the City's land.

    Still, the City should have been informed in the school district's November letter that "the acquisition of ... an adjacent property" referred to City-owned property. The public had to figure that out, after which we informed the City.

    A major error in the school board's State-required Environmental Assessment Form was in claiming that City property wouldn't be used at all, which was patently untrue where stormwater runoff is concerned. Afterwards, the engineer admitted as much.

    Moreover, the force of the first claim seemed to rely upon the incorrect receiving waterbody being provided in the same document. How could that have happened?

    Here's only one example from the document which amply illustrates the problem.

    When asked "Would the proposed action cause [impacts] ... into any existing" waterbody, the school board agreed to say "No."

    Later, the project engineer supplied the likely thinking when he reported that precautions would be taken.

    But the question asked "would" impacts occur, not "will." The right answer was Yes: the action WOULD cause an impact [if no precautions are taken]. If you don't suppose that an impact will occur because of some unspecified mitigation you have in mind, that's immaterial to the question.

    In Hudson, we've learned never to trust the word of an interested engineer.


    1. In 2013, Crawford Engineering overlooked the obvious former site of a petroleum depot, as it rushed to give the area a clean bill of environmental health;

    2. From 2010 to 2015, Delaware Engineering claimed that sewer separation is a State requirement;

    3. In 2015, the Saratoga engineers concurred that sewer separation is required.

    All of the above were flat wrong, and their judgements were harmful to the environment and harmful to residents.

    Now that the school board is learning a similar lesson, when will we as a community finally learn to automatically distrust the engineering profession as a responsible arbiter of our ecological concerns?

    The school board didn't do its homework. It was misled. It was pushed at a frantic pace.

    Whatever the reasons, it's now common knowledge that the school board screwed up the environmental review.

    Unless the erosion in the woods and the sedimentation into Underhill Pond is addressed seriously, and soon, residents will head to the polls with the distinct impression that they're being asked to cover for the mistakes of the school board.

    My own interest is very simple: fix the hole created by the middle school's runoff into the City's woods.

    (It's probably too late to fix the damage to Underhill Pond.)

  4. unheimlich, your points are all good ones. For the sake of efficiency, and in the spirit of community, our dialogue on this subject should be happening frequently and in person! What is your name and how can I contact you? Our current board is a well-rounded group of former teachers, union workers, social workers, accountants and business people. However, we feel keenly our lack of background in environmental law and engineering. We are working to find knowledgeable people with which to consult on this. For the reasons mentioned in my previous comment, we chose to move on to the next step in the project by accepting the findings in the EPA. However, that does not mean we intend to approve a plan that is not environmentally sound. The Board’s acceptance of the EPA does not in any way legally compel us to follow that plan. Any alternative plan will not be approved without careful scrutiny. Please be in touch!

    1. Greetings again.

      Under certain circumstances, a negative declaration can be amended, or even rescinded. You might phone the DEC's Region 4 office to get more information about that.

      It's such a shame having put one's trust in a paid consultant, such as an engineer, only to find oneself putting the toothpaste back into the tube later on. (Shouldn't we be charging the engineer for that?)

      I always say, trust the public first and foremost, open up the process, be inclusive.

      The school board offered "community conversations," but I was anticipating a formal Public Hearing under SEQRA. That never happened, because the school board acting as Lead Agency found out that it was not technically necessary. Well that was a BIG mistake, and now we're here.

      ALWAYS err on the side of the public.

      Right after Christmas, I complained that the school district's Capital Project webpage never offered any information about the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), which was most irregular.

      Then, on December 28, two paragraphs were posted about SEQRA, stating that the review was over, and that it was decided there would be no negative impacts. One of the worst public outreach efforts I've ever seen.

      I agree that you should find new consultants. If I were your consultant, I'd recommend that you fire the old consultants!