EDITORIAL: Time to reach the river

A DECADE AGO this county was split between those who supported the plan for a huge, new cement plant in Greenport and Hudson and those who opposed it. The local citizen activists who organized to stop what was then St. Lawrence Cement overcame amazing odds and, with help from other environmental groups, forced a Swiss multi-national corporation to drop its proposal.

Since then cement making in the region has declined for lots of reasons, and the cement company’s old plant just across the Hudson River in the Town of Catskill was permanently closed last year by Holcim US, a new incarnation of the Swiss firm. Holcim’s remaining facilities in this county are mostly its limestone quarry on Newman Road in Greenport and the property it owns on the City of Hudson waterfront.

But some of the anti-plant activists still view Holcim as the corporate embodiment of the fiend in cheap Hollywood sequels, poised to attack an unsuspecting community from the dark corners of the screen. Their opposition could once again stymie Hudson’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan, which has languished for more than two decades, barring the public from a lovely stretch of the river.

Poor Holcim? Not exactly. It reported a billion dollars in U. S. sales last year, according to www.holcim.com, and that was just 5% of its sales worldwide. After it dropped the proposal for the Greenport plant, Holcim struck a deal with another company to work the quarry. In the meantime, barges and oceangoing freighters continue use its mooring at the southwest corner of the city.

Holcim US has now agreed to give the City of Hudson nine acres on the waterfront for the next 50 years as long as the city agrees not to restrict the company’s use of the land around the deepwater mooring, called the “port parcel” or the “South Bay Causeway,” a narrow road between Route 9G and the river. In return the city must agree not to change the zoning for the two parcels and must refrain from trying to take those two parcels by eminent domain. The agreement promises to conclude one of the last steps necessary to put the city’s waterfront plan in place.

Not so fast says a group called the Valley Alliance. The alliance includes Sam Pratt and Peter Jung, both of whom were leaders of Friends of Hudson, the group that successfully fought off St. Lawrence Cement. They have dug in their heels, and the alliance lawyer, Ken Dow, has drawn up a 10-page legal memo that calls the deal between the city and Holcim US “fundamentally unlawful” and environmentally flawed.
To a non-lawyer, the memo looks an awful lot like a lawsuit waiting to be filed–a warning to the city that there’s trouble ahead if it sticks by its agreement with Holcim. And nobody can predict how a judge might rule on the issues raised by Mr. Dow. As just one example he writes that because the deal references “tax credits” Holcim will receive for giving the land to the city, it’s not a gift at all, it’s a purchase.

City officials say Hudson isn’t offering any tax credits; the company plans to claim the donation of land on its federal and state tax returns. The appeals could drag on until climate change advances the waterfront to Fifth Street.

The memo also charges the city with surrendering its “sovereign power to change zoning” on the port parcel and the causeway, which are not part of the property the company will give the city. Whether or not that’s legal, it does make you wonder what protections these two environmentally sensitive sites will have under the agreement. Likewise citizens should know whether the Valley Alliance is correct to fear the city might get stuck with the bill for cleaning up any pollution found on Holcim’s gift property.

Cheryl Roberts, the attorney representing the city, said the Dow memo “has no merit” and dismissed its arguments as “absurd.” But it’s not just legal issues at stake here. Public perception is in play too, and the alliance has seized the momentum in that regard.

Holcim US has a legal obligation to its shareholders to get the best deal possible it can. That’s business and the company will remain a force on the waterfront regardless. But the city has a broader obligation. Whatever officials think of the Valley Alliance argument, Hudson’s leaders must reach out to taxpayers, reassuring them that this agreement is indeed the wisest, most reliable route to the river’s edge.

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