Mayor asks Ghent to protect shared watershed

GHENT–The Town Board earlier this month adopted changes to the town zoning code, one of which, said the mayor of Chatham, could allow businesses that handle toxic materials to operate within the watershed that supplies drinking water to the Village Chatham and parts of the hamlet of Ghent.

The supervisor of Ghent called the mayor’s concerns “insulting” and an “attack” on his town. And he said that because of the mayor’s statements he would vote against appointing a Ghent resident who lives in the Village of Chatham to the committee in charge of revising the zoning laws. He subsequently relented on the appointment, but the underlying issue remains to be resolved.

Chatham Mayor Tom Curran found the loophole in the part of Ghent’s newly revised code that applies to the town’s village business district. The district begins where the village ends and the town begins on Route 66, which is part of the village watershed. The mayor emailed Ghent Supervisor Mike Benvenuto Wednesday evening, April 20, expressing his “great disappointment” that the Ghent Town Board had adopted the zoning changes to the business district that would allow so-called “non-nuisance businesses” to operate there. Those types of businesses were previously prohibited in that district, the mayor wrote.

The mayor, who called the change “especially distressing,” said that TCI, the West Ghent firm that recycled PCBs from old electrical transformers, was classified as a non-nuisance business.

A fire at the TCI plant in August 2012 led to an explosion and a plume of smoke and flame that rose over 100 feet above the site and triggered an air quality alert throughout Columbia County and several neighboring communities.

“Light industry, particularly those with petroleum products, pesticides, fertilizers and hazardous materials should not be permitted in this zone,” the mayor said in his email.

Mr. Curran also said that the committee working on the changes to the town zoning law had told the board revised law was not yet complete. The mayor asked Mr. Benvenuto why that section of the law was passed even though a moratorium on new commercial construction in the town was not scheduled to expire for several more weeks, which would have left time to makes changes.

Seventy-one minutes later Mr. Benvenuto replied, calling the mayor’s mention of TCI “ridiculously inflammatory and unnecessarily alarmist.” The supervisor also faulted the mayor for failing to mention concerns about the zoning when Mr. Benvenuto had met with the mayor to sign documents for a water related grant application. “You have some nerve, I must say,” the supervisor said at the end of his email.

The following evening, April 21, the Ghent Town Board convened for a regularly scheduled meeting. Mr. Benvenuto, who was out of town on vacation, nonetheless participated via the Internet on a smart phone propped up on the dais where the other board members sat. The meeting opened with comments from the public and the first speaker was Mayor Curran.

“My letter was a little too confrontational,” he said. “I apologize for that.” He went on to say that confrontation “doesn’t help us work together.” Continuing in the same tone, the mayor said, “I really do feel strongly about our water,” and reminded the board that two-thirds of the land in Chatham village is in within the Town of Ghent.

He said the non-nuisance business definition is “too vague” and asked the board to consider either requiring special use permits or prohibiting certain uses in that zone.

Mr. Benvenuto replied to the mayor’s statement at the meeting, saying, “I very, very truly appreciate his latest response,” adding, “I hope we can meet as soon as possible.”

“I think there should be more than one apology in this situation,” said Councilwoman Patti Matheny, addressing her comment toward the smart phone connecting Mr. Benvenuto to the meeting.

Mr. Benvenuto said only that he would meet with the mayor and that “we’re going to move on.”

The mayor, too, said he would like to move on.

Returning to the agenda at last week’s meeting, board members did vote to appoint two new members to the town Zoning Revision Committee, Koethi Zan and Lael Locke. Ms. Locke, who lives on the Ghent side of the village, was the person Mr. Benvenuto had said in his email that he would not support for that appointment, but when the appointments came to a vote, without comment he joined the unanimous decision to approve both candidates.

Councilwoman Matheny asked that both the mayor’s email and the supervisors reply be read aloud at the meeting, after which the mayor explained that he had not researched the implications of the non-nuisance businesses change when he last met with Mr. Benvenuto.

“There will be no more TCI’s” said the supervisor.

Ms. Zan, who was not at the meeting, wrote to Supervisor Benvenuto on April 6, the day before the Ghent Town Board voted to approve the commercial zoning. In her email she highlighted section of the zoning proposal that would permit non-nuisance businesses and suggested that the town include the requirement for a special permit. Ms. Zan, a lawyer, called it “an easy fix that could make a big difference down the road.”

Mr. Benvenuto said by return email that her comments on the matter were “demeaning” and “unnecessarily alarmist in nature and less than accurate.” He said that the board had made changes to the law following a previous public hearing.

As of Tuesday morning, April 26, Mayor Curran had not heard from Supervisor Benvenuto. The supervisor was at the town office Tuesday but was not available to speak on the phone with a reporter.

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