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Saturday, September 06, 2014

Environmental Review Process is Tilted Towards Casino Supporters

Montgomery County has spurned Capital OTB and its partners who are hoping to build a casino in Rennselaer, and instead has endorsed the proposal at Howe Caverns in nearby Schoharie County.  Despite the former's promise of more money, the county legislature opted instead for the promise of jobs generated by a casino in a neighboring county.

"We are not here holding checks out; the checks will manifest themselves if we get the project. Nor are we here to solicit a piece of paper to hold it up and say we have your support," Jeff Hyman, a representative of the Howe Caverns development team, said. "We intend to be a regionally transformative project, a catalyst for change. We want to be that beacon, that job generator for the community." [Recorder News]
Oh man.  I've heard these casinos described in a variety of glowing terms, but never before as a "beacon."  Well, if "beacon" means a lot of water features, then this proposal surely qualifies. 
The project involves a casino and a 254-room hotel with three full-service restaurants, banquet facilities, a pool and spa. There is also a proposed 55,000-square-foot state-of-the-art indoor water park, a 1.25-acre outdoor seasonal water park, 250-room family hotel, an arcade and entertainment park.
These guys are apparently not buying into the scaling-back thing, and must still believe that they'll succeed as a resort destination in the present environment.  With a planned investment of $450 million, this proposal is the most expensive amongst the four in the Capital District.  And it's a wet one at that.  Slot machines and water slides.  I don't really get the connection.  Except for the poor souls who want to drown themselves after gambling away the mortgage.
"There is no site that is more advanced than this one," Hyman said. "If we are granted a license we will be under way in a week."
  Well, I know of someone who says he can top that. 
“If Lago Resort & Casino succeeds in winning a casino license from New York State for the region, we will be ready to break ground within days." [Finger Lakes Times]
So says Thomas C. Wilmot Sr., hoping to build his Lago Resort (that's Italian for water) in Tyre, situated in the so-called Eastern Southern Region (even though it's not particularly east nor south).  Of course, not if the good people of Casino Free Tyre can help it.  Like in East Greenbush, the developers there are hoping to plop down a casino in the middle of a residential area, as we detailed pictorially in this post....and opponents in Tyre are taking the matter to court.  They were there last week, attempting to nullify all of their town board's resolutions in support of the project.  As in East Greenbush and Tuxedo, these residents have filed an Article 78 suit which challenges the support resolutions on the grounds that they were approved despite an incomplete environmental review that is required by the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA or SEQR).  The Tyre town board approved the resolutions on June 12 despite the fact that Part 3 of the required Full Environmental Assessment Form was not completed.
“That put the cart before the horse,” said [Attorney Douglas] Zamelis, who also argued the board didn’t issue a written decision on its approval, as required by SEQR. “They did not strictly follow the procedure laid out by state environmental conservation law.” [Finger Lakes Times]
Zamelis asserted in an Affirmation that the Town Board "failed to comply procedurally and issuing a finding that the casino project would not have one single significant adverse environmental impact."

Which is exactly what they did.   The important thing to remember about this entire environmental review process is explained on the state's website:
The Legislature has made SEQR self-enforcing; that is, each agency of government is responsible to see that it meets its own obligations to comply.
So, it's not like the State Environmental Police sweep into town to conduct a study and make a decision based on the merits.   The "lead agency" signing off on the environmental review for Tyre is none other than the Town of Tyre Town Board.  The same Town of Tyre Town Board that is attempting to push this project through despite the vociferous opposition. So of course they're going to make every attempt to reach the conclusions that they want to will the boards in all of the other cities and towns supporting casino proposals.

Now here, because I know you're all dying to see it, is the completed Full Environmental Assessment Form for the Lagos project.

Actually pretty interesting if you're interested in this type of stuff.  There are three parts.  Part 1 is a general questionnaire about the project; by completing it, the town board is acknowledging that the project is a Type 1 action which is "likely to have a significant adverse impact on the environment and may require an Environmental Impact Study."  Part 2 is a step-by-step process which is "designed to help the lead agency inventory all potential resources that could be affected."  The critical Part 3 that was missing from the Tyre paperwork is like the essay portion of the exam: the lead agency must provide a written explanation for everything that they designated in Part 2 as potentially having a "moderate to large" impact on the environment.

In the above form, there are several areas designated in Part 2 as being potentially adversely impactful, including surface water, plants and animals, agricultural and aesthetic resources, transportation, noise/odor/light, and "consistency with community character."  Nonetheless, the resolutions were passed before the town provided the Part 3 explanations of why, despite those characterizations, they would not "pose a significant environmental impact."  In addition, the casino opponents say that the meetings at which the forms were discussed were not open to public comment.  So, no doubt some residents could have made a fair case that there would be a significant impact on, say, human health, or traffic, or noise.  Input of that sort was not accepted.  The opponents have to go to court under Article 78 to challenge the process.

The eventually-completed Part 3 seems like an exercise in contradiction, in which the Town Board glosses over the concerns that they themselves raised in Part 2.  So, for example, the impact on agricultural resources does not pose a significant adverse environmental effect, the board says, because there's plenty of other agricultural land besides the 85 acres that would be converted.  Plants and animals will not be significantly affected because the herbicides and pesticides are commonly used in commercial development.  Most ridiculously, the community character will not be adversely affected, the town board says, because there's already a nearby highway (Route 90) and a truckstop.  The latter is the most obvious example of the fact that whoever is writing this can tilt it towards whatever position they want.  This process is totally self-fulfilling.  If Casino Free Tyre was writing it, they could surely make an equally compelling case that 85 acres can fit 64 football fields, surely a significant plot anyway you cut it; that any application of herbicides and pesticides has the potential to affect living species, no matter where and how it is used elsewhere.  And any assertion that a 24-hour casino would not change the character of virtually any community, no less a rural town with a population of 900, is just patently absurd!  I mean, seriously!

So, as one might expect, the environmental review comes down to spin, and spin is politics, and politics comes down to money.  The board members are following the trail, and who knows exactly what they are being promised due to the loophole which exempts lobbyists from reporting their activities in communities of less than 50,000.


PE said...

Another great article -- thank you for all your research and intelligent commentary !!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for bringing this to light. The Gaming Commission says it is an 'involved agency' in the SEQRA process, but I only hear crickets....

jk said...

@NYPostOpinion: EDITORIAL: New York casino bet in wake of Atlantic City debacles

cagnyeditor said...

I wish the GFLB, the GC and all the legislators who with the Governor put us into this morass would read your columns every day. Oh, and the judges who are hearing the article 78 complaints