SENECA FALLS, Sept. 27, 2018 — Attorneys for the Town of Seneca Falls have been mysteriously passive in defending the town and its board against a 10-month-old legal challenge to a local law that requires New York State’s largest landfill to close permanently in 2025.
Acting without formal authorization from the board, the lawyers have deferred to each of Seneca Meadows Inc.’s four requests for postponements of hearings in the case that sharply divides town residents.
The pro-landfill side argues that the town would be foolish to give up the annual fee it collects — $3.2 million last year — under a “host” agreement. Opponents, who complain of sickening odors, heavy truck traffic and an unsightly mountain of trash, would forego the cash. They insist on a definitive shutdown date.
Local Law 3 sets that day: Dec. 31, 2025. Three of the town’s five board members have supported the law, but Town Supervisor Greg Lazzaro and Deputy Supervisor Lou Ferrara Jr., join landfill officials in opposing it.
Local Law 3 originally passed in December 2016, and it was upheld by court order last September. Two months later, Seneca Meadows filed suit in Seneca County Supreme Court, seeking to have the law annulled due to alleged procedural violations.
But as of this week, attorneys for the town still hadn’t mounted any legal defense.
Instead of filing a response brief in court within a few weeks of being served with the suit last November, as is customary, town lawyers have quietly acquiesced to requests by the landfill to postpone each scheduled hearing in the case.
Judge Daniel Doyle has already granted four two-month postponements. The next court date is set for Wednesday, Oct. 3.
The latest delay followed an Aug. 3 letter to Doyle from the landfill’s attorney, Scott Turner of the Nixon Peabody firm, which said, “The parties continue to be optimistic that an alternative resolution to litigation is possible.”
Turner wrote that David Hou of the Boylan Code firm, who represents the town, had agreed to the postponement, and that Hou “expects to meet with his client next week” to review a “settlement proposal.”
The letter indicated that courtesy copies went to Hou and David Lee Foster, the official town attorney.
But board member Doug Avery said this week he’d never seen the letter before, and that he had not been consulted about any purported negotiations.
“That’s not the board talking (in the Turner letter),” said Avery, a supporter of Local Law 3. “There’s no board resolution authorizing negotiations.”
Valerie Sandlas, chair of the Seneca Falls Environmental Action Committee, went further, asserting that Hou and Foster have been following the marching orders of Lazzaro and Ferrara while ignoring the three town board members who have supported the law and represent a board majority.
“They are intentionally leaving the three out of the loop,” Sandlas said in a recent interview.
In television interviews earlier this month, Lazzaro and Ferrara said the town needed the money from the landfill, and Lazzaro said he hoped to modify the town’s host agreement to keep it flowing.
“We’re still talking with people at Seneca Meadows,” Lazzaro said in a Sept. 17 interview on Finger Lakes 1 TV. “Hopefully we can come to an agreement that’s going to be a better modified host agreement — better for us, better for Seneca Meadows.”
He went on to praise the “public-private” partnership with the landfill that has yielded $47 million over 20 years, helping to fund infrastructure projects and reduce taxes.
“My father, he used to tell me, ‘Someone offers you money, take it.’ And, ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees,’” Lazzaro told the TV host.
Ferrara, in the same TV interview, acknowledged that the landfill smelled. But he added that he understood it was operating “per the law of the land.”
“Way back when they set up the agreement with the town it wasn’t done with us,” Ferrara said. “Was it the right one — that they take the money to compensate for the dust, the dirt, the trucks, the smell? In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t. But the fact of the matter remains that we did take the money.”
Ferrara warned that if the landfill proceeds with litigation, it might “stop the money … and put it aside in an escrow.”
The public call by Lazzaro and Ferrara to negotiate rather than litigate echoes a Finger Lakes Times opinion column co-written in May by Seneca Meadows manager Kyle Black that urged the town to find “common ground” with the landfill through negotiations.
Black did not return a phone call seeking further comment.
The existing host agreement contains provisions pertaining to landfill odors, as does an eight-year state permit granted last November by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Seneca Meadows also needs to obtain an annual permit from the town.
At a recent town board meeting, Sandlas and another speaker urged the town to withhold that operating permit until the landfill showed it was in compliance with seven new conditions imposed by the DEC.
Doug Zamelis, a Cooperstown attorney representing Concerned Citizens of Seneca County, urged the town to check with the DEC to see if the landfill is meeting all state standards before granting the annual town permit, according to an account in the Finger Lakes Times.
“I urge you to not renew the town permit until you are assured that they are in compliance with the state permit conditions,” Zamelis said. “Keep Local Law 3 in place until and if a court says it should be rescinded. I’m confident no court will do that.”
At the same meeting, Black said the landfill’s $13 million odor abatement project was paying off, citing a decline in odor complaints.
Hou and Foster did not return phone calls seeking clarification of their positions on the merits of negotiating versus litigating the Seneca Meadows lawsuit.
Foster did not respond to an email with a series of questions on related subjects.