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Statement to Tompkins Co Legislature

Statement at the Tompkins County Legislature – 02/18/2014

Good evening. My name is Sophie Zapala and I am a resident of West Hill.

I am here tonight to present several important and pressing issues to you.

October 1, 2013, has been etched in the collective memory of all the residents on West Hill. It is the day on which this body decided to sell the Biggs property to NRP Properties LLC, a private investment firm headquartered in Cleveland, OH, without performing a complete New York State-mandated environmental impact analysis – in face of almost unanimous opposition from the concerned residents of West Hill. That day should be etched in your memories, too.

We learned on Oct. 1 that this county body does not respond to the concerns of the citizens and that our government — both the officials and the elected — has run away from the people. On behalf of many West Hillers, I would like to thank Peter Stein, Kathy Luz Herrera, Dooley Kiefer and Pam Mackesey for casting opposing votes. You displayed civic courage and understanding of your role as legislators; it is unfortunate that you were a small minority. We also learned on Oct. 1st that we cannot count on our West Hill legislator, Will Burbank, to represent our concerns. We would have been better off, Will, if your seat were empty that night, one less vote against your own constituents. You demonstrated that you put your own political agenda and convictions before the will and valid concerns of your constituency. Of all the people here, you had the most intimate knowledge of the extent of the opposition to this sale by the people who live on West Hill. You willfully and brazenly disregarded our legitimate demands for the County to perform a proper environmental impact analysis and instead aligned yourself with the out-of-state for-profit investment firm. You do not understand your role and you must go.

Our community had rallied before the fateful vote. We wrote you many open letters, we had more than 60 signatures on the online petition addressed to this body, we directly reached out to you, the legislators, and made statements opposing the project to various local government agencies, all to no avail.

I have watched the video recording of the Oct. 1 meeting several times since then, and each time, I noticed yet another manipulation, misrepresentation, leading question and outright false statement from various participants or presenters. I can’t dedicate more time to this now but in the spirit of “keeping them honest” the Oct. 1 2013 legislature session needs to be analyzed and the “lessons learned” documented.

The citizens should not have to take their government to court to ensure due process. And yet, in absence of any response from the county government, this is what the community had to do. Six members of the Ithaca community have filed an Article 78 petition in New York State Supreme Court against Tompkins County, NRP Properties and Better Housing for Tompkins County, Inc. This lawsuit seeks to nullify the decision, made on Oct. 1, 2013, by you, the county legislature, to allow the sale of public land to NRP Properties for the purpose of development without conducting a full SEQURA environmental impact analysis.

Since then local citizens have formed the Indian Creek Neighborhood Association (ICNA) to oppose the sale of undeveloped public land in an environmentally sensitive area. On Dec. 10, 2013, ICNA filed a FOIA request with Tompkins County seeking documents detailing the apparent partnership between the county and NRP Properties. The county has refused to release any documents to ICNA. I, too, filed a FOIA request and since November only half of the requested documents have been released to me. Please know these violations have been reported to the Office of the New York State Attorney General and the Committee on Open Government in Albany. It is fair to ask: why will you not release documents about the sale of public land to NRP Properties?

This sale is riddled by possible conflicts of interest and questionable use of federal funds received through the EPA’s Climate Showcase Fund. Ed Marx refused to meet with us regarding the Climate Showcase project but he did find the time to fly to several environmental conferences. The documents I managed to obtain show that quite substantial project management fees have been paid out to date. This prompted yet another FOIA request to obtain more details about those fees – at a rate of $40 per hour – and work they represented. We are still waiting for the response.

Finally, a short comment about the tax credit program. It was obvious that nearly none of you legislators knew much about the tax credit program on the night of the vote, and you should have. The devil is in the detail. Here is a CD containing NRP’s application for New York state tax credit funding for the proposed Lansing project that was defeated through community opposition. Please add this content to the record of this meeting as this is very relevant to the Biggs property project. The public has a right to know how our New York state taxpayers’ money is used by out-of-state private investment firms to further their profits and siphon wealth from our communities. You may remember the NRP’s statements that taxes will be paid on their operating income. Well, see it for yourself in this information. How many taxes can be paid over 15 years on a projected yearly loss of more than $100,000?

In closing, the Article 78 proceeding should serve as a public notice and reminder that our representatives and government agencies are not above the law and that the people have means to keep them accountable. I would like to ask you all to self reflect about your commitment to representative democracy, and the role you took and swore to play in it. We are ready to work with you to build stronger communities that practice responsible environmental stewardship and provide opportunities to all. Thank you.

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