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Local laws and litigation: Recent history of landfilling debate in Seneca Falls

The polarizing nature of the Seneca Meadows Landfill in Seneca Falls has folks from every walk of life weighing in.

While the community remains largely split on the issues at play — this year is shaping up to be as important — if not more important than 2016.

On March 14th a Public Hearing is scheduled to take place at the newly-opened Seneca Falls Municipal Building located at 130 Ovid St. The subject of the hearing will be a proposed local law rescinding Local Law No. 3, or the Seneca Falls Waste Disposal Law.

That law, which was passed at the end of 2016 — after several failed attempts during the year to schedule a necessary Public Hearing on the matter — forces the closure of Seneca Meadows on December 31st, 2025. It also prevents new landfilling facilities from opening up.

Opponents of the proposed legislation last year, which started out as Local Law No. 7 — later modified to the adopted Local Law No. 3 — slammed it as an effort by two appointed members of the Seneca Falls Town Board to push their own personal agenda.

Lawyers for the multi-million dollar landfilling facility said that litigation would follow the passage of Local Law No. 3.

RELATED: Local Law No. 3 passed by Seneca Falls Town Board

That promise came true as Seneca Meadows filed an Article 78 Petition seeking to nullify the local law based on the personal bias of one previous board member, repeated attempts to work with the community in good faith, and a failure by the board to appropriately follow protocol with SEQRA filings.

When the Town Board met in special session last Thursday, the cause was billed as an opportunity to discuss litigation involving Seneca Falls. At that meeting, very few people expected to see them pass a resolution introducing a new local law.

That’s exactly what happened, though.

Ahead of the Public Hearing scheduled for March 13th we wanted to take a look back at some of the most-significant moments throughout the last 14 months.

Speakers grow in numbers during first half of 2016

It was the first meeting that Town Supervisor Greg Lazzaro sat at the head of the table, after defeating former-Supervisor Don Earle for the seat. More than a year has passed since those initial meetings, which drew controversy and debate around the landfill operation along Rt. 414.

It wasn’t the first time discussion or debate took place on the subject, but some viewed Supervisor Lazzaro as the opposition candidate to what had become the status quo.

January and February saw higher numbers of speakers for the public comment portion of those Town Board meetings, which was dominated by speakers asking for closure of Seneca Meadows — but the numbers would quickly be eclipsed by increasing turnout each month.

These first two meetings of 2016 would ultimately lay the groundwork for what would take place over the next year. A little more than a dozen speakers, which seemed like a significant number at the time — signed up to speak at those meetings.

Perhaps not crucial for its ‘Wow-factor’ but definitely indicative of what was on the horizon.

Shakeup on the Town Board as two members resign unexpectedly

It was beyond expectation, but a sign of how controversial the subject had become. Town Councilors Chad Sanderson and James Ricci unexpectedly resigned in the first quarter of 2016 — laying the foundation for the real fireworks, which would be seen later, as the calendar drew closer to Election Day.

Ricci had just been elected a few months prior. Sanderson on the other hand, was a veteran of the Town Board — having just two years of service left. While neither were particularly vocal about their reasoning for exiting the Seneca Falls political scene abruptly — the controversy around Seneca Meadows was leading contender for causing their resignation.

The board faced the prospect of replacing those two members, which resulted in the temporary appointment of Annette Lutz and Mary Sarratori. The new councilors would find themselves at the center of the debate around Seneca Meadows, as both were labeled opponents of landfilling operations.

Supervisor Lazzaro said at the time that 16 individuals came forward and expressed interest in the openings.

The remaining board members, which included Supervisor Lazzaro and Councilors Dave DeLelys and Vic Porretta voted unanimously to approve Sarratori and Lutz.

Many felt that this also was a crucial moment, as it swung the perceived vote numbers in-favor of the anti-landfilling movement.

Speakers turn out for meetings, protest held in Seneca Falls

There were growing numbers of speakers at meetings, but that was supplemented with the added voices in the community speaking out against landfilling.

A protest was held in early-March opposing Seneca Meadows operation in Seneca Falls. While dozens continued to turn out for monthly board meetings, the numbers were even more impressive — as a couple hundred rallied at People’s Park to voice their concerns.

Elected officials, community groups from around the Finger Lakes, residents, and even students spoke out at the event — calling for an end to landfilling in Seneca Falls — but also in other parts of the region, too.

The message for those community members was to continue showing support for the newly-appointed board members, who were viewed as eager to push through an aggressive anti-landfilling agenda.

A second march and rally was held in Geneva later in the spring, which brought together even more groups from around the region. While the rallies were geared toward stopping the trash trains from coming into the region — speakers at all of these events highlighted a desire to see Seneca Meadows closed permanently.

During the June meeting of the Town Board, more than 60 petitioners signed up to speak out — mostly all of which were those speaking in opposition to the landfilling operation.

The combination of multiple public rallies and marches — with spectacular turnout for the June Town Board meeting gave many of those fighting against landfilling hope that they had reached a crucial point.

With support of the Town Board, but also support within the community at these events — the fight was appearing to reach a boiling point.

Board seesaws on scheduling a public hearing

The first time Local Law No. 7 was introduced, Supervisor Lazzaro was not present. It was the first meeting of his term that he had missed. While Deputy Supervisor and Town Councilor Porretta took his place in his absence — a public hearing was scheduled.

That hearing, which would later be cancelled, re-scheduled, and then cancelled again — would set the stage for the fall — where it became clear that there was a divide within the board.

During that time, meetings were filled with contentious debate and public speakers — who lined up by the dozens to speak to both sides of the landfilling issue.

RELATED: Environmental Committee gives 4-1-1 on Waste Disposal Law

Seneca Meadows employees came out in force to share their concerns — none larger than the prospect of losing their jobs if the landfill closed.

Opponents of the landfilling operation rebuked those claims — pointing out that a large swath of employees would be required at the facility across the board in a post-closure reality.

They continued to urge the board to consider a revised version of the proposed Local Law No. 7, which would later make an appearance as Local Law No. 3.

Election season gets gritty, reveals contention in Seneca Falls

It was a tumultuous election season around the U.S., which fueled turnout for the November 8th election that saw thousands from both sides come out to make their voices heard in Seneca Falls.

It was clear that the appointed Annette Lutz and Mary Sarratori would be running on the Democratic lines. However, with two resignations and contentious politics over the landfilling debate — opponents did not become clear until mid-summer.

Republicans Tom Ruzicka and Lou Ferrara Jr. received the nomination to run in the November 8th election against their Democratic counterparts.

Once the races were set — the campaigning began, which fueled the chatter and debate within the community about who had the Town’s best interests in mind.

Members of the landfill opposition labeled the Republicans as candidates “bought and paid for” by Seneca Meadows. While supporters of Ferrara and Ruzicka said they were simply the candidates with an expansive platform.

Interestingly, the two Democratic candidates differed on that issue. While Lutz openly said in several interviews with local media that the landfilling issue was the primary cause of her involvement in local politics — Sarratori openly said that she was not as dug in on the issue.

She said in an interview with FingerLakes1.com during the summer, leading into the heated portion of the campaign that a local law combined with negotiations would be the best path forward for Seneca Falls.

Election losses, playing politics, and introducing a new local law

That heated campaign ended with a loss for both Democrats. Neither Sarratori nor Lutz found enough votes on Election Day to win, but the results spoke volumes to the split in Seneca Falls.

Sarratori would lose by 379 votes — capturing 1,700 nods in her favor compared to Ferrara’s 2,079.

Lutz would lose by 200 votes — capturing 1,744 votes to Ruzicka’s 1,944.

The results created a divide, which was as evident as the results suggested. No candidate received more than 54.9 percent of all ballots cast.

Some felt that the public had spoken, and that the issue would be put to rest. However, the two appointed board members, who still had nearly two months remaining in their term — had other ideas.

Lutz would bring a resolution introducing the modified local law — branded as Local Law No. 3 of 2016. The board would ultimately vote 3-2 that night to schedule a Public Hearing, which took place on November 29th.

The Public Hearing was a culmination of the emotions, information, and ideology from both sides of the debate, which highlighted the contention seen across the board in Seneca Falls.

RELATED: Board hears comments on development, landfill in Seneca Falls

At this point, even those who had largely stayed out of the public eye during this debate — were pulled into it. Porretta, who had remained quiet on the issue throughout the year voiced concerns about the uncertainty moving from meeting-to-meeting without knowing for sure, or discussing in the open what might come before them for a decision.

The Public Hearing was seen as a crucial moment in the process, because many felt as though it was a turning point in the governing process. Those who supported the local law, felt that their voices had been heard. Meanwhile, those who opposed the law said that it went too far, unfairly targeted a business in Seneca Falls, and would have a significant impact on life in the town, as taxes would likely increase significantly without revenues seen from hosting the multi-million dollar facility.

Supervisor Lazzaro agreed and noted that expensive legal action would also likely follow the passage of the local law. He also expressed disappointment with the appointed board members for “playing politics,” in introducing such a measure mere days after losing the November 8th election.

The board members present would ultimately move on the necessary SEQRA steps to push the law to a full board vote on December 6th.

While the volume of speakers at the Public Hearing would make headlines — as the session lasted more than four hours — the major story from the evening was Lazzaro’s absence.

Moments after the Public Hearing began, he rose out of his seat, voiced his displeasure with the legislation — and exited. He granted one interview with a local media outlet, but that was the last he was heard from at that session.

Councilor Porretta would chair the remainder of the session.

Local Law No. 3 of 2016 adopted in Seneca Falls

History will remember December 6th as the date Local Law No. 3 of 2016, otherwise known as the Waste Disposal Law was adopted. And while many questioned the intention and motivation of those who pushed for passage of the law — for others it felt like a key moment.

Those who had pushed all year to create legislation limiting the landfilling operation were given a concrete closure date in the law. December 31st, 2025 would be the final day, according to the law that Seneca Meadows could operate.

The law was strong enough, according to state legislators, who said that the host community had the greatest power to close or end landfilling in the community.

Those who opposed the law, said another was already on the books — making this one an unnecessary show of political gamesmanship from a vocal minority.

Regardless, this point in early-December was an opportunity for the Town to move forward — with a variety of other pressing issues on the horizon. For a while, it even appeared as though other issues might even become the highlight, as no legal action against Seneca Falls from Seneca Meadows or their lawyers — was immediately received.

The vote on December 6th was a surprising 4-1 count, with Supervisor Lazzaro being the only member of the board opposed to the legislation.

Quiet exchange of power as new board members take office

The vote to enact Local Law No. 3 of 2016 would be the last major headline created by the aforementioned Town Board.

In January, the two winners of November’s election took office — completely diversifying the board.

Many wondered if quick action would be taken to introduce a resolution, or new local law, rescinding Local Law No. 3. While that didn’t happen immediately, we now know that there will be a Public Hearing on March 14th for Local Law No. 2 of 2017.

RELATED: ‘SYMBOLIC’ DELIVERY: Seneca Falls Town Board receives check from SMI at Tuesday’s meeting

During an appearance on Weber this Week, Councilors Ruzicka and Ferrara discussed the way Local Law No. 3 was enacted. Ferrara voiced his displeasure with the process, and said that if it become necessary — he would support rolling back the law.

Ruzicka took a different tact, pointing out that he understood why Lutz and Sarratori moved as they did through the process acting as board members until their term (albeit appointed) came to an end.

He differed with Ferrara on the local law — suggesting that rescinding the law should only be done if absolutely necessary.

A lawsuit, new legislation, and potential end to Local Law No. 3

In February, the Town of Seneca Falls, as well as the Town Board were served with an Article 78 Petition from Seneca Meadows.

The Article 78 Petition sought to throw out the local law, which is known as Local Law No. 3 or the Waste Disposal Law.

The petition also sought attorneys’ fees, costs and disbursements, as well as granting Seneca Meadows any other relief as the court deems just and proper, according to those documents filed with the courts.

RELATED: LAZZARO: Cuts to services are imminent as Seneca Falls faces litigation over Local Law #3

It challenged the Town Board’s adoption of the local law, which was passed by that 4-1 vote on December 6th saying it jeopardized the ongoing operation of the facility.

They alleged that the Town Board failed to comply with the State Environmental Quality Review Act, otherwise known as a SEQRA.

Seneca Meadows also asserted that the Town Board allowed a biased member to participate in voting to adopt the law.

The petition rips apart the local law, citing multiple issues with the process by which the Town Board went about enacting it.

On February 28th a special meeting was called, where Supervisor Lazzaro said that the board would consider and discuss litigation against the Town.

Many were surprised when that session turned into the moment when a new local law — rescinding Local Law No. 3 — was introduced.

Later this month the Town Board will hear those from both sides again, weigh in on a local law and issue, which has seen many ups, downs, and surprising moments over the last 14 months.

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