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SMI permit tabled again: Seneca Falls defies threat of litigation after testy debate over landfill’s future (video)

– By Josh Durso

Seneca Falls Town Supervisor Mike Ferrara kicked off Tuesday’s meeting by reading a pair of letters from petitioners. Both were opposed to the renewal of an operating permit for Seneca Meadows Landfill, which was by far the most-anticipated issue of the session.

“I’ve been getting a lot of phone calls from community members who have wanted to meet with me, or board members about the permit, but unfortunately because of the pandemic that couldn’t happen,” Ferrara said. He encouraged residents in the days leading up to the meeting to write the board.

They were expected to vote on an operating permit for the landfill, which has historically been an administrative process. However, the permit application was tabled after being brought forward, and for the last several months has remained in limbo.

Lawyers for Seneca Meadows said litigation would ensue and payments from the host agreement between the two parties could be terminated if the permit was not approved at Tuesday’s meeting.

“If the Town fails to issue SMI the Permit, SMI would be prevented from lawfully operating the landfill,” the letter from Seneca Meadows attorney’s said. “There can be no doubt those actions would trigger this provision of the Agreement, thereby allowing SMI to terminate its obligations thereunder, including the payments required by Section XIII [in the host agreement].”

It went out to point out that Seneca Meadows would be legally supported ending payments through its host agreement with the Town. For perspective, that accounts for more than $3 million annually, which is used to maintain the Town’s budget.

This new financial stress is in addition to the prospective cuts that would be required, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, if federal funding for municipalities is not passed through the House and signed by President Donald Trump.

However, Bruce Bonafiglia, president of BonaDent & Danaren Dental Laboratories, headquartered in Seneca Falls said issuing an operating permit would be ‘shunning’ the Board’s responsibility as leaders in the community.

“Agreeing to renew their permit at this time would be shunning your responsibility as leaders to see that our host agreement is followed by both parties,” Bonafiglia said in the letter. “The landfill has continued to operate, to receive trash, to be paid to receive that trash, yet they constantly threaten our community with litigation and withholding payments due. ‘Bullies’ make threats of that kind, not ‘neighbors’.”

The letter further asserts that a 15,000 square foot expansion, and creation of 50 new jobs could be jeopardized by the issuing of a permit. “We currently have a tremendous team of over 200 employees that has played and will continue to play an important role in our community’s success. To afford those employees career longevity and financial growth, our business has to grow,” Bonafiglia said. “As the landfill grows it becomes increasingly more difficult to recruit talented professionals to live in our area. Despite the world-class facility we’ve built in Seneca Falls, we struggle with professionals in our industry choosing to work in our satellite locations over our Seneca Falls location.”

Town Attorney Patrick Morrell indicated to the Town Board that Seneca Meadows was likely going to continue legal action, after a recent decision by Supreme Court Judge Daniel J. Doyle to dismiss the Article 78 Seneca Meadows filed over Local Law #3. That local law mandates closure of Seneca Meadows in 2025.

By the time the permit application came up during the meeting, more than an hour had passed from the session’s start. The Board started by voting 4-1 to take the permit application off the table.

Supervisor Ferrara made a motion to renew the permit. It received a second by Councilmember Dawn Dyson. She offered a clarification that she was only making the motion for ‘conversation’.

A lengthy debate ensued about the right path forward for the Town, which included the prospect of costly litigation, as well as the loss of host agreement funds. Town Attorney Morrell indicated that funds would be held in escrow until a judge rendered a decision – if litigation occurred and host agreement dollars were withheld.

Councilmember Steve Churchill made a motion to table the matter, but did not receive a second at that point. The debate continued, with every board member voicing their concerns about odor mitigation, and the potential of Seneca Meadows operating in potentially illegal ways.

“Have they done anything to make us believe that they are doing anything better than they were before with odor?” Dyson asked. Councilmember Doug Avery responded, pointing out that during a work session of a subcommittee – Seneca Meadows District Manager Kyle Black said the company “Has done all it is willing to do to mitigate odors,” and noted that if the Town had any additional concerns that they could bring ‘specific data’ for them to consider.

Supervisor Ferrara indicated that using the existing odor reporting mechanisms, which includes a system operated by the landfill, a relatively low number of odor complaints were received. There were less than 30 complaints for the last two months respectively.

However, Churchill pointed out – along with Avery and other board members – that the odor reporting system is a major roadblock for residents concerned about the odors smelled on a daily basis around Seneca Falls and Waterloo.

“I get it, they’re frustrated,” Ferrara said, noting that many people do not even report odors anymore. This is largely said to be due to a feeling of defeat connected to the reporting system itself. People call the number, report an odor, and an employee of the landfill comes to that location and says they don’t smell anything.

It’s a story that’s been told over-and-over for years now in Seneca Falls. And one that many residents feel is happening on a daily basis.

“I had discussions with management there and I think Doug will agree, based on what Kyle says, they’re not in violation of odor violations,” Ferrara continued. “They had nine complaints in April, 15 in March. We pushed back saying people aren’t complaining because they’re frustrated that nothing is getting done. The DEC hasn’t given them any violations, so they think it’s O-K. I don’t think they’re going to push it or change.”

Councilmember Dyson asked if the Board had any room to ‘force’ SMI’s hand. “That decision will ultimately come down to a judge if we go down that road,” Ferrara responded, assuming Seneca Meadows moves forward with litigation against Seneca Falls over the permit.

Councilmember Churchill said those threats accounted for nothing more than intimidation. “They make up stories. They intimidate people,” he said. “They intimidate this town. I think we’d be far better off if we table it.”

At that point the debate remained focused between Churchill and Ferrara. At one point, the council member called out the supervisor for not being critical enough of the landfill in this ongoing application process. For his part, Supervisor Ferrara says closing the landfill remains a priority.

“I’m 100% in favor of closing the landfill in 2025. I’m 100% in favor of Local Law #3. We need to start making the hard decisions,” Ferrara continued, pointing to the financial impact Seneca Meadows has on the Town through those host agreement payments.

He also voiced skepticism about letting a judge decide on the fate of the host agreement if Seneca Meadows takes the Town to court.

Ferrara suggested that Councilmembers Avery and Churchill get together with the relevant parties to come up with a plan of action to see if there was any additional middle ground between Seneca Meadows and the Town.

Instead of voting against the application, the board moved to table the application by a 4-1 count. Supervisor Ferrara was the sole vote in favor of renewal.

Check out the whole meeting below:

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