Posted on July 7, 2015 by Michael Gerrard
Since he’s much in the news these days, I thought I’d share this story about an encounter of Donald Trump with the Clean Water Act.
Back in 1919, Eugene Meyer (a chairman of the Federal Reserve, the first president of the World Bank, publisher of the Washington Post, and father of Katherine Graham) built a palatial mansion on a 230-acre property in Westchester County, New York (about 40 miles north of New York City) known as Seven Springs. Eventually the property fell into disuse, and in 1996 Trump bought it so that he could build a luxury golf course there, with the mansion as the clubhouse. The land straddled the extremely affluent towns of Bedford, North Castle and New Castle, so those towns’ zoning approval was needed. It was adjacent to Byram Lake, which serves as the drinking water reservoir for the much less affluent Village of Mount Kisco. More than one-third of its population is Hispanic.
Crabgrass and dandelions, of course, would be utterly unacceptable at a Trump golf course, so the plan involved the considerable application of pesticides. Mount Kisco became very concerned that the stormwater runoff from the golf course flowing into Byram Lake would contaminate their drinking water. They hired me as their environmental counsel to see if Trump’s plan could be stopped. Since none of the golf course was in Mount Kisco, the village had no direct authority. The town of New Castle gave Trump a hard time over traffic impacts, and he decided to give up plans to use that corner of the site for his project. Bedford and North Castle don’t rely on Byram Lake for their water and weren’t so concerned about the pesticides.
A close reading of the appendices to the environmental impact statement (when laid against state regulations) revealed that pesticide levels in the runoff could exceed drinking water standards under certain scenarios. Trump proposed to address this problem through a novel technology called “linear adsorption systems” that would involve a carbon filtration unit at each of the 18 holes. The land would be graded so that the runoff went into these filtration units, which were supposed to remove the pesticides and discharge clean water into Byram Lake.
No such system had ever been built before, and we didn’t know if it would work. We wanted it tested first. A local citizens group made up buttons saying “We’re Not Trump’s Guinea Pigs,” with a drawing of a guinea pig and a red slash through it. The golf course didn’t seem to require any state approvals, but I was able to convince the state environmental department that capturing the runoff, treating it, and discharging it through pipes had the effect of converting a sheet flow into point sources, requiring NPDES permits for each discharge point. This afforded us the opportunity to get a public hearing before the state regulators (in which we packed a high school auditorium with Mount Kisco residents worried about their drinking water), and then an adjudicatory hearing at which we pressed the need for a pilot test of the treatment system.
The hearing led to a decision that a pilot test was needed. We then entered into protracted administrative adjudication over the parameters of the pilot test.
All this went on for eight years. Finally, in 2004, Trump gave up the idea of the golf course and decided instead to build a small number of large single-family homes. That residential project involved far less use of pesticides than a golf course, and Mount Kisco was satisfied with it. The NY Daily News covered the story with the headline, “Trump ‘Fires’ Plan for New Golf Course Over Community Pesticide Concerns.”
The local approval process for the homes took many more years, and was punctuated by litigation with the Nature Conservancy over an access easement. Trump now has his approvals but construction of the homes has not yet begun. The property has been mostly idle during all this time, except that in 2009 he rented a portion of the land to some tenants from the Middle East, until it turned out that the tenants planned to erect tents to be used by Muammar el-Quaddafi while he was In New York for a United Nations meeting. When Bedford learned of this, they issued a stop work order because one can’t erect a tent in Bedford without a permit, and Quaddafi never visited.
In the end, the environmental impact review process and the Clean Water Act did their jobs, the people of Mount Kisco still enjoy clean drinking water, and the occasional dandelion still pokes its head through the grass. And, notwithstanding all of this, Donald Trump tells us that he is still really, really rich.