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from the Third Annual New York State Conference on Private Property Rights
January 17, 1998, Albany, New York

New York City Watershed Rules
Adele Aguirre
Homeowner, Carmel

I apologize that I'm not a public speaker. But Tai and I moved up from New York City about two years ago to what we consider upstate New York, which is Putnam County.

We bought a broken-down kind of house and went to the approvals to fix it up. We went to the building department, the zoning, then we got approval from the Putnam County Department of Health, because they have to approve any renovations.

They made us dig up our septic. They came in, they tested, everything was fine, "Go ahead." So we were practically finished with the renovation and we started getting threatening letters from New York City.

Putnam County is about eighty miles out of New York City. We're not really that close. And New York City Department of Environmental Protection said, If you don't hire an engineer, resubmit plans, and get our approval for this renovation, even though it's done, they will take legal action against us.

The harassment just increased daily. They would come on our property unannounced. They would take pictures. They would stare through the windows. I remember one day they were walking around the property and I said to them, "Can I help you?" And they said, "Yeah, we want to come in your house." And I said, "Look, your problem is with the town and with the health department. We're through. We have a C of O. Go speak to them." And the woman just stuck her hand in my face and she said, "Lady, your problem is with you."

So what we did was we tried administratively. We saw every politician. We called up Mayor Guiliani's office. We even met with Governor Pataki. That got us real far.

We had our Congresswoman come by. She was the only one that stood up for us. She wrote a letter to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, that said, Well, come on, there are two people living in this little house. What's the deal here? And the City wrote back, basically saying, you know, We don't care.

So one day I get a knock at the door and it's the environmental police, with the armbands and everything, guns, the whole bit. Suing us. And the suit basically is that even though they know our septic is working fine, some day it may not. Therefore they're suing us now. It sounds crazy.

New York City came in during depositions. They tested our septic system. They were back every day. They didn't find anything wrong with our septic system but they're still suing us.

We also started feeling a little paranoid. Is there something going on here? The story is that, what we found out is, of course, that New York City was mandated by the federal government to clean up their water, and rather than put as filtration system on, they figured, Well, it's a whole lot easier, let's look like we're doing something and let's pick on people that can't fight back. So they picked on two people who just did not have the funds to fight the City.

And so what happened was we started, we did fight back in our own way. We got the Atlantic Legal Foundation to take our case. Without them, we probably would have walked out of the house, because we just can't afford to fight New York City.

We think that what they are doing is we are a test case. Because, if they can come into our home (we have a C of O, we have the approvals, we have a working septic, we are all set), if they can win this case in court, that means, what's to stop them from going into anyone's home and anytime they feel like?

We get a report back. We got the Atlantic Legal. We were on Channel 5 news. I see you're Vince Castellano - we were on your show. This actually helped our case, because the City does not like the light to shine on it. What's interesting to us is that this is the same New York City suing two people with a working septic on the potential that someday, maybe, this is the same City that, when they started harassing us, there was a three hundred-acre sludge plant that was supposed to go right up down the road from us. Despite their impact statement, saying that this would be awful, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection said, We don't see any problem with this. OK?

So we wondered, this is very interesting. There's no problem with the 300-acres sludge plant right down the road but there's a problem with two people living in a house.

Also, that same city saw no problem with dumping 500 million gallons of raw sewage into the East River. I contend that there picking on the small guy, because they feel that we can't fight back. The truth is that we can't fight back. This may sound crazy, but the only thing that gives me hope is that the more people that become victims, probably the better, because it was only when we became victims that we realized that there was a problem.

You know, we lived in the city, we didn't even know what "environmental" was. So we're affecting the people around us.

I want to thank Carol LaGrasse, because when this started happening to us, we didn't realize that they were actually other people out there that this was happening to. And so we started looking around, and we said, Well, this is happening to us. And then, that's how we found Carol, that's how we found you, and thank you for your time.

Question (Andrew Langer):
What specifically did they want you to give them, did they want you to do, that you had not done already?
Adele Aguirre:
"That we hadn't done already? Even our lawyer is scratching his head, I don't fully understand what's going on here. But what they're asking specifically is to submit plans for a whole new septic system."

Andrew Langer:
"For a alternate septic system, should the one fail?"
Adele Aguirre:
Yes. However, they already know there's no room. We have less than one-quarter acre. They know we have no room to do anything.

Andrew Langer:
Was it suggested that if you had filed with the city originally, along with the local jurisdiction, you would probably never have received the permit? (1)
Adele Aguirre:
When you file up there, they tell you if you need a new York City permits. We didn't need City approval, because it wasn't new construction.
But even if we did meet city approval, yes, you're right, they would say, Sorry, no you can't live here.

* * *

(1) Practice had not been established in the past for all homeowners in the watershed to ask a permit directly of the City for septics. This has been so far from the minds of officials in the City Watershed towns that they failed to even recognize the City's clear proposal in 1996 in the draft new watershed regulations to give the City the power to review all new septic construction. - Ed.

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