Lake Mahopac park project faces state environmental investigation, reveals local ties

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Tax Watch columnist David McKay Wilson digs into the issues at Swan Cove at Lake Mahopac in Putnam County.  

This is a story of Swan Cove and the controversy surrounding an acre of public land on the shores of Lake Mahopac. It’s a story that also provides a glimpse into the town of Carmel’s inner circle.

There’s real-estate-developer-turned-politician Mike Barile, who once owned the land and advocated for its purchase by the town while campaigning for office in 2017.

There’s the Spain family that founded Mahopac National Bank in 1927, and still plays a major role in its successor institution, Tompkins Mahopac Bank, from which the town needs to buy land to have unfettered access to its newest park.

There’s the bank’s deal with Barile to let him store tons of rock on its lakefront property for free for a decade. It’s the same bank that Barile’s negotiating with on behalf of Carmel taxpayers.

There’s the issue of access to the lake, even after the town opens the park in a year or two.

And now, following questions raised by Tax Watch, the state Department of Environmental Conservation on Wednesday launched an investigation into the town’s decision to dump mounds of asphalt millings eight feet high near the lake shore, which Carmel plans to use as a landfill by the lake.

Asphalt millings, however, appear to be prohibited for use as fill in New York, according to a January 2019 state DEC ruling that interpreted 2017 state regulations. DEC spokeswoman Wendy Rosenbach declined comment on the issue.

Asphalt millings contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — called PAHs — which have caused cancer in studies with laboratory animals, studies show. These compounds were found in contaminated soil in the 2000s at Westchester public schools that used free fill as a base layer for fields covered with artificial turf.

In 2012, Briarcliff Manor spent $1.5 million to remediate school fields that were contaminated with PAHs, after parents complained that their children became ill.

Run-off from the millings now flows into Lake Mahopac, the drinking water supply for 450 Mahopac households, including the home of Town Supervisor Kenneth Schmitt. On Thursday morning, following a steady rain overnight, water four inches deep pooled by the piles of asphalt millings.

“We are going to investigate it,” said Rosenbach. “We need to understand what’s happening there.”

Lake Mahopac

Tax Watch discovered the millings on Tuesday when touring the site with Robert Buckley, the former chairman of the Carmel Recreation Advisory Committee. He resigned in the spring of 2018 because he believed the town had rushed to make the purchase without consulting the panel or conducting a proper study of the purchase.

Buckley wants to make sure that the Town Board does not make concessions to the Tompkins Mahopac Bank that would limit access to the lake for residents who want to launch their canoes, kayaks, or paddle boards from the shores.

He was also concerned with the piles of milled asphalt, which he estimated to be at least 100 cubic yards.

“Has it been studied?” he asked. “What is the environmental impact. Did the town create a dump here?”

Schmitt said in the summer of 2018, he arranged for the road millings to be brought to the site from a road resurfacing job on Route 52 in Carmel. He asked Carmel Highway Superintendent Michael Simone to retrieve the millings, and then dump them on the town’s $1 million lakeside acquisition.

The millings have remained there, uncovered, about 90 feet from the lake.

Schmitt wants to use the millings to raise the level of the land because it often floods.

“Millings will be wonderful to fill in the low spots at Swan Cove,” Schmitt told Tax Watch.

Environmentalists aren’t so sure.

Riverkeeper staff scientist Bill Wegner said that run-off from the millings could contaminate the soil.

“You have PAHs which are going to be in the run-off,” Wegner said. “They could infiltrate into the soil.”

Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, an environmental database company in Ithaca, said using asphalt road millings near water, especially if it’s a source of drinking water, is not a good idea.

“You don’t want to use asphalt material with any application where it will come in contact with a drinking water supply,” he said.

Conflict with Tompkins Mahopac Bank?

To complete Swan Cove, the town needs to strike a deal with one of its longest standing businesses — Tompkins Mahopac Bank, which was founded as Mahopac National Bank by the Spain family in 1927. Swan Cove lies behind the stone bank building, where Routes 6 and 6N meet in downtown Mahopac.

The bank owns four land parcels that Carmel wants to buy, including one that extends from Route 6N to the lake. That’s where the bank helped Barile a decade ago by letting him have free storage for tons of rock that he intended to use for his condo project.

Tompkins Mahopac Bank Chairman Michael Spain said the bank didn’t charge Barile because the bank wanted to help an adjacent landowner.

“Under our good neighbor policy, if someone wanted to use something, we’d let them use it, whether it was Mike Barile or somebody else,” Spain said.

Barile never built the condominiums. His rocks remain on bank land. He said he’d give his rocks to the town to use for the Swan Cove project.

Let’s make a deal

The town brought the millings to the lakefront in 2018, not long after it closed on the deal to buy the land and eight dilapidated cottages from Swan Cove Manor LLC, a company whose principals include Bedford builder Fran Cotaj.

It was apparently a sweet deal for Cotaj.

He flipped the land to the town for $1 million two years after he bought it for $725,000 from a partnership that included Barile, his daughter, Nicole, and Tommy Boniello, said Carmel Assessor Glenn Droese.

On Nov. 1, while Barile was in a four-way race for Carmel Town Board, he urged the panel to buy Swan Cove before Cotaj built his condominium project. Barile said the town should buy the bank property too, to provide parking for downtown merchants.

The Mahopac News noted that Barile and Schmitt met with Cotaj the next day. Barile won election on Nov. 7. The town signed a contract to buy the land on Dec. 8, according to county records.

“I pressured the town to buy it,” said Barile. “My vision was to have a parking area for the whole downtown. We’d have parking and decent frontage on the lake.”

Buckley was stunned how quickly Carmel moved on the purchase.

“Nothing in the history of this town has moved that quickly,” he said.

Bank deal needed

After the deal closed on March 17, 2018, town officials began negotiating with the bank.

Schmitt said Cotaj had an easement through the bank property to Swan Cove as part of his condominium proposal. Whether the residential easement would allow access to the park remains unknown. But the easement won’t be needed if the town buys the bank parcels, Schmitt said.

“When the town owns all the parcels, that will be a moot point,” he said.

Barile and Schmitt were on the town’s negotiating team. Representing the bank was attorney William Spain, Jr., the grandson of the bank’s founder, and a player in Carmel Conservative Party circles.

Spain also served as Barile’s attorney in a 2017 case against the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, records show.

“I think the negotiations are all wrapped up,” said Barile. “Mahopac National Bank has bent over backward to accommodate us.”

When the town approached the bank a year ago, bank President Gerald Klein said the town spoke of creating a “passive park” at Swan Cove, which would be accessed through the bank land the town wants to buy.

The bank, meanwhile, needed parking.

“The town put on the table what they wanted to use the property for, and it has been a matter of going back and forth on the details so we can continue to operate our business,” Klein said. “We are working to firm up the match with their vision and the parking.”

Klein said he expected any access for boat launches to be limited to those signed up for town programs, though he was willing to consider other plans.

Buckley, meanwhile, convened a meeting Thursday night in Mahopac of residents who want to make sure the town’s vision includes access to the shoreline for those who want to take out their kayaks.

He wishes the town had struck a deal with the bank before its spent $1 million on the lakefront land, before it went hat in hand to the bank after it owned the parcel.

“It should have been done in reverse,” Buckley said. “We spend a million bucks, and now the bank has leverage on us.”

Tax Watch connection

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve lived in Mahopac since 1998. I ran for Carmel town supervisor in 2009 during my five-year hiatus from The Journal News/lohud, which to my chagrin, endorsed my opponent in the race. Schmitt beat me by almost 2-to-1, putting a swift end to my political career.

The 594-acre water body, which is owned by New York state, lies in the watershed for New York City’s drinking water. It’s a lake on which I have canoed, skated and skied.

More than a century ago, several hotels there served New York City tourists who’d arrive by train for country vacations. The hotels, however, either burned or were torn down. And since then, private homes, which are among the town’s most valuable, have lined the lake shore, including a striking home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that’s on one of the lake’s islands.

The Mahopac school district owns a parcel on East Lake Boulevard, but has kept it fenced off for decades. The district in 2017 finally allowed Carmel Recreation to hold summertime outdoor yoga and kayak paddling classes on the waterfront.

The town’s private Chamber Park is next to Swan Cove. The Chamber prohibits residents from launching a kayak or canoe from the shore.

A lake but no swimming

As for swimming in Lake Mahopac — it’s best to forget about it — either at Chamber Park, the school land, or at Swan Cove. You need to belong to one of the private clubs or own a lakefront home if you want to take a dip.

The town doesn’t want the liability associated with letting residents swim in the lake, Schmitt said.

The town’s plan for Swan Cove includes a boardwalk with a fishing pier jutting out into the lake. A town building would have storage and bathrooms while a grassy expanse would provide a place where children could play. There would be an area where Carmel residents could launch canoes, kayaks and paddle boards, once they registered with the town.

The Carmel Recreation plan, submitted to the Town Board on Jan. 14, includes 90 parking spots, and a bridge over an inlet linking Swan Cove to the Chamber Park.

Schmitt, who said he wants up to 140 parking spaces, estimated it will cost $1.5 million to develop Swan Cove, an investment that will boost downtown commerce, and provide lake access for town residents.

“It’s going to be a nice, friendly place, with tables and chairs by the water, where you can go to hang around,” he said. “We could even bring our summer concert series there.”

Published by USA Today Network


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