Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sewers the last front in UAlbany dorm battle

Last updated: 11:46 a.m., Tuesday, May 25, 2010

ALBANY -- The University at Albany is pushing ahead with a 500-bed dorm next to Tudor Road and plans to start construction as soon as July despite opponents' lingering concerns that the project could overwhelm part of the city's already tapped-out sewer system.

Neighbors in the Eagle Hill section have fought the project on numerous fronts, airing fears about increased noise and light pollution as well as traffic and water runoff from what's currently about 12 wooded acres southeast of the Boor Sculpture Studio.

That fight, however, has been largely stymied by the fact that -- as a state entity -- UAlbany is exempt from the city's zoning and planning regulations.

The final battle, however, centers on how the two new five-story apartment buildings will connect to the city's sanitary sewer system -- the only aspect of the project over which local officials have any say. The $70 million project also involves moving the university's ring road about 450 feet further east to push the buildings from nearby houses.

UAlbany intends to send its sewage south, toward Western Avenue and the Woodville Pump Station along the Krumkill.

The pump station, however, is part of one of the older sections of Albany's leaky and -- in some cases -- crumbling combined sewer system, which carries storm water and sewage in the same pipes and overflows into the Hudson River and backs up into homes during severe storms.

Opponents of the project, including the chairman of the Common Council committee that oversees the sewer system, fear the increased volume could violate state Department of Environmental Conservation orders not to make the overflows or backups worse.

"They're content to just go ahead and do it and let us pick up the consequences," said Councilman Michael O'Brien, the committee chairman who represents the 12th Ward.

O'Brien wants guarantees that UAlbany, not the city, will be on the hook for any fines or penalties that result from their connection.

Even more, O'Brien wants the university to pay the added expense to pump the sewage up hill to the north toward Washington Avenue and the Patroon Creek sewer system, which is newer and carries sewer and storm water separately.

In an April letter, all 15 members of the council and Council President Carolyn McLaughlin called on the city's Water Board to reject any southern connection to the sewer system.

In response, university Interim Vice President for Finance and Business Stephen Beditz last week wrote O'Brien saying the council's understanding of the project is flawed. He said the university plans to repair sewer lines downstream that will reduce leaks and illegal connections equal to the amount of sewage the project would add.

That condition was recommended by the Water Board's outside engineer, Daniel Hershberg, who told the council he would still prefer that UAlbany pump its sewage north.

But, Hershberg cautioned the lawmakers, the Water Board has no power to force the university to do so -- or reject the application outright for a connection to the system -- so long as UAlbany meets conditions imposed by the board.

John Kosa, assistant commissioner of the city Department of Water and Water Supply, said the city would not require UAlbany to make repairs to the system if it would not be enough to keep the overflows and backups in check.

"We're not going to allow a connection ... unless we know we can do it without impacting the residents," Kosa said. "We're not going to make it worse. We're the ones that have to deal with it, too."

Fifteenth Ward Councilman Frank Commisso Jr., who represents some of the neighborhoods around the campus, said "it doesn't make sense" that the city can conclude that the northern option is preferable but that the law gives it no power to enforce its preference.

"It's just not night," Commisso said. "The unfortunate thing is that a lot of people are going to end up with flooding in their basements because of it."

Hershberg, however, notes that similar mitigation arrangements have been reached with Albany Medical Center and several new developments along New Scotland Avenue and said he thinks opponents of the dorm are just trying to use the city's Water Board as an 11th-hour roadblock.

"They're trying to have the Albany Water Board ... act as their agent to kill the project," he said.

UAlbany's request is pending before the board. No action will be taken until the board gets clearance from the health department, Kosa said.

Meanwhile, UAlbany is planning to begin construction in July. The dorms are scheduled to open in September 2011.

Jordan Carleo-Evangelist can be reached at 454-5445 or by e-mail at jcarleo-evangelist@timesunion.com.