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Should NY spend $4.2 billion on climate change mitigation and the environment?

Nancie Battaglia
for NCPR

When you go to cast your ballot in this year’s midterm election, remember to flip it over. On the back, you’ll see Proposition 1, which asks New Yorkers whether the state should borrow $4.2 billion for environmental projects.

If approved, that money would be spent in the coming decades on reducing flood risks, mitigating the effects of climate change, and preserving land around the state.

Extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy and Irene have pummeled New York state in recent decades, temperatures are rising. New York is not immune to the effects of climate change.

But Peter Bauer, the executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said New York has the chance to become a leader and even a haven in the face of climate change.

“People are going to look at Upstate New York with all of these trees with all of this water with this pastoral landscape with the Adirondack and Catskill Park and the Hudson Valley, and they're going to be like my god, upstate New York is a paradise on earth," said Bauer.

Green groups like Protect the Adirondacks, the Adirondack Council, the Nature Conservancy and Environmental Advocates of New York are all urging New Yorkers to vote yes to approve the $4.2 billion Environmental Bond Act.

If it passes, the money will be doled out to communities across the state– $1.5 billion to build green infrastructure and things like cooling centers. Another $1.1 billion would used to restore waterways and reduce flood risks. There’s $650 million for water infrastructure projects and another $650 million for land preservation, which Bauer said is critical.

“Every year, the developed part of New York State gets bigger and bigger, the amount of land that's under asphalt grows year after year," Bauer said, "so protecting land is really doing a favor for future generations.”

The last Environmental Bond Act, passed under Republican governor George Pataki, led to the preservation of more than 150,000 acres in the Adirondacks.

But not everyone believes preserving more land in New York should be a top priority. Brian Wells, the supervisor of Hamilton County and town supervisor of Indian Lake, said Adirondack towns like his struggle to grow and prosper because of how much surrounding land the state already owns. Think about Indian Lake as a pie chart, Wells said.

“Every time the state buys something and increases the Forest Preserve or somebody donates it or it's endowed, or it's purchased by a land trust, it just makes that pie that much smaller and that much harder for us," said Wells.

While he’s grateful for the millions in state funding that Indian Lake and other Adirondack towns get for things like new water treatment plants, Wells said adding $4.2 billion to the state’s debt doesn’t make financial sense and he plans to vote against the bond act.

Dan Stec, a Republican state senator who represents a big portion of the Adirondacks, has also expressed concern about the bond act.

“I have my doubts whether or not it's going to make a difference or if it's just going to check some boxes for people to feel good about saying they support the environment," Stec said in a recent debate with his Democratic challenger, Jean Lapper.

"I don't think it's going to be efficiently used and I'm afraid it's gonna get wasted or squandered," said Stec.

Kelley Tucker, executive director of the Ausable River Association, shows the results of restoration work along the dream mile of the Ausable River.
Emily Russell
Kelley Tucker, executive director of the Ausable River Association, shows the results of restoration work along the dream mile of the Ausable River.

But advocates say there will be plenty of oversight, especially if the money is used to match federal funding for projects. Plus they say it’s better to build up more resilient infrastructure now than after another major storm.

“It's a lot more expensive to go backwards and fix a problem than it is to create the resilience upfront," said Kelley Tucker, executive director of the Ausable River Association, which repairs erosion and restores rivers lakes, and streams in the Adirondacks.

Tucker said there’s a lot in the bond act she likes, including the fact that 35% of the money must benefit disadvantaged communities around the state, meaning poorer communities, and places facing particular threats like pollution and storm surges.

Tucker is hopeful that New Yorkers will vote to invest in green energy, more public lands, and more resilient communities. But, she says the details of the money is delivered really matter.

“The question is, how is it going be implemented? If it's passed, how is that money going to come to small communities, to marginalized communities? Is that money going to be easy to use? Or is it going to be hard to use?"

Tucker said those are critical pieces of the puzzle. But first, New Yorkers will need to decide whether or not they support the $4.2 billion Environmental Bond Act. So remember to flip over your ballot when you go to vote.

Emily Russell covers the Adirondack State Park for NCPR.