CORTLANDVILLE — Seventeen gas stations dot Cortland and Cortlandville. It begs the question that a number of Cortlandville residents asked Wednesday night: How many more does metropolitan Cortland need?
And that raises another question: How much more risk to the only aquifer to provide drinking water to 30,000 Cortland County residents is acceptable?
And this one: Why would the Cortlandville Town Board appear to abandon 30 years of protecting that aquifer with some of the most stringent regulations in the state?
Of the 13 speakers who addressed the Town Board at a public hearing on a law that would open to gas station development on 600 to 800 acres in 11 areas over the county’s sole-source aquifer, only one supported it. That was Garry VanGorder, the executive director of the Cortland County Business Development Corp.
Other speakers opposed the proposed law, which would ease the regulations governing gas station development in zones between 4,000 and 5,000 feet from the nearest water source.
Both the town’s planning board, and the county’s, opposed the change. County environmental officials gave nuanced analyses that both proponents and opponents cited regarding the potential risks. Members of both boards spoke Wednesday to reinforce their official disapproval with their personal opinions. The former city of Cortland water superintendent did, too.
But there are limits to a public body’s authority, town Supervisor Richard Tupper said after the hearing, and opportunities for development to consider.
“It all started because I had developers tell me they’d like to build gas stations and there’s no place to build them,” he said, and it’s not the town’s job to decide how many gas stations the community needs. “If someone’s going to spend the money, I have to presume they’ve done the traffic studies.”
That said, it is within the town’s authority to protect the aquifer — the legislation to do that was drafted nearly 30 years following the discover of pollution at the then-Smith-Corona facility on Route 13. And Tupper said the proposed law keeps that responsibility in mind.
The change would allow gas stations in areas 4,000 to 5,000 feet away from a well, but not in closer areas, where spills could migrate in either one year or five years. It would require triple-lined fuel storage tanks, too, he added.
But as Pat Reidy, a water quality specialist with the Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District and Mike Ryan, the county’s environmental health director, said, a gasoline spill would be unlikely to reach a public well, but the risk isn’t zero, either.
“While the risk of gas stations to water supplies is not zero, there have been gas stations over the critical parts of the aquifer for decades, with no impact to the municipal water supplies,” Reidy said this morning. “What the town is proposing is similar to what many communities across the country have already adopted, and is more restrictive than what many other communities have adopted. Regulations for the operation of gas stations have greatly improved over the years, and studies have shown that gasoline contamination doesn’t migrate far in groundwater. I don’t think Cortlandville’s adoption of this law would be irresponsible or unreasonable.”
Tupper said, as he looked at a 3-inch stack of statements and documents, that he’s not sure when the Town Board would vote on the measure.
“We haven’t made a decision what we’re going to do,” he said. “We’re going to start reviewing it.”