Knox conservation council is taking the long view, says chairman

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel

Eric Marczak sits in his Knox home, surrounded by documents that pertain to the Knox Conservation Advisory Council, which he chairs. 

KNOX — Knox Conservation Advisory Council Chairman Eric Marczak wants to make sure that residents have all the information they need to make planning decisions, and that those decisions take long-off generations into account. 

“At 75 — on my way out, so to speak — I want to leave the world a better place than when I came into it,” he told The Enterprise this week. 

Marczak is leading a seven-seat council (with five members currently) that was formed in January this year by the Knox Town Board. A conservation council had been formed in Knox years earlier, but it fell apart around 2018 due to lack of interest and poor organization, according to former member Dee Woessener, who also said it was never officially disbanded. 

The chairman of the old conservation council, Kevin Sherman, no longer lives in town, according to his father, and could not be reached. 

Marczak had written an open letter to Knox citizens, published in The Enterprise last December, noting there was no active conservation advisory council and saying that some important issues had fallen through the cracks.

“My focus is on water and other environmental and conservation measures,” he wrote. “There should be a sense of urgency to start the wheel turning and be proactive. Knox is an oasis of beauty, wildlife, and unique resources.”

He gave his phone number in the letter and encouraged other concerned citizens to join him for “a parlor-style meeting” to discuss some of the issues and problem-solving strategies.

Marczak said this week that the new council is modeling itself according to guidelines set by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which defines these councils as stewards of a municipality’s local resources. He said that the idea is to have a broader focus than the local planning and zoning boards, which have authority over specific projects, and the town board, which establishes regulations. 

“We’re given the job of looking at the big picture,” Marczak said, listing the various environmental considerations that have to be made when determining land-use decisions, such as karst geology in the Helderbergs and the particular plants and fauna in the area. 

Part of that will include public education so that the information isn’t stuck with the fraction of the local population that has a seat on a government board — and its every single person in a town, Marczak said, who will have to hold the line against the interests of potentially selfish developers and the ignorance of those who are supposed to have oversight. 

Marczak, who has previously served on the town’s zoning board, recalled a time that a project had been sent to the Albany County Planning Board for review, and it was clear to him that the county wasn’t sufficiently aware of karst, prevalent on the Hill, to the point that the board members had misspelled the term in their determination. 

Karst essentially refers to a type of topography that has lots of natural drainage, which in turn makes it easy for pollutants to disperse widely, and difficult to trace back to their source. 

Despite how commonly it’s brought up in land-use conversations on the Hill, “nobody’s really had the time to learn what it really is,” Marczak said. “It’s just another word that people throw around.”

Marczak connected this concept of ignorance among supposed authorities to a medical episode he endured many years ago, wherein he saw a doctor for symptoms that the doctor decided didn’t warrant further investigation. Marczak requested biopsies anyway, and learned that he had cancer.

He also recalled a time, when he was living in Glenville, that a Boston-based company proposed using what they claimed were old fuel tanks in that town to burn contaminated dirt in. 

Marczak and a community coalition that opposed this effort soon figured out that the company was being sued by the United States Navy, he said, for inappropriately dumping contaminants — and what the company said were fuel tanks were never that at all, but had been used to hold whale oil. 

“You have to be your own advocate,” he said. “If you want to push an issue, you’ve got to find a good, educated way to do it, and get the right people to participate.”

Marczak doesn’t have a science degree but says he’s learned lots of science “on the job” at the state’s Department of Health over the years — doing toxicology and environmental field work, including on the Love Canal, the site of an infamous environmental disaster that led to the passage of the federal Superfund law. He said he “has a good idea of what can go wrong” when people don’t think about environmental impacts. 

Marczak said his colleagues on the council also have their own areas of expertise, such as chemical engineering, mapping, and local history, giving the council balance and breadth. And he hopes that the public will be interested enough to volunteer what they know about the town and its important areas.

“Some of these people up here really know the history of certain spots,” he said. “They know where all the little springs are and stuff like that.”

Marczak brought up a quote from former United States Senator Henry Jackson, which is, “Planning without citizen participation is neither democratic nor wise … [t]heir practical wisdom and support make plans capable of implementation, their knowledge of local conditions fills gaps in the planners’ data and information, and their varied interests diminish the tendency of planning to embody a single purpose.”

“This really states what our relationship with the community should be,” Marczak said. 


Early projects and goals

Although council members have met only twice so far, Marczak went over with The Enterprise some of the early ideas for projects they have. 

They’re working with Councilman Dennis Cyr to fix a public walkway that’s been built over a wetland on town property but has fallen into disrepair. They’ve been in touch with someone from the parks and rec department for information on protocol. 

More than 20 years ago, funds from the Tennessee Pipeline were used by the town to build a boardwalk through wetlands adjoining the town park. The late Daniel Driscoll, long-time chairman of the Knox Planning Board, had requested the town board create the conservation advisory council, charged with developing inventories of Knox’s natural resources. He also worked with the council, the planning board and others to develop a boardwalk, trail system, and interpretive and educational materials on the value of the Knox wetlands.

“Kind of a nice, easy project to bite into,” Marczak said. “Hopefully we can reclaim the area and make it accessible.”

They also intend to make an open space inventory per DEC guidelines, and have been doing training, including a three-weekend conference that Marczak attended. 

Because he once had a neighbor who — after buying property and discovering that a structure on it had been used to hold DDT — had to call in a hazmat team to take care of contamination, Marczak wants to focus on old properties in the town that might be similarly contaminated. 

He said that former Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis reportedly had concerns about old properties and would probably reach out to him to discuss ideas. 

The council members are also likely to advocate for an update to the town’s comprehensive plan, parts of which date back to the 1990s, leaving out newer hot-button topics like renewable energy development, except where respondents to a survey sent out in the early 2010s bring it up.

But most important, Marczak reiterated, is education. 

“If we can educate the people, they can make their own decisions,” he said, “and feel much more empowered.”

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