CROTON-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. – Safety at Croton Gorge Park is taking center stage after the recent drowning of a Bronx man, the fifth fatality in a number of years.
Less than two weeks before the drowning, tensions reached a boiling point between residents and swimmers on the river's east shore.
The river's east shore has "very heavy use that we have very little control over," Croton Mayor Leo Wiegman said. At least one major injury has occurred each year for the past five years on the riverbank, directly across from the Village of Croton.
Government officials and nearly 40 residents from along the river attended a July 11 meeting at Croton's municipal building, where residents said increased foot traffic was bringing vandalism, public urination and soil erosion into their backyards.
Many expressed frustration at the volume of visitors they said come from as far as Connecticut to camp, swim and set fires on a narrow strip of land owned by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, just below residential Quaker Bridge Road on the Cortlandt side of the Croton River.
"It's disgusting, it smells like a sewer," said Carl Steinmann, a Quaker Bridge Road resident. "It's trash heaps, and it smells like fish and human feces." Most echoed Steinmann's concerns, and several said they counted 63 illegally parked cars on narrow Quaker Bridge Road on the Fourth of July. The Town of Cortlandt has since posted additional "No Parking" signs.
The DEC sanctions many of the activities neighbors said they abhor. Fires, camping for up to three days and drinking alcohol are legal, according to state land use regulations. Neighbors have said the activities are inappropriate on a strip of land where leaf coverage and trees could make quick fuel for a fire, and extremely steep slopes make it almost impossible for emergency personnel to access the area.
Law enforcement is complicated by the convergence of nine municipal, county and state jurisdictions on the 1.5-mile stretch of river, all with varying land use regulations. DEC police have jurisdiction over the swimming spot at the river's edge, but DEC officials said it's difficult to patrol the 19-acre parcel because it's isolated from other DEC properties.
Croton officials said they "don’t sanction" swimming from the east bank of the river, but it's legal, according to Police Chief Anthony Tramaglini.
A couple swimming in the area Thursday said they never heard neighbors complain and didn't know someone had drowned two days earlier. "If they don't say something, how can we know they don't like it?" said Jorge Herrera, 22, of Ossining, originally from El Salvador. He said he learned about the spot from his girlfriend, a White Plains resident. Herrera said a large Hispanic community frequents the location.
"People shouldn't be able to bring beer here, definitely," Herrera said. He said he saw a man who had been drinking nearly drown two weeks earlier. The man was pulled ashore by other people swimming in the river, Herrera said.
Croton officials attended a scheduled meeting July 25 with state officials to parse out possible new land use and safety regulations.
Wiegman said officials discussed "potential courses of action for the state DEC to transfer the jurisdiction and management of those parcels to other governmental organizations."
"There's two ways to do that, you can do an act of the legislature, and through different agencies' agreement. As a result the agencies involved with us this morning helped us collaborate and figure out what the steps are. Clearly, we need other agencies to step forward and take control," said Wiegman.
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