After 16 contentious years, the long-proposed Belleayre Resort project is getting its state permits and could be moving towards groundbreaking in the coming year. Unless, that is, remaining opponents of the project, as proposed, and several Central Catskills neighbors file lawsuits within the coming weeks.
Less than two weeks after announcing his resignation, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) commissioner Joe Martens granted a motion from his agency staff to formally close an adjudicatory hearing put on hold eight years ago, and then start issuing permits needed for the project to start construction.
According to spokespeople at the DEC, project developers at Crossroads Ventures in Shandaken, and Catskill Heritage Alliance chair Kathy Nolan, remaining steps needed to start the $365 million, 600 plus room project include a major New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) permit, a similar permit from the Delaware River Basin Commission, and reviews and approvals from planning boards in Shandaken and the Delaware County town of Middletown.
Plus, in Crossroads Ventures managing partner Dean Gitter’s word, “the $450 million in financing we’ve been waiting to go after once we got our permits in order.
“It’s taken what seems like a lifetime to get this far with the project, and I can only thank my partners, Emily Fisher and Ken Pasternak, from the bottom of my heart, for their determination and patience to stick this effort out and do something really meaningful for the revitalization of the Central Catskills,” Gitter said in a statement.
In a separate interview the sometimes controversial developer sounded elated…and tired.
“I’ve known this was coming for sixteen years. I just didn’t know when,” he said. “The process put me in the hospital for a year, in 2007…I’m glad it’s almost ever.”
Gitter also lauded the businesses and individuals in the region who supported his efforts on the project. “These people have waited a long, long time to see their communities revitalized, and DEC’s decision would not have happened without their support. After 15 years of study, the generation of thousands of pages of expert testimony, exhaustive public hearings, input from hundreds of respondents, detailed analysis by several layers of DEC staff, and finally a review by the Commissioner himself, the longest and most detailed examination of any proposed development in the history of New York State, is finally nearing a conclusion.”
No more ‘new’ considerations
The adjudication process that Martens closed with a 48-page decision released Friday, July 10, had been started when a state DEC administrative law judge heard testimony and arguments throughout 2006 from attorneys and representatives for eleven environmental organizations come together as the Catskill Preservation Coalition (CPC). At the time the resort proposal included two hotels and two golf courses, as well as an eastern half accessible from the Big Indian area. The DEC judge hearing the case, Richard Wissler, ended up ruling for 12 issues to proceed to a trial-like setting, after which the DEC commissioner’s office whittled the number of allowable issues down to six, with a seventh being appealed by the CPC.
In 2007 parties were brought together by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer to discuss those issues, with the result being a September, 2007 “Agreement in Principle” (AIP) that cut the overall size of the resort proposal, eschewing the Big Indian portion, and committed it to a tie-in with an expanded state-owned Belleayre Mountain ski area. Seven of the 11 CPC members signed on to the AIP, which then took another six years to get into shape with three parts; one involving the resort’s plans, one involving the state’s expansion plans, and a final part looking into the cumulative effects of both projects.
“As discussed in this decision and ruling, this project has been the subject of extensive review and evaluation by the Department and the public. A number of parties that had opposed earlier iterations of the project have now withdrawn their objections to the modified project…I note that many of the modifications to the project are the result of the extensive negotiations and efforts that culminated in the signing of the AIP in 2007,” Martens concluded in his decision. “As a result of the modifications to the project and the mitigation measures proposed, Department staff has withdrawn its prior objections to the project and, as its motion to cancel the adjudicatory hearing reflects, staff now supports issuance of the permits necessary for the modified project.”
The DEC directive further denied other requests for new considerations regarding possible effects on community character, as well as the remaining CPC members request that their separate considerations be dealt with separately.
A press release announcing Martens’ decision late July 10 added that DEC staff will now issue a formal Findings Statement on the proposals, and process, to close out its SEQRA (state environmental quality review act) process.
Opponents ‘evaluating options’
“We had no advance warning that the Commissioner would release his decision last Friday,” said Crossroads spokesperson Gary Gailes said earlier this week, before releasing a formal statement that described Martens’ action as “a huge boost” which “confirms that all potential adverse effects associated with Crossroads’ plans have been addressed and mitigated.” It further predicted groundbreaking by the middle of 2016.
The Catskill Heritage Alliance (CHA) responded to the DEC decision with its own press release, noting that its objections to the Crossroads project, “including its unacceptable impacts on the environment, community character, and our local economy, have not been addressed by Crossroads’ most recent proposal, which crowds 629 rooms, two resort hotels, a golf course, and a spa onto the western slopes of Belleayre Mountain…We have deep concerns about the way that the decision issued by Commissioner Martens forecloses this normal procedure and departs from what we expect of New York’s environmental review process. We are examining this entire matter carefully while evaluating our options in terms of how to respond.”
In a separate interview this week, Nolan — speaking on behalf of the CHA, Friends of the Catskill Park, and various neighbors of the project after talking with their legal team — said they’re looking at their current options and timelines for filing Article 78 and other legal proceedings.
Usually, such matters, which seek a reversal of a decision such as Martens’ based on procedural and other matters, must be made within four months.
Nolan said that from what she’s heard, the NYC DEP permits are likely prepared, waiting for the state to finish its part of the process. The big remaining question is whether the towns’ planning boards wait to see what happens with any legal deadlines, and potential proceedings, or start their reviews earlier.
Gitter started out, talking about accompanying matters like a recently failed state legislative bill that would have allowed the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA, which operates state-owned Belleayre Mountain Ski Area) to operate lifts at the resort, as well as help more with the Belleayre Music Festival, canceled for the season.
As for continuing opposition, and lawsuits, Gitter added that as far as he could see, Martens’ comprehensive decision closed off most avenues he could see. “It would be a waste of their money to try and turn this around,” he said.