The towns of Shandaken and Middletown have, on January 13 and 14, respectively, approved the Special Use Permit and Site Plan Permit applied for by Crossroads Ventures for the proposed Belleayre Resort project, planned for property that straddles the two towns. As the project inches toward construction, Kathy Nolan of the Catskill Heritage Alliance (CHA) expressed dismay that the permits were granted in the face of a lawsuit against the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) initiated by CHA, claiming the state did not sufficiently study the project documentation before signing off on its environmental impact statement.
Nolan said CHA is investigating whether the decisions of the planning boards merit some further legal action, since the permits will be invalidated if the lawsuit against the state is successful. She also questioned whether the towns’ permitting process had been thorough enough, alleging “an uncritical trust in Crossroads and in findings by the state, even though those findings are under challenge by CHA.”
In 1999, Crossroads proposed building three hotels and two golf courses on the side of Belleayre Mountain in western Ulster County and eastern Delaware County, adjacent to the Belleayre Ski Resort. The plans have since been scaled back to two hotels and one golf course. Crossroads maintains that the resort will provide economic benefits to the region, while opponents predict environmental damage and an undesirable alteration to the character of local communities.
Nolan suggested that the lengthy review process may have worn down the attention of the planning boards. “Especially in Shandaken, there has been a loss of focus over the 16 years of project review,” she said. “It’s a big and complex project, but there have also been delays, not all of them by the town or the opposition but also by Crossroads. They made revisions, and they spent time trying to obtain a higher price for land they were selling to the state. It’s hard for the public and the reviewing boards, especially the volunteer boards, to track the changes and maintain a focus.”
‘Good community work’
However, Shandaken planning board chair Don Brewer felt the board did a good job of reviewing the application. “We took it seriously, and we had Crossroads work on a lot of things that neighbors were concerned about and board members were concerned about. It’s good community work we did.”
The board’s job, said Brewer, was to determine whether the application met the requirements of the town’s zoning and building codes. “We’ve been reviewing this project for about two years now,” he pointed out. “Chazen, as our consultant engineer, reviewed everything the state gave us as to their findings, and we had to make a findings statement as well. We approved the permits with certain conditions listed.”
Crossroads still has to obtain approvals through extensive reviews by other agencies, such as New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the Ulster County Health Department, the New York State Highway Department. But, said Brewer, “The main portion of the review that’s taken over 16 years is done. I think they broke the record for environmental review. There have been many changes since the start. It looks pretty good now as far as our code goes.”
Gary Gailes, spokesperson for Crossroads, commented, “Clearly we’re very happy that this process has been finally allowed to reach this stage. I do believe, given the 7-0 vote in Shandaken and the 6-1 vote in Middletown, the planners were satisfied that Crossroads has done a deal without environmental impacts.”
Qualifying for state subsidies
Meanwhile, the CHA suit is proceeding with submission of various papers from CHA, DEC, and Crossroads to “develop the record,” said Nolan. “Over the next few weeks, there will be a process to come to an agreement about which of those documents will constitute the record, with a review of the legal issues and the environmental review process in front of a judge.” The process is expected to take many months.
CHA’s position is that the state did not adequately study the one-hotel option that would limit the project to the Wildacres hotel, at the base of the mountain, plus a golf course. Nolan said, “We feel we’ve submitted very strong materials to show that the smaller project would have a better chance of succeeding economically than the larger project, which increases Crossroads’ risk of failure.” The larger build involves over 1000 rooms, making construction costs higher and environmental risk greater. Construction of the Highmount hotel, higher on the mountain, will require blasting in a region of fragile soils. The planning board documents, however, support Crossroads’ contention that it needs the larger project to attract investors. Nolan observed that the size also qualifies the project for subsidies from New York State that require creating a certain number of jobs.
Gailes objected to Nolan’s assertion that the planning boards acted improperly by granting permits while the lawsuit is in progress. “The lawsuit brought against the DEC provides no injunctive relief,” he stated. “The planning boards or whoever else might be involved are free to move forward. If the lawsuit were to succeed, which I don’t believe it will, it would negate the decisions reached by the two planning boards. But the fact that there is a lawsuit doesn’t prevent the towns from taking the actions they took.”
Nolan, while acknowledging that the lawsuit does not halt all other action, said, “If they start building, we could ask for injunctive relief. We didn’t feel we had to request it earlier. But granting permits by the towns theoretically puts Crossroads in a position to go forward unless someone intervenes to stop them.”