West Hurley residents upset over prospective school buyer

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Concerns over development of the former West Hurley School drew a standing-room-only crowd to the West Hurley Firehouse Tuesday night, March 19, with local residents listing reports of slumlord charges against developer Kerry Danenberg from New York City tenants, citizen action groups, city building inspectors, and news publications while simultaneously asking town leaders to help them fight the proposed project.

Many made the same points later to the Onteora Central School District board of education, meeting down the road at the Bennett School. Onteora Superintendent Victoria McLaren wrote a response on the issue that appears on Page 10 of this edition.

The West Hurley gathering was an informal open-agenda town hall meeting of the Hurley Town Board, with all members but Barbara Zell in attendance. Right from the start, following a series of opening statements from supervisor John Perry that noted how many more folks were on hand than the last such meeting’s draw “of two people,” questions centered on the pending sale of the old school, closed since the early 2000s, to a Brooklyn-based developer and his partners who have proposed its renovation into 46 condominium units.

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Perry reported, almost immediately, that Onteora School District, the entity selling the property, were holding a meeting that same evening with the issue scheduled to be raised as part of the Public Be Heard segment of their agenda. He said objections to the sale, which has been in a final contract form since last summer but isn’t scheduled to close yet, should be made to the school board.

But that didn’t hold back a crowd that was anxious to let its concerns be known. 

Melinda McKnight, who said her family had been in West Hurley for generations, talked about the difficulties that surround “a community that doesn’t exist,” which has been West Hurley’s lot ever since it lost its main streets to the Ashokan Reservoir a century ago. “We have no sense of belonging with Hurley, we don’t belong with Woodstock,” she added.

Lisa Tumbleson asked about “putting the brakes on this sale,” and why the school district decided to go with who they’ve gone with.

Jana Martin, speaking for the West Hurley Neighborhood Association, presented lists of violations from properties that Danenberg owned in Brooklyn. She read quotes from city officials regarding building abuse, neglect and non-compliance.

Several people asked why Danenberg, his partners, or any representatives weren’t on hand to answer questions from the community they hope to become part of.

Perry answered that, “he doesn’t own the property or have the info on it yet.”

“The community who’s dealt with this developer in Brooklyn are reaching out to us to ensure what happened to them doesn’t happen to West Hurley,” said one woman.

Mold, wells, zoning laws

Others raised questions about the building’s toxicity, having been closed for mold and other issues over the years, and how new wells might affect the community’s other wells, or underlying aquifer. Some spoke about well tests that were underway on the property this week.

“The school district gave the developers authority for that,” Perry said, as people spoke about a drilling company from Pine Bush that had reported pumping 10 gallons a minute from a 440 foot depth, and now needed to check effects on neighboring wells. “I’ll contact Onteora regarding all your concerns regarding the developer.”

Others took up Perry’s offer, speaking about the town board’s commitment to protecting the community in West Hurley, and enforcing the town’s zoning laws.

“There are a lot of things the town can say no to,” offered Andrew Shapiro. 

Someone noted how Danenberg and other partners had previously been scared off a condominium development project at a former school in Rifton in 2016. When one man rose and suggested that the old school could “likely become Section 8 housing,” he proposed the town look into turning it to a community center with pool. He received a warm round of applause.

Perry noted that low income housing was not part of the plans he’d been told of at preliminary meetings on the project last summer.

Gentrification in Brooklyn

Danenberg and his Cedar Development East LLC, represented locally by Kingston attorney Michael Moriello, went to contract with Onteora nearly a year ago with $40,000 down payment on an $800,000 purchase price agreed to by the Onteora School Board in early 2017. According to the contract, the purchase was an “all cash sale,” with no financing. A preliminary meeting between Hurley officials and the Ulster County Planning Board on “general issues” took place on July 6, 2018, with everyone looking at basic systems for the old school campus’ 32,262 square foot Levins building and 11,282 square foot Ryan building, located on 36.3 acres on Cedar Street.

In October 2015, West Hurley School was announced as sold for the purposes of a new Center For The Investigation of Native and Ancient Quarries for $700,000, although the deal fell through. Danenberg had previously reached a $900,000 agreement with the Kingston School District for the purchase of the former Anna Devine Elementary School in the town of Esopus, which he and his partners later walked away from when they ran into difficulties getting needed zoning changes and a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) deal with town officials.

From the start, the school sale’s contract had a 30-day window in the event ten percent of qualified voters in the school district petition to challenge the board’s decision on the sale that would require a passive referendum.

In Brooklyn, Danenberg’s company, Select Real Estate, has been a major force in the gentrification of East Williamsburg and Bushwick, where among other things he sold a 75,000 square foot warehouse that he had bought for $2.7 million and allowed to be converted into a concert venue for $26 million three years ago.

Some have said that a Hudson Valley condo property could be used as a “sweetener” for downstate real estate deals.

Calls to Danenberg and Moriello went unanswered as of press time.

Perry said on Wednesday, March 20 that he was in the process of drafting a letter to the Onteora School Board that they hold off on a closing for their West Hurley property pending completion of an Environmental Impact Statement on Danenberg’s development plans, as well as a chance for the developer to answer questions from the West Hurley community.

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