The Ulster County Legislature this week approved a $3 million property purchase of a former apple orchard in the Town of New Paltz as the future site of a state-of-the-art emergency management and government operations center. The land is owned by Wildberry Lodge, LLC.
Six acres of the 57.3-acre property on Paradies Lane near Exit 18 of the New York State Thruway will be used for the siting of the facility, which will expand the county’s E-911 Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) Center and provide a centralized hub for emergency management and other county government functions. The scope of the plan will likely be revealed once the county begins seeking bids for design and construction. The Paradies Lane site was selected from among ten potential properties. The existing facility is located at Golden Hill. The remainder of the 57.3-acre site is being reserved for future development, but Legislator Eve Walter (D-New Paltz) quashed rumors that it’s going to be dedicated to affordable housing. The leading idea at this time, the legislator reported, is for storing of buses.
The topic brought one comment during the Legislature’s public session at its meeting on Tuesday, November 15, with Marlboro Fire Department Assistant Chief Mike Troncillito favoring the plan.
“Let me tell you something, the gals and guys that are up there 24-7, 365 do one hell of a job,” Troncillito said of the staff at the Ulster County Emergency Services Department. “When you have a natural disaster, the county exec calls a state of emergency, you need a place for all these people to meet and to do their job and to respond to the crisis.”
The Legislature voted 21-1 to approve the land purchase, with Joseph Maloney (D-Saugerties) the sole dissenter, and Herb Litts (R-Lloyd and Plattekill) abstaining. Maloney said his disapproval was about the property, not the project.
“It’s a bad deal on behalf of the taxpayer,” Maloney said, noting that the property is a brownfield due to pesticides used during its former life as an apple orchard. “There’s all kinds of literature out there right now and studies being done by environmental groups that say the regulations that are now out there by the state are not sufficient enough in remediating pesticides from old apple orchards.”
Maloney compared himself to Don Quixote, 17th-century author Miguel de Cervantes’ famous protagonist whose idealism is viewed as insanity by others.
“That’s what I get turned into up here, because no one else is willing to say this is a bad frigging deal,” Maloney said. “At some point I’m going to get through and I’m going to change the pay-for-play culture in this county, but this is a terrible deal.”
Some legislators bristled at Maloney’s claims of corruption and backroom deals.
“I appreciate that there can be differences of opinion with the information that we’ve had in front of us as a Legislature, but I’ve been at multiple, multiple committee meetings where this project has been presented in ways that were not just captured (in Maloney’s description),” said Kathy Nolan (D-Denning, Hardenburgh, Olive and Shandaken).
Maloney wasn’t alone in his unease at the land purchase, with both Manna Jo Greene (D-Marbletown and Rosendale) and Walter expressing concerns over the property itself before voting yes.
The $3 million price-tag was lower than the initial proposed purchase price of $3,750,000, the result of a second appraisal of the property.
On top of the purchase price, the county is expected to spend up to $1 million to clean up the property, along with roughly $25 million to build the facility. The design and construction phase is expected to be completed during 2023.
Fought-over parcel of land
Longtime residents know the 57-acre parcel bounded by the Thruway and Paradies Lane as the “Plesser property,” which might be the most fought-over parcel of land throughout New Paltz.
Most recently, Steve Turk, co-owner and operator of the Turk Hospitality Group, had proposed the Wildberry Lodge for the site, a 90-room Napa-style resort with a butterfly conservatory. Two earlier projects proposed for this land — Walmart in the 1990s and Crossroads just after the turn of the century — resulted in strong grassroots opposition and were ultimately scrapped.
The late David Porter wrote a book about fighting against a proposal to build a Walmart there; that effort was quashed because a hookup to the village water supply was denied. In the 20-aughts a group of developers wanted to build a complex called “Crossroads,” a mix of retail and housing; critics noted that no one working in those retail jobs could have afforded to live in the high-end housing on the same property, but it was the real estate crash of 2008 that brought that to an end without fanfare. Then, in 2015, Sam Plesser finally sold the parcel, to Steve and Shelley Turk who own Rocking Horse Ranch in Lloyd and SplashDown Beach in Fishkill, for $2 million.
While the Turks had high hopes for creating a hotel and water park on the site, and didn’t face the stiff opposition which marred prior proposals, the problems they faced seem to have overwhelmed the business case for a tourist spot right off the Thruway. There were initially high hopes that all the water needs for the site could be addressed by drilling into an aquifer 600 feet down, and that there would be water to sell into the local municipal system, too. However, tests revealed that what had once been potable water had at some point become incredibly salty. It’s still not clear how or when the water was contaminated, but those results — along with planned zoning changes being considered for that part of town — seem to have contributed to a pivot from water park to butterfly conservancy in the plans, along with a hotel, spa and other amenities. The Turks were also seeking tax breaks, and when the project was briefly considered by Industrial Development Agency members in 2018, it only reinforced that these are unpopular in New Paltz.
The new zoning carved out a special exception, a “planned resort overlay,” to allow for the project to be brought to completion. That zoning was finalized in 2019, and it’s possible that the project would have moved forward but for the subsequent pandemic.
Any further controversy about how to develop this property will have a different character, because once the land is county property the plans will not be subject to local zoning or review. The new facility is expected to be up and running in 2024.
Praise for the project
The land purchase was praised by local lawmakers in a press release from the office of the county executive.
“After extensive assessment and consideration of financial and environmental impacts, the Legislature took a critical step forward by approving a site to house our proposed state-of-the-art Government Operations Center,” acting Ulster County Executive Johanna Contreras said. “This facility will enable our tireless first responders and emergency management team to provide high-quality emergency services to Ulster County residents at their moments of greatest need. It is centrally located within Ulster County and will allow us to better serve the southern parts of our county. We are proud to have the overwhelming support of the Legislature and look forward to making continued progress on this essential initiative.”
Also in the press release, Deputy Majority Leader Abe Uchitelle (D-City of Kingston) said the county’s emergency infrastructure needed an upgrade.
“Ensuring public safety is one of the most critical functions that county government provides. When a resident of Ulster County comes face-to-face with the worst day of their life, our incredible team of 911 operators and first-responders answer the call,” Uchitelle said. “As recent ice storms and tornadoes have shown us, our climate is changing and our public safety infrastructure must evolve. I am excited for us to modernize and harden the infrastructure that keeps our community safe as our county responds to the new generation of life-threatening challenges that surely lie ahead.”
Everett Erichsen, the county’s director of emergency services, said the new facility will make emergency response far more effective across Ulster County.
“The Ulster County Emergency Communications Center (911) answers over 130,000 emergency and non-emergency calls a year — some of these include individuals experiencing what several have referred to‘the worst moments of their life,” Erichsen said. “With the critical technology changes of Next Generation 911 right around the corner, making the necessary upgrades now to our County Public Safety Answering Point and bringing all the divisions within the Department of Emergency Services under one roof is essential to ensuring that we continue to provide the highest level of excellence in critical services to the residents and visitors of our County.”
— with additional reporting by Terence P Ward