Shrugging off several problematic infrastructure issues, Ulster County sees much it likes in a 57.3-acre former apple orchard contiguous to the Thruway exit in New Paltz. County legislative chair Tracey Bartels signed at the closing Tuesday, March 22.
The county government paid three million dollars for the property, on which an emergency operations center (EOC) will be located. It has so far committed $35 million and counting to an operations center with up-to-date computer and communications capabilities.
“It’s not that there was a lack of looking at additional sites,” said deputy county executive Chris Kelly, “including county-owned. It was that this property still presented the best opportunity for the county.”
County executive Jen Metzger and three of her staff explained the reasons for transaction at an interview last week at the county office building in Kingston. The most recent estimate of the cost of the new EOC provided to the county recently caught the attention of Bartels — and Metzger. The estimated price of $24.9 million provided last October 2022 had ballooned to $34.6 million this month. About three-quarters of that additional spending, county staff explained at the interview, will be spent on new equipment for data processing and communications.
With some help from director of emergency services Everett Erichsen, assistant deputy executive Evan Menist listed some essentials for siting emergency operation centers.
“There are four key pieces of redundancy,” explained Menist, “that you need on any given site. And this is the only site that had them all. So first, phone lines. There are two trunks here.”
“From New Paltz and Clintondale,” added Erichsen. “Those are the two central offices. And then they’re fed by larger offices.”
“The second is power redundancy,” continued Menist, “not just from the microgrid that the county executive is talking about creating. There are two circuits on the property. If one circuit goes, you’ve got the other.”
The third piece is the fiber. “There’s a lot of fiber going up and down the Thruway,” explained Erichsen, “and so there’s fiber coming in from two separate locations as well.
And the final piece is transportation ingress/egress.
If there’s a disaster
“If there’s a disaster and we need to bring resources in, state resources, federal resources, whatever needs to come in to assist us handle the incident, this becomes the staging location and headquarters,” Erichsen said. “So now, when we want to bring these resources, and we have to track them, we have to have accountability on them. And when we go to push those resources out to wherever it may be — and it could be a countywide response to every resident in this county — the best way to push them out is through the avenues that are actually located right here. You have the Thruway, 32, 44/55, 299. It’s very easy to deploy these resources to wherever they need to go to assist our residents. So that’s one of many reasons why that location is big.”
Metzger pointed out that smaller highways are more prone to closures. Siting the new EOC next to the Thruway has clear advantages. “The main reason why our county has had more natural disasters than other places,” said Metzger, “is because of the flooding issue. Roads are routinely out in these major storms, and the Thruway, as far as I know, doesn’t flood.”
Emergency vehicles don’t need to operate from the same place as the call center, and response personnel can be dispatched over phone lines, Internet or radio. Operational satellite centers could be set up across the county in police substations, firehouses and hospital parking lots — or even convenient warehouses.
Tracey Bartels hesitates
When the matter of the impending property closing came across her desk a few weeks ago, legislative chair Bartels at first delayed signing off on the purchase. “It gets a little sticky,” said Bartels. “There’s not a clear mechanism for me not to sign because the thing that I’m being asked to sign is the purchase-and-sale agreement for the property, which was approved by the legislature.”
The original estimate of the cost of the project, including the purchase of the land, had been provided by Alfandre Architecture, Urbahn Architects and GPI, who together acted as consultants for the county.
“They were part of the group that presented the numbers back in October,” remembered Bartels, “where they presented sort of just one-liners, like site, geothermal wells, construction. That’s it. That’s when the land acquisition was $3.5 million. Remember, we got it down to three million. No small feat.”
The first appraisal submitted to the county, performed by Goldman Appraisal Service, had come in at $4.3 million — with an unusual caveat. It had been rendered with “a hypothetical condition of the completion of the remediation of the site.” That is, the appraisal submitted was for the projected value of the land if it were pristine.
In response, Bartels organized her own appraisal, performed by Ackerly and Hubbell. They came back with a value of $1.2 million. They also estimated the cost of site remediation at a million dollars for the brownfields and $50,000 for a buried tank which had leaked gas and oil on the property.
But anybody can buy an appraisal that will tell them exactly what they want to hear. And so the price more favorable to seller Steve Turk was whittled down.
What had given Bartels pause was not the pricetag, but the rumors that the estimated cost of the project had been rising dramatically. “We thought originally, it would probably be 15 percent more than estimated,” said Bartels. “We know that it’s a competitive and costly world out there. Right. But they came back, and they were 33 percent over.”
The reasons for the cost escalation were at that point unclear. Bartels called a special meeting of the full legislature and hauled all the consultants up to the county office building to hear about the reasons for the climbing estimate.
“There’s a point in the life of a project,” said Bartels, “where the train has left the station, but I wanted everybody to have the opportunity to know that this project, in terms of its cost is different than they thought it was.”
What drives up costs?
Deputy executive Chris Kelly explained the reasons for the price increase of the project.
“What was presented was a construction and a site-to-site costs,” said Kelly. “So [originally] when we were comparing properties, we were saying here’s a general 16,000-square-foot footprint, and this is what it would generally cost to build that all in with the site included.
“What we’re going through now is going through all the different parts. Say for your public-safety answering point — where your workers sit for their shift with all the screens and all the different equipment — that is your 911 system. That’s two and a half million dollars right there. Then it’s going to be all of the associated servers, the wiring, the climate control, the security, all of those different aspects. That’s what starts to drive costs.”
The new project numbers were provided on this occasion by Trophy Point, yet another consultant retained by the county. Over the course of a project, consultants are a little like dance partners. They can be selected or changed, but tend to multiply if someone else is buying the drinks.
The new costs given the legislature by Trophy Point distinguished themselves from the initial cost estimate supplied to the county by being an itemized presentation.
In its search for the most appropriate location for the EOC, the county narrowed its final list to eleven possibilities, including among others two sites at Golden Hill, two at iPark 87, the city-owned Kingston Business Park. and of course the eventual winner, given the moniker Paradies Lane.
A county site ranking summary included safety, environmental screening, utilities, site characteristics, lot configuration, accessibility and availability. All seven metrics were given equal weight. Top score for each item was 4.0, and the lowest item score was 1.0.
Guess what? With a total score of 24.0, Paradies Lane was first, edging out Golden Hill Adaptive Reuse by a tenth of a point. The Plesser parcel received a higher-than-average score in the environmental screening.
Though the exercise was a useful tool, no one in their right mind would depend on so blunt an instrument to make so important a decision.
One of the architects on the project who answered questions at the legislature meeting, Christopher Young, emphasized that the design process was only 30 percent complete. That didn’t mean that the total cost presented might change by a similar percentage, he cautioned.
“At some point,” said deputy executive Kelly, “we’re going to end up in October with bid documents. That’s what goes out for construction. Between now and then, the county executive is going to sign off on the design. It’s not signed off on yet. It’s going to be the nerve center of emergency response for the county. What do we need to be able to accomplish that? For the next 30 years?”
Even with an itemized presentation, some costs remain excluded from the $34.6-million number. Labor agreements, soil remediation, soft costs like design fees, and a construction contingency — which as a rule of thumb inflates the final costs by as much as 15 percent.
Estimates for the cleanup of the tainted soil for the portion of the land where the proposed 11,300-square-foot facility would be built might run in the neighborhood of $100,000. Remediation estimates for the usable parts of the site vary widely, with the county government figuring a tentative ballpark number of $300,000 and some environmental groups predicting seven figures.
And then there is the brackish aquifer. The property slopes away to the south, with a ridge rising up on the east. There’s plenty of water, and wells could be built. But will the water be potable? Nearby, oil and gas had leaked into the earth from a gas station’s improperly maintained tank buried in the ground. This the DEC is also familiar with.
The Village of New Paltz already provides water (and a potential sewer line) to a small Town of New Paltz water district at South Ohioville Road. The situation is different at Exit 18 in New Paltz than at Exit 19 in Kingston, where the county has made a two-million-dollar contribution to an under-the-Thruway water line in the Town of Ulster to serve the former Quality Inn facility, where the county plans to provide social services to indigent or troubled area residents.
New Paltz village mayor Tim Rogers is amenable to talking about water supply with the county, but would have problems with adding county wastewater to the village’s capacity-constrained wastewater treatment plant. The county expects to build an on-site drainage field for the EOC.
Deputy county executive said options were being explored to supply water for drinking, cleaning dishes and showering. “We’re still investigating all potential resources that we can bring to the site,” Kelly explained. “We’re looking at either an in-ground tank, or we’re looking at the potential of accessing the Village of New Paltz public water system. The ability to access a public water system would be massive. I don’t know of anyone that wouldn’t want to do that if you could.”
The county plans berms to provide additional security around the EOC.
Expenses, some anticipated and others not, are tallied up. The steady drip of necessity fills the bucket higher. Choices add up.
But the hour is late, and the county needs its new EOC. The purchase agreement is signed. And Steve Turk can wash his hands of the soil of his land.
It’s said county executive Metzger envisions a field of solar panels built across the empty acres of the brownfield beyond the operations center. A new productive life for a much-maligned landscape.
Other development options are being considered.
Say what you will about Steve Turk, but the man was able to unload a 57.3-acre land parcel diagnosed with manganese, lead, arsenic and DDT to a county government for three million dollars.
Then again, it could be considered unlucky that he bought the land in the first place. The majority of the contamination comes from the way an apple orchard was treated with pesticides.
Within the past decade, Turk had ambitious plans to open a water park and hotel, a butterfly conservatory, an outdoor amphitheater at the site. But land-use regulations provided complex environmental hoops for the developer to leap through. Financing proved hard to get. Turk’s plans were stalled, and eventually the Wildberry Lodge project died.
As for Jen Metzger, she’s left to handle a problem she inherited. Having decided to bite the bullet in support of the New Paltz location for the EOC, like it or not she now owns it.
If heaven forefend there’s a major disaster in Ulster County, people will be complaining that emergency help was slow in coming. What are we paying taxpayer money for if not for county services?
If there’s no major emergency, people will be complaining that EOC was all a boondoggle. Why did the county waste all that taxpayer money?