|By Alan Wechsler, Albany Times Union,
N.Y.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sep. 6, 2007 - KINGSTON -- Eight years after plans for a massive resort in the Catskill Mountains were first announced, developers have done what many thought impossible.
On Tuesday, they signed an agreement with environmentalists paving the way to build a reduced version of Belleayre Resort at Catskill Park.
After years of acrimony on both sides, smiles and handshakes abounded as Gov. Eliot Spitzer disclosed the news Wednesday morning at the Holiday Inn in Kingston.
It was the governor's staff that helped broker the deal with various parties during closed-door meetings held at the Capitol since February. And it was Spitzer himself who broke the news to a packed room of local officials, environmentalists and the press.
"The compromises that were struck were very real," he said. "The opportunities here are enormous."
Standing behind him, as one, were people who for years had talked to each other mostly through testimony at hearings or via news releases and sound bites. In the center of the group was Dean Gitter, the public face of Crossroads Ventures LLC, which wants to build the $400 million project at the border of Ulster and Delaware counties, in the towns of Shandaken and Middletown.
In 1999, Gitter announced plans for Belleayre, a behemoth project that included two high-end hilltop hotels, each surrounded by an 18-hole golf course and private homes and town houses. The buildings were planned for either side of Belleayre Mountain Ski Center, a state-owned resort in the western Catskills off Route 28.
Environmentalists and many neighbors were aghast. The project, they said, would bring too much traffic, alter the small valley towns below, cause pollution and erosion, and ruin the view from the nearby mountains.
The New York City Department of Environmental Protection, which zealously guards the mountains as the source of the city's unfiltered drinking water, said it would never give the project a required permit.
And the state mandated hearings on a half-dozen issues associated with the proposal -- a time-consuming process that threatened to bog down a project that was already years behind schedule.
It seemed as if there was no room for compromise -- until a new governor took office in January. Spitzer, who said he learned to ski at Belleayre when he was 3, put Judith Enck, deputy secretary for environment, in charge. Over the following eight months, she spent hours and hours meeting with the parties at the state Capitol, trying to mediate a compromise.
On Friday, one was reached.
The plans call for no development in the eastern half of the project. The hotel that would have been built there will be relocated to the west of another hotel to be built, known as Wildacres, outside the Catskill Park boundary.
Meanwhile, the project footprint will be reduced. Homes will be clustered together; miles of roads will be reduced by half. The golf course will be organic, with the use of pesticides limited only to mold or other infestations. One of the hotels will be built to exacting environmentally friendly standards.
The state will pay $14 million to buy land to remain undeveloped and to expand the Belleayre ski center to connect it to Wildacres. And the city's Department of Environmental Protection has not only signed off on the deal, but has also agreed to let Belleayre Resort tap into its underutilized water-treatment center nearby.
The new project will cost about $150 million more than original estimates, due mainly to rising costs of materials and labor, officials said.
"This has been a trying eight years," Gitter told the crowd during Wednesday's announcement.
And after all that work, some groups still aren't satisfied.
"We feel it's still too oversized for the area," said Judith Wyman, chairwoman of Friends of Catskill Park, one of three environmental organizations that refused to sign the agreement. The others were the Catskill Heritage Alliance and the Pine Hill Water District Coalition.
The Sierra Club has not signed on, but Crossroads officials expect approval once the club's board sees the agreement.
Wyman said the holdouts were worried about the project's impact. "This will double our population," she said. "The chain-reaction impact on the local community will be immense."
Officials say part of the plan calls for environmentally friendly buses to transport workers from Kingston, the nearest city, which is about 45 minutes to the east.
The project is expected to bring 1,800 construction jobs to the community and 450 full-time jobs once the place is operational -- perhaps as soon as 2010. It's expected to pump $4 million in sales and property taxes into the local economy.
Crossroads Ventures still has work to do: another environment assessment, more hearings, and permits that need to be obtained from state and local governments. Nevertheless, proponents are hopeful it's all downhill from here.
"This is showing that development will coexist with environmental concerns," said Shandaken Supervisor Bob Cross. "If this project would have failed, it would have sent a negative message to any developers in the watershed." Alan Wechsler can be reached at 454-5469 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Give and take
When backers of the Belleayre Resort at Catskill Park signed an agreement with environmentalists who had opposed the project for years, they agreed to a number of changes. Here are highlights of the new proposal:
The eastern half (and more environmentally sensitive) of the proposal will be abandoned. The state will buy 1,200 acres to remain undeveloped. A high-end hotel planned there will be built to the west, outside the park.
The state-owned Belleayre Mountain Ski Center will be expanded to connect with Wildacres, one of the project's two proposed hotels.
The revised development minimizes construction on steep slopes, reducing erosion.
The amount of land to be developed will be reduced from 573 acres to 273 acres.
Roadways are reduced from 8 miles to 3 miles.
The number of structures on the site has been reduced from 121 to 77.
There will be one golf course, not two. The course will be run organically, avoiding pesticides except for emergencies.
The state will improve public transportation along Route 28 to encourage employees to commute, and will pay $500,000 to local groups to promote street and building improvements in nearby hamlets.
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