Alternate Reality Sets In
The proposed Belleayre Resort has suffered a major setback.
Whether it means an end to the project or not is too early
to know. But to those who've been saying they believe in the
review process, well, this is the process, whether we like
the way it's turned or we don't.
So what happened? It comes down to two things: the science
and the politics. On the science, Crossroads knew from day
1 exactly what they had to do to meet all state laws and DEP
regulations for the project; nobody changed the rules on them.
They promised that what they proposed would prove a model
of environmental responsibility, and that the quality of the
city's water wouldn't be threatened. They presented what they
said was one of the best Environmental Impact Statements ever
submitted to the state. But what they delivered now appears
to be something less than what was needed, and not just a
bit less. Because for all the money that's been spent on it,
the problems with the DEIS are undeniably massive.
Examples: The project's entire stormwater plan is based on
a model its author says is designed for urban environments
and should never have been used at all. Annual rainfall used
to calculate runoff is based on data from Haines Falls, NY
at 32 inches per year, instead of Belleayre Mountain itself,
at 47 inches, or nearby Slide Mountain at 62 inches. Pesticide
dispersal projections for the golf courses are modeled on
2 + feet of topsoil : actual plans call for using only 6 inches
of it. Crossroads says adequate water is available for the
project: no hydrological studies support this, and experts
from both Trout Unlimited and other groups are prepared to
testify that pumping for the resort will drain existing wells
in Pine Hill and Big Indian, draw down the streams and irrevocably
degrade or destroy the fisheries. These are just a few of
literally dozens of major problems identified, from traffic
undercounts to fiscal shortfalls for the impacted towns, from
housing shortages to noise and construction issues, and from
soil erosion to community character impacts.
While the city's response to the DEIS does make the document
seem replete with errors that skew statistical data in the
developer's favor and fail to provide critical information,
DEP's wasn't the only report submitted that reads that way;
there were two others equally technical and equally critical.
New York State's Watershed Attorney General submitted a massive
set of comments that are scientifically every bit as devastating
to the developer as the City's objections. And the coalition
of six local and five regional and national groups that filed
for party status did so with a substantive critique of about
20 major issues, including some related to the project's SEQRA
process itself. After an "issues conference" to
determine legal standing of the parties are the adjudicatory
hearings, a formal trial to substantiate or refute the developer's
claims and conclusions, and form the factual basis for the
state's eventual decisions.
Then there are the political issues, starting with the fact
that there is no statewide constituency for the project, whereas
there is one for the quality of the drinking water for half
the state's population. Governor Pataki's hosting the Republican
convention this summer; we think he still wants to be President
one day and apart from being pro-choice, his best hope of
electability is a decent environmental record which the approval
of this project would jeopardize. We predict that whatever
happens in the SEQRA process and with or without future modifications
to the project, no decision to green-light the Belleayre Resort
will be made while Pataki is in office.
Within the watershed, however, the usual voices of overreaction
have already been heard from on these events, complete with
theatrical language like the city's trying to "depopulate
the Catskills," and threats to withdraw from the MOA.
We don't believe the watershed communities stand to benefit
from doing that, any more than we believe they actually would
do it over this issue on which no positive consensus exists
amongst the watershed towns, and 1,200 people showed up at
local public hearings to speak 8 to1 against the project.
Under these circumstances we'd be surprised if the Coalition
of Watershed Towns chose to risk its own significant credibility
defending the work of Crossroads' scientists against the state's,
the city's, and scores of independent experts from around
the country. Given the specific, technical problems in the
DEIS, we hope the Coalition won't be building a bonfire over
this with the watershed's political capital, which we desperately
need to hang onto.
DEP may have crossed a policy line it shouldn't have in suggesting
that large new developments may be inherently inappropriate
under the MOA. While the city's entitled to their opinion
on that subject, the MOA is a regulatory document, not a planning
tool. Yes, the MOA has its problems; it's massively under-funded
for one thing, but asserting that the solutions include declaring
war against the city just doesn't make sense. Because if the
MOA were to disappear tomorrow -and it isn't going to - nothing
at all would change with respect to the regulations all of
us in the watershed live under. The only things that would
change would be our prospects for better, fairer compensation,
and a decent problem-solving relationship with them.
If DEP has effectively killed the Belleayre Resort project
- and we don't know that it has - it will have done
so on the one and only legitimate basis it has for doing so:
its legal responsibility to protect the City's water supply.
If Crossroads has failed in presenting its case for doing
that adequately, there's no one to blame but themselves. Firing
off salvos at DEP, the State Attorney General's office, or
the Catskill Preservation Coalition is just a distraction
at this point. With the project's issues conference just weeks
away, Crossroads needs to determine its willingness to rethink
the project, verify its financing commitments, and decide
whether its approach to the future might include a significantly
rescaled version of its initial plans. That would be the kind
of news we hope to be able to report... though only the coming
months will tell.