Closed talks shut out public from Belleayre plan in Catskills

Closed talks shut out public from Belleayre plan in Catskills
 

First published: Sunday, July 22, 2007
Curiously, after eight years of controversy and very public discussion, it seems there's no news these days about Dean Gitter's proposed $400 million development in the Catskills.

But no news about Gitterland, located on either side of the state-owned Belleayre Ski Resort, is not necessarily good news.

There is stuff happening. It's just that negotiations among Gitter's people, state and New York City interests, and a coterie of environmental watchdogs have gone behind closed doors.

the past several months there's been a self-imposed gag order on these talks until something is resolved. The buzz down in the Catskills, though, is that they're close.

It's more than a little disconcerting that closed-door meetings are required to do what is ultimately the people's business. Progress may well happen, but at what price? The fear is that we may not know until it's too late.

Gitter, you'll recall, has been trying since 1999 to develop a mega-resort on either side of Belleayre, but ran into a wall of environmental opposition from the beginning. Now it does seem something Gitter-like will be going up on that mountain after all.

Until an announcement is made, however, what form it might take in terms of footprint and scope remains pure though enticing speculation.

What's moved things along, we're told, is that Governor Spitzer wants it to happen, and he brings the treasury of the kingdom to help out. My friends down at the Phoenicia Times near Belleayre are saying the main deal maker is a proposed "extreme makeover" of the state-owned Belleayre Ski Resort. The number being bandied about is $47 million in state money. Of course, with the gag order in place, there is no confirmation. All of this remains juicy scuttlebutt.

Negotiating stakeholders do include a proven skeptical consortium of environmental interests who have been generally opposed to much of the project, especially its gigantic scale and the impact it would have on the quality of life and the quality of water in the region, as well as on the New York City water supply.

Directly beneath the east side of the proposed development in Shandaken is the Esopus Creek, which empties into the New York City watershed's Ashokan Reservoir. A short distance away is the edge of the rugged forever wild Catskill Park.

The biggest issue environmental opponents have with Gitter's massive proposal is the plan to build on the east side of Belleayre. They want nothing there at all. In fact, they'd like to see Gitter's holdings on the east side turned into forever wild forest preserve.

That would conform to what we can call the "Hinchey Rule." Last summer, after Gitter proposed reducing the size of the original plan to satisfy critics, Congressman Maurice Hinchey countered with the written view there should be no development on the east side at all because it is simply too environmentally sensitive.

Gitter rejected that notion, stating he needed the east side otherwise the development did not make economic sense.

But that was then. The state's proposal to create a dazzling ski center at Belleayre brings all new possibilities to the table. Supposedly, the ski center would feature a lodge at the base of the 2,500-foot mountain, instead of half-way up, as it is now. That would facilitate longer and better trails, and make a perfect fit for Gitter's golf courses and spas, conference centers and multiple types of housing and hotels as a year-around destination resort.

The Catskill Mountain House of the 21st century.

While these negotiations continue, the clock has been stopped on a hearing before a Department of Environmental Conservation administrative law judge to adjudicate a number of issues identified by opponents of the private development. Once that clock is restarted -- heralding a breakdown in closed-door negotiations -- a legal resolution that may or may not result in permits to build could take years of expensive litigation.

So there's plenty of motivation to break the logjam now. Environmental lawyer Marc Gerstman is upbeat, but would only say "We're still talking, after all these months, we're still talking." Dean Gitter's lawyer Dan Ruzow added that he hasn't been so optimistic in years.

Ah, but there are two new flies in the soup. Once neighboring Greene County got wind of the rumors about Belleayre in Ulster County, inter-county friction quickly developed. Greene County is home to two private ski resorts, Hunter Mountain and Ski Windham. The howls are loud and long that what the state supposedly proposes with Belleayre creates unfair competition. They may have a point, we'll see.

So, whatever comes out of these closed-door negotiations is by no means the end of it, only the beginning of the next set of headaches for the state. LeBrun can be reached at 454-5453 or by e-mail at flebrun@timesunion.com.

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