| By FRED LeBRUN
First published: Sunday, March 2, 2008
| There was some movement this past week on the decades-old plan for developer Dean Gitter's proposed Belleayre Resort in the Catskills, and the much newer but related plans by the state Department of Environmental Conservation to renovate and enlarge the adjoining Belleayre Mountain, a publicly-owned ski center.
Whether that movement proves to be forward, sideways or backward, only time can tell. But any movement in this horrendously long and tedious process leading to development is worth pondering.
On Thursday, the DEC unveiled what is called the final scoping document for the two projects. This is bureaucrat speak for roughly defining the issues that must answered in detail by the developers as a necessary step of the state's environmental quality review process. Until this mine field is successfully negotiated, no permits can be issued for actual development.
Now, why I say the movement can go in any direction is this: The scoping document can set such a high bar that it actually discourages developers from going forward. Or, it can set a low bar and give a wink and a nod.
It appears, the 150-plus-page document does a little of both.
Casting a deep shadow on this seemingly objective process is the fact the DEC helped to negotiate an agreement last September with Gitter that broke a logjam that had existed for years. It gave Gitter a rough blueprint on how to go forward. DEC and a number of participating environmental groups signed the agreement. Several groups didn't, and we'll come back to that in a minute.
Here we had the DEC brokering the agreement. The same DEC that manages Belleayre for the state. The same DEC that as developer will prepare answers to those questions posed in the scoping document -- questions it wrote -- and the same DEC that as regulator will pass judgment on the answers.
Small wonder skepticism runs deep among critics. They justifiably suggest that what we're really looking at here, beyond the window dressing of a heavy document, is a very elaborate done deal.
A number of those environmental and local groups that continue to object to Gitterland, notably the Catskill Heritage Alliance, have sued the DEC on that very basis, that it wears far too many hats to be reliable and objective. The suit is pending in state Supreme Court.
That said, high marks go to the DEC anyway for asking all the right questions of itself in the half of the scoping document related to expansion of the ski resort. Well, almost all the right questions.
We still don't have an adequate view of the footprint that will be cast by the state's new Belleayre Ski Resort, which will include the neighboring defunct 78-acre Highmount ski operation. Exactly how many miles of new trail will be added, and how many new new lifts and how big a new base lodge and so on. This matters a lot.
From day one, the too-large scale of Gitterland was its undoing. Now it would be smaller. But the state proposes a grandiose expansion of a public facility that will provide Gitter with a tourist destination right next door.
There is so much that rankles over that arrangement, it's hard to know where to start.
Personally, I don't think the state should be in the ski resort business in the first place. That said, keeping the scale modest is crucial. Using data Belleayre has worked up for the scoping document to show a greater public demand is hugely suspect because the ski center perpetually issues deeply discounted tickets.
So, using popularity as a justification for expansion is bogus. Besides, Belleayre annually runs at a substantial loss, a loss taxpayers subsidize. With expansion, it will lose even more.
As a business venture, a ski resort in the southern end of the snow belt seems especially idiotic to me as we head for a predicted warming trend caused by climate change. Why in the world should state taxpayers not only support such a venture, but throw more money into it?
Another irritation that also casts a pall on this shady deal, is that the September agreement apparently included this major expansion of Belleayre as part of the sweetener. Public money spent to help a private developer profit, which in a word, stinks.
The Adirondack Mountain Club also notes as a legal objection, the view that Highmount can't be bought into the Catskill forest preserve one day, and then become an operational addition to Belleayre the next. There's a constitutional process to follow, says the ADK, and that's being avoided. We'll be curious to see if the DEC chides itself over this.
But as I noted, all these considerations aside, we can't be sure the scoping document offers long-delayed relief for Gitter. Even a casual look at the questions he needs to answer about his development, which include evaluating the carbon footprint and the impact on global warming, suggests lots of new hoops and obstacles that must be negotiated. That could take a long time and plenty of money.
The multi-hatted DEC, of course, knows it's being watched very closely by friend and foe. So predictably it's moving very carefully, But I am also reminded that creating an arduous path in the environmental quality review process for a developer is a long-time favorite way of the state's hoping it all just goes away.
Sometimes it does. Now, wouldn't that be the best. Including expansion of Belleayre, incidentally.
Fred LeBrun can be reached at 454-5453 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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