Project ‘Alive And Kicking’ Says Gitter;
DEC Reports Quiet On The Western Front
2/25/2010 By Brian Powers
If packed houses suggest anticipation, then the overflow crowd at 7:30 in the morning seemed primed for news last week, as proposed Belleayre Resort developer Dean Gitter addressed an Ulster County Chamber of Commerce breakfast at Kingston’s Holiday Inn. It was Gitter’s fourth such update of the past decade to one of his few reliably supportive audiences, and the first time since 2007 that he’s publicly addressed the long-delayed project’s status.
"The Belleayre Resort is alive and kicking and moving nicely towards its reality," said Gitter, adding that while he’s "more enthusiastic than ever, it’s not a done deal."
With no new pronouncement of immanent ground-breaking and fewer references than usual to public opposition to the project, Gitter’s tone seemed uncharacteristically subdued, verging on noncombative. He outlined at length his company’s projections of the project’s economic benefits, essentially unchanged in the many years since they were first presented for public review. And in addressing the controversial Agreement in Principal reached in 2007 between his company Crossroads Ventures, state and city regulators and other parties under former Governor Spitzer’s executive authority, Gitter reiterated its basic sobriety, saying "Spitzer may have taken the tabloid train out of town but nobody ever accused him of being dumb."
He further described that agreement by saying "we are in partnership in the design and operation of the project" with seven of the environmental groups which signed on to the non-binding agreement conceptually allowing expanded development on the company’s western landholdings in exchange for selling its eastern ones to the state. According to Gitter that acquisition is "almost complete." DEC has confirmed that dedicated funds from the state’s Environmental Protection Fund will be available, with the expected price in the $6 million range for just over 1,200 acres. Whether state acquisition of the former Highmount ski area will be included in that transaction remains unclear.
On the larger issue of potential regulatory progress for the project, as of press time DEC indicated it has still not received any submissions from Crossroads subsequent to its 2008 scoping for the Spitzer-AIP proposal. Accordingly, the entire project remains on hold, including public release of the Belleayre Mountain Ski Center’s long awaited Unit Management Plan, pending receipt of the company’s response to questions raised at that time and the resumption of its SEQRA process.
But according to Gitter "we are now completing a totally new SDEIS (Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement)." What that document will contain remains for the moment conjectural, though Gitter has previously indicated it will reflect "as envisioned" the 2007 AIP. While many in attendance at last week’s breakfast had expected a preview of at least some modifications to that plan, the only one announced was a design change for the proposed Highmount Spa and hotel complex. New plans as indicated by an artist’s rendering shown for the first time, call for that complex to be rendered as an underground, earth-sheltered multistory building, to be blasted from and constructed within nearly the existing profile of Belleayre Ridge. The change appears intended to render it "virtually invisible" from the Dry Brook Valley to the south, in response to residents concerns there. According to Gitter, the spa-hotel’s design includes an interior space constructed and planted to reflect "the original mountain as it might have been."
The Spitzer-AIP plan, in total, calls for two major building sites on 760 acres, containing 928 guest and lodging rooms in approximately 55 buildings and entailing about 1.2 million square feet of construction. Both complexes would be directly served by new lifts and trails to be built and operated by the state-owned ski center. Total anticipated costs for the taxpayer-funded portions of the proposed joint project are currently about $69 million. If ultimately permitted, private investment in the project would exceed $400 million, with Gitter indicating he expected to see a reduction in construction costs based on weakness in the regional economy. He also asserted that by the time it was required, "institutional funding will be available."
"I do not intend to move on," said Gitter, "until I have seen the completion of the Belleayre Resort."
In response, the Catskill Heritage Alliance issued a statement saying that Gitter’s remarks contained little new substance and lacked specifics, and holding the company directly responsible for the project’s delays. The group asserts that claimed economic benefits are unsubstantiated and that Crossroads has never addressed 2006 findings by the State Comptroller that it underestimated both environmental impacts and economic risks because of faulty assumptions. It recommends that regulators discontinue actions related to the Spitzer-AIP’s permitting process, pending a market & financial analysis that corrects deficiencies noted by the Comptroller, and pending the public release of commitments both for project financing and from a nationally recognized resort operator.
The group also recommends that DEC move forward promptly with proposed uncontroversial improvements to the ski center that are unrelated to the Crossroads project.
"The issues involved, from new precedents for mountaintop development to construction traffic and municipal tax compensation, they’re all issues of local community impact, and those are our primary concern" said Aaron Bennett, new Regional Director for Catskill Mountainkeeper.
"Thus far, Crossroads refusal to consider parameters of scale more appropriate to our local communities remains a real issue for us. But we’ll just have to wait and see what the company’s really proposing when the SDEIS is finally submitted."
A second outing of Gitter’s current presentation will occur at the Ulster County Legislative Chambers on Tuesday, March 9 at 6:00 PM, under the aegis of the body’s new Tourism Committee head. The presentation has been allotted a full half hour for both discussion and any questions and answers that might ensue.