Shandaken gets one more chance to weigh in on Belleayre Resort

Above: The first of a three-part video from the Shandaken Planning Board's public hearing on Crossroads' proposed Belleayre Resort project. Source: Town of Shandaken's YouTube channel

For the past fifteen years, the public debate surrounding the Belleayre Resort project, a 629-unit luxury resort slated to straddle the line between the towns of Shandaken and Middletown next to the Belleayre Ski Center, has been fierce and bitter. 

But at a public hearing held Monday, Jan. 12 by the Town of Shandaken's Planning Board, at which the board took public comments about resort developer Crossroads Ventures' application for a special use permit from the town, little of that public acrimony was on display. There was plenty of standing and sitting room among the crowd of roughly 50 people who gathered for the hearing. Just 14 people spoke, there was little heckling, and the meeting lasted only about an hour. 

Speakers were fairly evenly divided between project supporters and critics. The list of speakers contained several names familiar to anyone who has followed the ongoing debate: Kathy Nolan and Matt Frisch of the Catskill Heritage Alliance; Marty Gailes of Shandaken's Parks and Recreation Committee (and the wife of project coordinator Gary Gailes); Carol O'Beirne of the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce; Brian Powers, former publisher of the now-defunct Phoenicia Times and a longtime foe of Crossroads' Dean Gitter.

Many of the resort project's supporters expressed amazement at how long and byzantine the process of reviewing the resort has been since it was first proposed in 1999. 

"Back then, I had more hair," quipped the shiny-pated Ward Todd, president of the Ulster County Chamber of Commerce, drawing a few laughs from the crowd. "Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine that in 2015 we'd still be standing here talking about the possibility of building this resort."

Because the resort is planned for a steep mountainside inside New York City's unfiltered watershed, the environmental impacts of the project have been under especially intense scrutiny by state and city officials. Plans for the resort, and for improvements to the adjacent state-owned Belleayre Ski Center, have generated thousands of pages of environmental impact analysis, and been extensively pored over by officials at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and New York City Department of Environmental Protection.

Highmount resident Roy Dignes, who owns property adjacent to the proposed resort and is a "strong supporter" of the project, said that more than enough review had already been done. 

"The only ones who have not yet weighed in are the United Nations and Rev. Al Sharpton," he said. 

The resort project has undergone much transformation since its original concept. Thanks to a 2007 agreement between New York State, New York City, project backers and environmental groups, the resort has been significantly downsized -- the project now includes just one golf course, not two, and some environmentally sensitive slopes originally slated for development have been removed from the project footprint.

Nolan, speaking on behalf of the Catskill Heritage Alliance, a group that has long been critical of the resort project, urged planning board members not to rubber-stamp the project. 

"I watched last week a very careful and thoughtful 20-minute deliberation" by the town Planning Board over whether an applicant's lot line should be moved 50 feet, Nolan said. "This project deserves the same scrutiny."

Powers told the Planning Board that the project developer's estimated financial figures didn't add up. 

"I think there are huge issues with how this project is taxed," he said. "The figures in these documents are not right, or correct, or reasonable, or fair. It's going to be your job to do something about it."

Several of the resort's critics requested more opportunity for public participation in the review process.

At the end of the hearing, the planning board voted unanimously to close the hearing, but to leave the record open for written comments another ten days. The planning board will accept written comments on Crossroads' application for a special use permit until Wednesday, Jan. 21. 

No decision at the town level yet 

Until the state DEC has signed off on the project, planning boards in the towns of Shandaken and Middletown cannot act on the developer's applications.

Staffers at the DEC charged with reviewing the Belleayre Resort project have completed their review, but the agency has not yet issued the final environmental impact statement, and cannot do so until a judge at the DEC's Office of Hearings and Mediation makes a decision about whether to close a long-dormant adjudicatory process that was thrown into limbo by the 2007 agreement. 

To complicate matters, two prominent local families with property adjoining the proposed resort have filed legal petitions to be considered parties to the state's review process, and may sue the DEC if their petitions are denied. 

Once the state DEC officially issues the final environmental impact statement, the Shandaken Planning Board will have 45 days to consider Crossroads' application for a special use permit. But even then, according to the town's legal advisor for the project, attorney Richard Olson, the board may ask the developer for an extension because of the complexity of the issues involved.