Opinion: Trying to Build a Catskills Resort Despite Mountains of Regulation

| Wall Street Journal

The Belleayre Resort, a planned vacation spot in the Catskill Mountains, has finally received state permits for construction—after 16 years of waiting. “I was a much younger man when we set out on this process,” 80-year-old Dean Gitter, the managing partner of Crossroads Ventures, the resort’s developer, said in a news release after the permits were granted in early December.

What held up the $365 million Belleayre Resort isn’t a want of money. Crossroads says it has spent $21 million simply getting this far. The problem is New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act, or Seqra.

The law is modeled after the fed- eral National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, only it is more stringent. For instance, NEPA only requires an environmental-impact statement for federal projects “significantly affect- ing” the environment. New York’s law requires an impact statement if any project, public or private, “may” affect the environment—including those that involve noise or resources of “historic or aesthetic significance.”

The Belleayre resort would span 215 acres, with ski-in access to the state-owned Belleayre Ski Center. Plans include two hotels with nearly 630 units, a spa and an 18-hole golf course.

This is the kind of development that the Catskills need. Belleayre, 125 miles north of New York City, is on the border of Delaware County, where the median household income is nearly $15,000 below the state

average. The resort would bring an estimated 540 full-time jobs and 230 part-time jobs, Crossroads says. Marjorie Miller, the supervisor of nearby Middletown, tells me that the project is a “potential game-changer.” So why have permits taken the better part of two decades?

The developers’ first adventure was to figure out who would lead the environmental review. At the beginning, in 1999, the town of Shandaken intended to act the part. But New York City officials sought

The plan: Bring visitors and jobs to an area that needs them. That was 16 years ago. But good news is afoot.

the job because Belleayre is near the reservoirs that supply the city’s drinking water. Disputes about the lead agency in Seqra are settled by New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Surprise: DEC appointed itself.

That meant the review was subject to the state’s Administrative Procedure Act, a formal, step-by-step process for government rule making that sucks up additional time. And because the resort will share ski trails with the state-owned Belleayre Ski Center, its environmental review was tied to the ski center’s unit management plan, so that the ski center could receive permits for its expansion at the same time.

Environmental reviews in New York dig into every imaginable impact, however small or remote. To prevent lawsuits from green

groups, attorneys and consultants recommend an extra soil survey here or perhaps a more advanced storm plan there. Crossroads had to provide a seven-part technical report on noise from the resort. The Catskills are home to protected birds, such as the Bicknell’s thrush and the Cooper’s hawk; Crossroads wound up paying for three bird surveys, about $15,000 apiece.

A law as complicated as Seqra gives green groups innumerable ways of challenging builders. “The law has the word ‘environmental’ in its title and is therefore widely misconstrued as a law to protect the environment,” says E.J. McMahon, the president of Empire Center, a state free-market think tank. Actually, he says, it is “designed to help you leverage all the existing laws that protect the environment in the service of some development—or often in the service to stop some sort of development.”

In all, the draft, supplemental and final environmental-impact statements for the Belleayre resort total almost 39,000 pages, says Daniel Ruzow, the attorney representing Crossroads. Mr. Ruzow says he doesn’t know of any project that stayed in limbo longer. “Having read the few thousand Seqra cases over the last 35 years,” he says, “I cannot recall any project that remained in active administrative review for a comparable period of time.”

Belleayre’s ordeal isn’t over. The Catskill Heritage Alliance, which has opposed the resort in public hearings, has filed a lawsuit demanding . . . more hearings. The Alliance wants the developers to consider an alternative plan with only one hotel, which Kathy Nolan, who leads the group, says would prevent them

from having to blast into the side of Belleayre Mountain. Ms. Nolan says Crossroads has shown “unwillingness to make reasonable accommodations to prevent the project’s most harmful environmental and economic impacts.”

Actually, Crossroads scaled down the resort in 2007, eliminating a golf course and selling more than 1,200 acres to the state for preservation. It agreed to manage the golf course organically, without synthetic pesticides, and to submit to certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.

These changes again added to the permitting process, since Crossroads had to redo parts of the environmental review. This, in fact, is part of the state’s defense: “It’s a gross oversimplification to say the project was under review for 16 years,” writes Kevin Frazier, a pub- lic information officer from DEC, “when the project significantly changed from the original proposal to address public concerns.”

Be that as it may, the status quo clearly isn’t working. John Parete and David Donaldson, members of the Ulster County Legislature, support the resort and say that Crossroads is being bullied by the Catskill Heritage Alliance. “CHA is using their deep pockets and intimidation maneuvers,” they wrote in a letter to a local newspaper, “to try to bleed dry the developers of the Belleayre Resort.”

Crossroads still aims to break ground in the fall of 2016. But state legislators in Albany, back in session last week, might want to reflect on the Byzantine process the resort has gone through. It’s one more signal telling investors: Don’t even think about building in New York.

© 2016 Wall Street Journal