Residents of Catskills seek help from New York

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SHANDAKEN, N.Y. -- Even now, almost 100 years later, people in these parts have not forgiven New York City for flooding some of the best Catskill Mountain flatlands so that New Yorkers could take their 15-minute showers.

Though they still hold a grudge, many residents have recently turned to the city for help in one of the fiercest land disputes in the Catskills since the New York reservoirs were built.

Dean Gitter, an actor turned developer who came to these round-shouldered hills more than 30 years ago, plans to build a five-star resort here that he says will save the Catskills, a region that everyone agrees has seen better days.

Gitter envisions two championship-caliber 18-hole golf courses, one on each side of the Belleayre Mountain Ski Center, which is owned by the state.

Clustered around each golf course would be a luxury hotel, time-share apartments, restaurants, swimming pools, spas and tennis courts, all built to what he says are strict environmental standards.

The $250 million year-round resort -- which is supported by most local officials and businesses -- would draw thousands of visitors from the city, 120 miles away, Gitter says, just as the Catskills' noted trout streams and misty landscapes drew them a century ago.

View of foes

His opponents are afraid that putting such a huge development right in the watershed of the nation's largest municipal water system would pollute the nearby Ashokan Reservoir. Those who came to the mountains for a vegan, Zen-infused, counterculture way of life fear that the project would destroy what they came to enjoy. With the development now reaching the critical stage of environmental review, some have sought the aid of an unfamiliar ally.

"Many of us actually are glad that the city is here now," said Judith Wyman, chairwoman of the Friends of Catskill Park, which opposes the project. "City residents and most of the people here want the same thing -- we want clean water as much as they do and we don't want over-development any more than the city does."

New York City also wants to avoid spending $6 billion for a monster filtration plant that the federal government has threatened to order built if the city cannot ensure the purity of its upstate reservoirs. The surest way to avoid that cost is to make sure land in the 2,000-square- mile watershed is publicly owned and undeveloped, so New York has tried to purchase as much as possible of the 70 percent of the property still privately owned.

1997 agreement

But the city hasn't always been so concerned with making friends in the Catskills. It once tried to impose watershed rules that severely limited how owners could use their property, but local communities, feeling their authority was being usurped and their hopes for economic development were being undermined, fought back. To avoid lengthy lawsuits, New York signed an agreement in 1997 to forgo condemnations and purchase property or easements only from willing sellers.

The city also promised to upgrade local wastewater treatment plants. In exchange, local leaders got a commitment from the city to consider permitting developments that provided jobs but did not pollute the water.

The city tried unsuccessfully to buy the land near Belleayre before Gitter could acquire it. Now it is in the delicate position of judging the environmental merits of his project.

"If we are perceived as being pro-development or anti-development for whatever reason, it will jeopardize the integrity of the memorandum of agreement," said Christopher O. Ward, commissioner of the city's Department of Environmental Protection.

At issue, everyone involved agrees, is not only the water drunk by 9 million people in New York City and environs, but the future of the Catskills.

Gitter and his supporters say that their project, known as the Belleayre Resort at Catskill Park, can revive the region, which once offered grand hotels that served tourists attracted by the cooling summer breezes and the good fishing. Now lodging in Delaware and Ulster counties has dwindled to a few hundred beds.

The proposed resort

The proposed resort, with 400 hotel rooms, five restaurants, a conference center, two spas, 351 time shares and 21 luxury homes on more than 500 acres, would generate more than 750 full- and part-time jobs, and millions in local and state taxes, the development group said.

The principal architect, Emilio Ambasz, is known for his environmentally sensitive designs. He proposed a hotel that would be terraced into the mountainside, with grass and bushes planted on its roofs. The effluent from two new wastewater treatment plants would be recycled and used to irrigate the golf courses.

Opponents say the project will generate so much waste and traffic, and disturb so much soil, that there is no way to protect the water and the wilderness.

In turn, Gitter says it is time for the 6,720-page environmental impact statement, and not emotion, to be the basis on which a decision is made. Gitter said he is ready to begin construction as soon as the project passes an environmental review. The state Department of Environmental Conservation is leading the review. The project requires approval of various local, state, federal and New York City authorities.

Development issues

"There's a lot of places easier to do a development in than New York state," said Emily H. Fisher , a member of the board of the American Museum of Natural History who has owned a second home in the Catskills for decades and who is a principal of Gitter's development group. "We're watched over by the city and the state so carefully that this development will not impact the quality of the city's water at all."

Erich T. Griesser, a longtime resident who runs a lodge and is co-president of the Belleayre Region Lodging and Tourism Association, said he has listened to all the arguments, analyzed the concerns, and concluded that the project would help businesses without harming the environment. "The pluses are far greater than the minuses."

But in the local newspapers, at roadside diners and during raucous public hearings, other residents have made it clear that they want the Sleepy Hollow feel of the Catskills to stay the way it is.

'Not what we're about'

"This project is going to redefine Catskill Park, and I resent that, because this project is not what we're about," said Tom Alworth, executive director of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development.

What is generally known as the Catskills is southwest of here in Sullivan County, just outside the blue line that surrounds the 705,000 public and privately owned acres of Catskill Park on maps.

Artists and crafts workers have long sought ways to live inside the blue line, and today many still sacrifice high salaries and conveniences like cell phones for the serenity of truly dark nights where visible stars far outnumber car headlights. "This is our life and these are our mountains," said Alexander Linas, 22, of Mount Tremper. "We don't need this development."

Before a recent public hearing at a local school, Linas stood in single-digit temperatures holding a sign that read "Save the Catskills." When Gitter addressed the crowd of more than 600 people, he mentioned Linas' sign.

"Now the question is," the developer asked, "save from what?"

"From you," a voice replied.

Gitter was unruffled. "Those of us involved in this project think the Catskills must be saved from economic decline," Gitter said, amid boos and catcalls. "We're all interested in saving the Catskills and we have our own views about how to do that."

Gitter has served on the Shandaken planning board and various development committees, and he represented local communities in some negotiations of the agreement with New York City. He runs a successful lodge and retail center in Mount Tremper called Catskill Corners, along with the nearby Emerson Inn.

He also has been involved in several big projects outside the Catskills that were never built. In the late 1980s Gitter had plans for a $500 million China-United States trade center outside Stewart Airport in Newburgh. Local homeowners opposed it, and Gitter took his plans to Baltimore County, Md., but that project was scuttled too.

"What difference does that make?" Gitter said angrily when asked about those projects. "I've been here a long time and I've done a lot of credible things."

Advocating tourism

Gitter said several economic studies over the last 40 years have all concluded that year-round tourism is the best way to reinvigorate the Catskill economy. And he said the project has to be big to attract a major hotel chain and lenders willing to put up more than $150 million in financing. He said he also has to offset the cost of bringing in roads, water treatment plants and electric lines.

Environmentalists argue that steep slopes and thin soils here make building on hillsides too risky. They also say that falling back on big tourism projects is shortsighted.

"Even if, from an economic standpoint, this kind of project was justified 10 years ago, that's no longer the case," said Eric A. Goldstein, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Goldstein said that technological advances like the Internet have made it possible for many local residents and transplanted New Yorkers to both live and work in hamlets like Mount Tremper, Phoenicia and Pine Hill.

But one of the most forceful local voices against the development came from a member of the Chase family, a clan that has lived in these hills so long local people call the place they live Chase Mountain.

Sherret Spaulding Chase, 86, of Shokan, still seethes at "the painfully high cost to those displaced" by New York's reservoirs a century ago, but he challenged city officials to "bite the bullet, step up to their responsibilities, and say no," to Gitter's proposal by finding that it would irreparably harm the city's water supply.

At the recent public hearing he suggested what only a short time ago would have been unthinkable. Chase proposed that New York City offer to buy Gitter's land, and if he refuses, to take the property through condemnation, much the way good bottomland was taken for reservoirs a century ago.

Pleading for city intervention might seem contradictory, given the region's lingering resentment, but Chase said it is just common sense. "If New York wasn't going to take care of the land," he said, "it never should have taken it."

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