Residents of Catskills seek help from New York

Proposal to build $250 million resort fuels fight over land use

February 15, 2004|By Anthony DePalma | Anthony DePalma,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

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.

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