O’town Seeks Free Land at Old State Hospital

Town Officials Negotiating with State over Former RCPC

BY ROBERT KNIGHT

CITY EDITOR

ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES

Orangetown is moving aggressively ahead with the planned purchase of another 100 acres of land at the mostly shuttered Rockland Psychiatric Center campus in Orangeburg, even before it has decided what to do with 348 acres of similar land it bought from New York State nine years ago.

The newest acquisition, if Orangetown is successful, would include the 40-year-old former Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center campus off Convent Road in Blauvelt, along with miscellaneous smaller portions of the main campus which the state had reserved in its earlier sale, such as several two-story brick former employee apartment houses on a circular road called Staff Court, off Old Orangeburg Road.

Orangetown paid the state nearly $6 million for the original purchase in January of 2003, which included about 75 large vacant steel and concrete buildings. The town floated a bond issue for $7 million, which included legal costs and financing, to pay for the purchase.

The town is retaining most of that land for parks and recreational purposes, but has been trying to sell about 80 acres to a private developer to help recoup its costs. The latest effort, a 2007 sale to New Jersey developer K. Hovnanian Company for more than 500 “active adult” housing units, collapsed in February of 2010 when the firm returned the property to Orangetown and cancelled its purchase agreement.

Had the project gone through, Hovnanian was to pay Orangetown $24 million for the land, demolish the existing old hospital buildings, and construct 574 new housing units, including 511 for active adults 55 and older, 12 single family homes, 32 “affordable” senior units and 20 affordable units for active fire, police and EMS volunteers and their families. The project would have paid an estimated $6 million in property taxes annually to Orangetown and the Pearl River School District.

 

More Land Sought

Undeterred by the Hovnanian sale collapse, supposedly because of the recent poor economy for large commercial developments, Orangetown is going ahead with its plans to acquire the additional vacant land still available at the sprawling RPC campus.

Rumors have swept Orangetown for a year now, ever since the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene constructed a brand new children’s psychiatric center at the Orangeburg campus, just south of the 10-story main buildings, and declared the old site off Convent Road as being available for sale.

To insure that Orangetown gets first dibs on the property, the town submitted a letter of intent to purchase the site last fall, and is now following up on that request with personal meetings with state officials. Newly elected Supervisor Andrew Stewart, Town Attorney John Edwards and long-time Councilman Denis Troy all agreed Tuesday evening that those sessions appear to be going well, and they are hopeful of an agreement “soon,” without specifying an exact date.

The three men said the meetings are being facilitated by Orangetown’s two representatives in the State Legislature, State Senator David Carlucci and Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, along with a private law firm the town has hired to help negotiate the deal. In a separate action Tuesday, the board unanimously agreed to re-hire the firm of Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker LLP, to continue those efforts this year. Orangetown will pay the law firm $5,500 per month “plus actual ancillary expenses that may be incurred.”

 

Status Explained 

Edwards explained that Orangetown had filed paperwork giving it the “right of first refusal” to buy the land last year, when it first became available. That document expired Dec. 31 and has not been renewed by either side of the negotiations, he added. In response to questions from Stewart about a future course of action, Edwards said if the board requested, he could try to get the document renewed, or submit a new one. Because the negotiations are going well without it, however, he said he is also willing to continue the negotiations with both sides acting in “good faith” without an actual agreement.

Edwards also agreed to consult with the law firm, Carlucci, Jaffee and state officials, to determine if any of them feel strongly that a new right of first refusal is needed, or if current negotiations should continue regardless.

One reason for not wanting to “rock the boat” town officials stressed at Tuesday’s meeting is that Orangetown is hopeful of getting the new land for free, without paying the state a penny for the approximately 100 acres and numerous buildings.

Edwards said the town is basing its stance on the fact that the apartment buildings and the old children’s hospital all contain toxic materials, such as asbestos, and it will cost Orangetown millions of dollars to remediate that hazard. Added to the millions Orangetown may have to pay to get rid of the asbestos in the buildings it already owns, that places an unfair financial burden on the township and its taxpayer residents, Edwards said.

 

Free Land Sought

So far, he added, the state appears to be buying that argument, and is at least willing to continue negotiations based on the town’s current offer. That offer, he explained, is that Orangetown is willing to take the land off the state’s hands, for free, and thus save the state the cost of having to remediate the asbestos itself.

Stewart, Troy and others present Tuesday nodded in agreement with Edward’s synopsis of current negotiations, and indicated they too are hopeful that the state may actually give the land to Orangetown for nothing, in exchange for being relieved of the asbestos problem.

The officials also defended the re-hiring of the Wilson law firm, which had been criticized by several audience members earlier in the meeting during the “public participation” portion when residents are allowed to speak, ask questions and voice complaints. Typical was the reaction of Pearl River resident and frequent board critic Michael Mandel who noted Orangetown has a full-time attorney and six part-time deputy attorneys, and thus should handle the negotiations itself, with in-house staff, and avoid the necessity of paying for outside counsel.

Edwards responded by saying the firm has great expertise in working with and negotiating with state agencies, and that such lobbying is its claim to fame. Dropping the firm now, in the midst of negotiations, would be a “grave mistake,” Edwards claimed, and could seriously harm the ongoing talks.

Council members apparently agreed, voting 5-0 later in the evening to re-hire the firm to continue its negotiations on behalf of the town.

 

Economic Development

Edwards also noted that Orangetown has asked Governor Andrew Cuomo directly to assist the town in obtaining the former children’s psychiatric hospital, for free, for the purpose of assisting the town’s “economic development.” Cuomo hasn’t agreed, as yet, the attorney added, but has authorized negotiations to continue between the town and its representatives and the state agencies it is dealing with, with no limitations. Edwards said he considers that a “hopeful sign” that the free transfer of the land from the state to Orangetown may actually happen this year.

Councilman Thomas Diviny used even stronger language, saying Orangetown was going to ”make” the state deal with us, on our terms, citing the potential $24 million cleanup costs of the main campus the town already inherited from its earlier purchase of the 348 acre portion. The old children’s hospital occupies a site of 60 to 80 acres, bordering Convent Road and the Lake Tappan Reservoir.

The vacant hospital is a “modern” style building, resembling a typical suburban high school. It contains offices, classrooms, auditoriums, gymnasiums, an indoor swimming pool, kitchen and dining rooms and other facilities, along with sleeping quarters.

 

Re-use Buildings

Many in Orangetown have suggested that rather than demolish the structure, the town should consider converting it into a new town hall. It contains more than sufficient space to house all town offices in one location, as contrasted to the current situation where offices are scattered among several buildings because Town Hall in Orangeburg is too small to house them.

Other residents have suggested that the brick apartment houses on Staff Court could easily be converted into affordable family housing for volunteers in the town’s fire departments, auxiliary police force and ambulance corps, saving the town the cost of constructing such facilities new.

Town officials concluded the RPC portion of the meeting Tuesday by promising to keep residents appraised of future developments at the former state hospital, the largest undeveloped tract of land left in Orangetown. Taking particular interest was Blauvelt resident Mary Antonucci, who was representing a citizens group called REASON, Residents Association to Support Our Neighborhood.

The group strongly supports the town’s acquisition of the RCPC campus, she said, to help ensure that no other, undesirable, use of the property might be made by outside firms or organizations attempting to buy it directly from the state. REASON is also interested in assisting Orangetown redevelop the site using solar energy, open space and similar environmentally-friendly concepts, Mrs. Antonucci said.

 

Other Business

In other business at Tuesday evenings meeting the Town Board voted unanimously to:

-Authorize all elected officials and department heads to attend the annual meeting of the NYS Association of Towns convention and training session Feb. 19-22 in Manhattan, at town expense, but with only one night at a hotel.

-Grant bingo permits for 2012 to St. Margaret’s Catholic Church, St. Margaret’s School Auxiliary, St. Margaret’s Church Parish School and Temple Beth Am, all located in Pearl River.

-Approve about $3 million in budget adjustments in the 2012 annual budget, based on several changes in state aid, taxes, staffing and other factors unforeseen when the budget was drafted last fall. Finance Director Charles Richardson said the adjustments were needed prior to the arrival of the town’s auditor in town hall in a couple of weeks, to begin reviewing the town’s financial records.

-Approve renewal of an agreement with the Town of Ramapo to allow the Orangetown Police Department to use the firing range of the Ramapo Police Department in Airmont. Orangetown has no range of its own, for the county’s third largest department of about 87 officers.

-Authorize the receipt and filing of several legal documents in the Town Clerk’s office, including a lease with Verizon for a generator at the Town Hall antenna tower, a signed contract with the New York Sharks aquatics club and a change order for electrical work at the town sewer station by Blauvelt electrician Paul Valentine.

Valentine was elected to the Town Board last November, and took office Jan. 3. He sought to abstain from voting on the change order because of a possible conflict of interest since it involved his company, but ended up voting in favor after Town Attorney Edwards described the action is “ministerial” and “insignificant,” since it wasn’t approving the change order itself, merely authorizing its filing after the fact.

The entire board decided not to approve accepting the minutes of the board’s regular, audit and executive session minutes from Dec. 13, 2011. It was noted that three of the current five members were not on the board last month, and could not vote to approve minutes for meetings they hadn’t attended. With only two members having been present, Troy and Councilman Thomas Diviny, there weren’t sufficient votes to approve the minutes, and instead they were left hanging in limbo, neither being approved nor rejected.

Town Clerk Charlotte Madigan, who took the minutes, expressed a puzzled look after the vote, shrugging her shoulders as if to say “what do I do with them now?”