Orangetown Gets Quick Approvals on RPC Projects

Orangetown Gets Quick Approvals on RPC Projects

BY ROBERT KNIGHT
CITY EDITOR
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES

The Town of Orangetown is suddenly making rapid progress on its decade-old plans to re-develop the sprawling 348-acre former Rockland Psychiatric Center campus it owns in Orangeburg, announcing lightening fast approvals Tuesday evening for two of its more pressing projects there.

Less than a week after submitting proposed home rule legislation to the New York State Legislature in Albany requesting permission to swap two parcels of land at the campus to facilitate closing the Broadacres Golf Course and redeveloping it for commercial uses, officials announced at this week’s Town Board meeting that the legislation had “sailed” through both the Assembly and the Senate by unanimous votes, and was now sitting on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desk awaiting his signature to make it law.

At the same time, the Town Board itself voted unanimously Tuesday to spend up to $50,000 to repair the roofs of six homes it owns on Chief Bill Harris Way at RPC, to make the homes more habitable to the volunteer emergency service workers and their families who occupy them.

The politically divided five-member board wasted no time in congratulating themselves on finally getting these projects off the drawing boards and into reality, and pledged to keep on top of both projects to make sure they don’t accidentally fall by the wayside from lack of attention or follow-through.

For the land-swap legislation in Albany, they announced that the town’s official lobbying firm, Wilson-Elsner, will be tasked with following up with the governor’s office and staff to make sure he signs the approved legislation before the authorization period expires. And for the six homes on what used to be called Blaisdell Road, the board said it, various town department heads, and the town’s volunteer emergency services coalition would jointly hire contractors to perform the work virtually immediately, and oversee that work until it is completed.

Housing Authority Spat

In fact the only area of disagreement Tuesday between factions on the board came on a matter unrelated to RPC: the re-appointment of a former town supervisor to a new five-year term on the town’s volunteer Housing Authority.

The chairman has been former Republican Town Supervisor Paul Whalen for the past five years, and he requested re-appointment. He was strongly opposed by current Supervisor Andrew Stewart, however, the man who defeated him when Whalen sought re-election to the supervisor position two years ago. Stewart is a Democrat, and said he had numerous reasons for wanting to dump Whalen, many of them articulated publicly by the authority’s newest member, Robert Tompkins of Pearl River. Stewart was joined by independent Republican Councilman Paul Valentine.

The matter appeared stalemated for nearly two months as both sides argued back and forth on the merits of Whalen’ re-appointment. Stewart also kept refusing to place the item on the agenda of a Town Board meeting, thus preventing the board from taking any action. The GOP majority on the council, led by Dennis Troy and Thomas Diviny, finally forced Stewart’s hand this week by threatening that if he didn’t put the appointment on the agenda for Tuesday night’s meeting, they would bring it up themselves under “new business,” and simply out-vote the supervisor and Valentine.

Despite some last-minute name calling and insinuations about Whalen, Stewart, Tompkins and others, the board eventually voted 3-2 to re-appoint Whalen to a new five-year term on the Housing Authority, although it did not re-name his as the authority’s chairman. In fact, the board did not name anyone chairman, with insiders saying that without instructions to the contrary, Whalen will probably be able to continue as chairman because he has never been replaced.

Land Swap

Orangetown purchased 348 acres of the 600-acre RPC campus in 2003, after that land and nearly 70 buildings were declared surplus to state needs at the huge state psychiatric hospital, abandoned and shuttered, and offered for sale.

The town paid $6 million for the property, and had to pledge to the state that it would set aside 216 of those acres to serve as public parkland. The town could do what it wanted with the remaining 132 acres. Town officials have speculated from the beginning that they would gladly utilize the 216 acres as additional town parkland, and would probably try to sell the remaining land for commercial or senior housing projects, putting the land and the improvements back on the tax rolls for the first time in 75 years.

The state was lenient in its terms, giving Orangetown until 2015 to decide precisely which 216 acres at the campus that it would officially designate as parkland. Initially the town assumed the 64.8 acres comprising the nine-hole Broadacres Golf Course would be part of that package, and so listed it on official documents from 2003 forward. By the time officials realized Broadacres was losing money annually and draining town coffers, they began thinking about selling or leasing it instead, either to be continued as a private facility or re-developed for some other commercial purpose. Because of the new uncertainty, the town got an extension from the state of 2020 to submit their final boundary maps of the 216 acres of designated parkland.

In the meantime, the town has issued Requests for Proposals (RFP’s) on the Broadacres site, asking prospective tenants or buyers to express their interest in leasing or purchasing the nearly 65-acre facility, and how they would utilize the site.

State Approval

Before the town can take any legal action, however, it must get state approval to “de-list” the Broadacres parcel from the 216 acres they have already tentatively identified as parkland. And Orangetown must replace those 65 acres with another parcel of similar size elsewhere on the RPC campus, so a total of 216 of the 348-acre total site remains designated parkland.

To get state approval the town needed home rule legislation from the State Legislature in Albany, followed by the governor’s signature, all before the June 20 deadline when the legislature goes out of session for the remainder of the year.

The town board unanimously passed a resolution last week seeking such legislation, and hand delivered it to Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee and State Senator David Carlucci, with a copy to the governor. This week, Stewart announced with glee that the legislature had unanimously approved the legislation, with Jaffee and Carlucci’s persistence, and the bill is now awaiting the governor’s signature.

To ensure that happening before all of Albany disbands for the year, the town’s lobbying firm of Wilson-Elsner will guide the bill through the labyrinth of Cuomo’s staff and onto his desk for signature by the end of this week, Stewart happily explained.

Once enacted into law, the town can proceed with de-listing Broadacres as parkland, and can determine which other part of the RPC campus to designate in its place. So far, town officials have indicated that they are leaning toward designating about 68 acres of vacant land on the far western end of the campus, bordering the Lake Tappan Reservoir, as that replacement site. Stewart has said he would like to create hiking trails on that land, particularly along the shoreline of Lake Tappan, which could eventually tie into the town’s expanding Rails-to-Trails program in the central and eastern part of the township.

In the meantime, Stewart and other town officials say they now eagerly await responses from parties interested in leasing or buying the current Broadacres Golf Course. Those interested in getting more details about the offer can obtain a copy of the RFP from Stewart’s office at Town Hall, or can download it from the town’s web site.

The supervisor said no proposed use of the 65-acre site has been ruled out yet with the exception of housing for families with children. That would place an unfair financial burden on the Pearl River School District, which the town is trying to avoid at all costs, Stewart explained.

Other uses, such as a private golf course, upscale senior citizens housing, or commercial uses, are all being entertained, he added.

Until the Town Board eventually determines a future use of the site, the existing nine-hole Broadacres Golf Course will remain open to use, town officials say.

New Roofs

The Town Board also voted unanimously Tuesday to provide $50,000 in funding to replace or repair the roofs of six deteriorated homes the town owns at the RPC campus, and leases to the families of volunteer firefighters, EMS workers and auxiliary police officers.

Orangetown originally acquired 13 homes of former RPC upper-level staff along both sides of what was then called Blaisdell Road, between Old and New Orangeburg Roads. The homes were all vacated by the state when it downsized the huge state mental hospital about 20 or 25 years ago.

Orangetown has since converted one house to serve as the town museum and leased two others to the Rockland Paramedic Service, which provides EMS services for the town’s four volunteer ambulance corps.

In 2004 it leased the remaining ten homes to the Orangetown Volunteer Emergency Services Coalition for $1 per year. OVESC immediately set about repairing the homes and bringing them up to code, using volunteer labor and donated services and materials.

Six of the homes were successfully renovated and immediately leased to volunteer firefighters, ambulance corps members and volunteer auxiliary police, with below-market-rate rents tied to the volunteers’ incomes, family size and federal HUD regulations. They are currently occupied by 11volunteer families consisting of a total of 23 people.

Two of the homes are currently awaiting restoration so they too can be rented to needed volunteers, while OVESC chairman Dave Schnitzer, Chief of the Blauvelt Fire Department, said the remaining two are so badly deteriorated they cannot be rehabilitated.

He has requested permission from the town to burn those two homes, using them as fire training drills for the members of the town’s six volunteer fire departments and the board gave him informal approval to proceed with that concept at last week’s meeting.

Roofs Gone

The original roofs are now more than 50 years old, Schnitzer noted, and are not only badly deteriorated but also leaking like sieves. OVASC got estimates of $75,000 to $85,000 to replace the roofs, he said, and determined it could raise $18,000 to $22,000 of that total through diligent fund raising, grant writing and seeking of donations of labor and material.

That left a financial gap of about $60,000, which it what the group sought from Orangetown two weeks ago. The board came to a consensus that it would find $50,000 somewhere in the town’s 2013 budget, but OVASC would have to come up with the balance.

It was that figure the council approved unanimously Tuesday evening, to a round of applause from volunteer firefighters, ambulance corps members and auxiliary police officers seated at the back of the auditorium.

The volunteers said they weren’t sure yet where the balance of the needed funds would come from, but they would beg, borrow and steal to make sure the roofs are successfully repaired and the homes remain habitable and available for all Orangetown volunteers who need them.

OVESC was formed by Pearl River Fire Chief William Harris and other Orangetown chiefs in 2004 as the first such public housing specifically for volunteer emergency service workers in all of Rockland County, and reportedly in all of New York State. Following Harris’s sudden and unexpected death a couple of years ago, Orangetown renamed that block of Blaisdell Road to Chief Bill Harris Way in his honor. It was also then that Schnitzer took over as chairman of the all-volunteer non-profit organization.

OVESC and Schnitzer can be reached at P.O. Box 213, Blauvelt, N.Y., 10913 or by calling 845-709-3830.