BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
JP Morgan Chase, one of the world’s largest commercial banking institutions, got provisional permission Tuesday evening to construct their largest data center in the United States in Orangeburg, with construction hopefully scheduled to begin this fall. After several months of negotiations the long-anticipated conclusion was quick and anticlimactic during a brief workshop meeting of the Orangetown Town Board Tuesday, with an audience of just three residents and a dozen town employees.
In quick order the five-man council unanimously approved all three resolutions required to create appropriate zoning for the project, approve the sale and send the project to the Planning Board for further review. Final sale of the property is contingent on Planning Board approval and is subject to permissive referendum as is the case with any sale of town land.
The only new detail that emerged from the discussion was that Chase will pay Orangetown $7.5 million for the site, which currently contains some vacant land and about 40 abandoned buildings from the days when it was part of the sprawling main campus of the former Rockland State Hospital.
Later re-named Rockland Psychiatric Center, most of the facility was closed by the State Department of Mental Health decades ago in favor of smaller group homes and other alternatives to the mass institutionalization of up to 10,000 patients at a time in huge psychiatric warehouses.
Disfavor toward the huge facilities was initiated nationally through the film “One Flew Over The Coo Coo’s Nest” and gained speed shortly after with a television documentary by newsman Geraldo Rivera centered on the Willowbrook State Hospital on Staten Island. Since then, nearly all huge psychiatric center in New York and nationally have been closed or drastically reduced in size and population.
Portions of the former RPC campus in Orangeburg, which originally included over 500 acres, were sold by the state to housing and commercial developers. Most of this land was vacant, and had been used for farming, with patients doing the farming as part of their “treatment.”
What was left contained nearly 100 old buildings, constructed in the 1930s and ‘40s, and highly contaminated with both lead and asbestos.
The state kept a few of those and rehabilitated them for other uses. More than 50 were just abandoned, however, with no one willing to pick up the staggering costs of remediating the contamination.
The Town of Orangetown, which includes the entire RPC campus, was fearful of the future of that part of the site, and began trying to create a master plan for its eventual development, either by the state, the town, or some private entity. Stymied by a lack of success, or even progress, the town eventually persuaded the state two decades ago to sell it the remaining property, consisting of nearly 200 acres of both vacant and developed but contaminated land.
Since then, Orangetown has succeeded in selling off or leasing some small portions of the vacant land, mostly for sports athletic fields and recreational purposes. The land with the contaminated buildings has remained a vexing problem, however, with the town rejecting the only offers it ever got on those acres for massive multi-family housing developments, factories, warehouses and similar uses the town felt would be “inappropriate” for their future vision for the site.
Chase to the Rescue
Salvation arrived last fall in the sudden appearance of JP Morgan, which quietly approached Orangetown about purchasing some of the “bad” part of the site, for re-development as an electronic data center.
Supervisor Stewart made the negotiations public several months ago when he brought a non-binding sale agreement and a site access agreement to the town board and public for approval and the bank made a public presentation about their project as reported at the time in the Rockland County Times. Stewart noted that for several months town staff have been coordinating site visits and building tours for the bank’s engineers.
The town has hosted a series of meetings between the bank and the NYS Office of Mental Health to review the status of various drainage, sewer and utility easements affecting the parcel in question., The result was a preliminary agreement reached between the town and the bank last week, also detailed in this newspaper, which led to Tuesday night’s unanimous votes by the excited Town Board and the equally as pleased Brian Quinn, Chase Bank’s attorney and chief negotiator.
Quinn, a Pearl River resident whose office is in New City, thanked council members for their patience, diligence and understanding during the lengthy negotiations. He concluded his short remarks by saying he and Town Attorney John Edwards would now work on drafting the actual sales agreement and other necessary documents to bring the resolutions to fruition.
Brian also told the board that Chase has agreed to try to preserve at least one of four historical murals that were painted on the interior walls of one of the 40 abandoned buildings it is purchasing. The paintings were done in the mid-1930s, shortly after that particular building was constructed, by an artist hired by the Works Progress Administration of the federal government as part of the depression recovery effort at the time.
One of the paintings is on canvas, glued to the wall, while the other three are thought to have been painted directly on the plaster walls. All four are in poor condition and were initially scheduled to be demolished along with the building, Quinn said. After concern was expressed by historians, preservationists, artists and others, however, he said Chase is doing a more thorough study to see if any of the paintings can be salvaged, either at their original site or by being moved elsewhere.
Quinn said Chase would work with Orangetown Historian Mary Cardenas and other interested parties to hopefully find a mutually agreeable solution to the problem.
The three resolutions approved unanimously and enthusiastically by the Town Board Tuesday included the following:
- Declaring a “Negative Declaration” under the federal SEQRA process, meaning there are no known environmental problems with the sale and development of the 61-acre site. Citation of any possible environmental hazards would have required a “super majority” of at least a 4-1 vote of the council, rather than a simple majority of 3-2. No such hazards were listed, however, thus avoiding that problem.
- Changing the zone on the 61-acre site, from the existing R-80 to a brand new zone created specifically for this site, called RPC-OP. The R-80 zone was a “holding pattern” device the town used years ago, to protect against any inappropriate use of the property until the board had a chance to finalize its plans. It only allows construction of single-family homes on lots of two acres or more apiece (80,000 square feet per lot). With site remediation costs estimated at $40 million for the site, this assured the town no one would try to use the land for any purpose, housing, commercial, recreational or otherwise. The new zone, RPC-OP creates an entirely new zone, in which former RPC property is limited to “office-park” uses, such as a data center. The Rockland County Planning Department had listed several questions in their response to the proposal, but Edwards told the board the questions were “insignificant” and had already been discussed and resolved. Edwards also noted that the town is changing the zone on a total of 65 acres, including the 61-acre Chase site and two smaller parcels the town owns nearby, and will retain for the time being.
- The actual sale of the 61-acre site by Orangetown to JP Morgan Chase, for a cash price of $7.5 million. While the first two resolutions were final and effective as of Tuesdayevening at 10 p.m., Edwards said the actual land sale is subject to further negotiation of details and a permissive referendum, which runs for 30 days from its approval. That means if anyone objects to the sale, they have 30 days to gather signatures on a petition, forcing the town to hold a public referendum as soon thereafter as possible. If the public vote supports the town, the sale would become final. If the public defeats the referendum, however, the sale would be cancelled and negotiations would have to begin anew.
Edwards and Town Board members said they knew of no one who might be opposed to the sale, however, and thus were not worried about the possibility on the part of some aggrieved citizen. If no petition is received by April 28, the sale is considered final, and both sides can sign the sale of contract. Meanwhile, Chase will bring its project to the Planning Board for site plan review and approval. After final site plan approval, Chase and the Town will close on the land sale and Chase will apply for demolition and construction permits from the town Building Department.
The only time a public referendum was forced on Orangetown against its will was over two decades ago, when the town attempted to build a multi-pool swimming park and community center complex on another portion of the RPC campus it owned.
That petition drive was led by Pearl River resident Kevin Wiley and resulted in an overwhelming vote against the proposal. Following the crushing defeat, the town has never since attempted to build either a swimming pool or a community center, and remains the one of Rockland County’s five townships without either type of facility.