The village of Canajoharie filed suit Friday to nullify documents and actions related to the planned relocation of the Beech-Nut baby food plant from Canajoharie to the town of Florida.
The Hero Group/Beech Nut is being given more than $100 million in tax breaks and incentives to build a new factory in the town of Florida to replace the Canajoharie facilities where Beech-Nut operated for more than 100 years.
After major flooding in 2006, the Hero Group/Beech-Nut started looking elsewhere, including in the South, to establish a new production facility.
Montgomery County and state officials applauded the company’s decision to stay in Montgomery County, citing the retention of 350 jobs, the creation of 135 new ones and other benefits from the $124 million effort. Officials at the state and county levels provided oral assurances the village of Canajoharie would be taken care of after its major employer leaves.
Officials in Canajoharie decided they couldn’t pit taxpayers’ futures on oral assurances and for several weeks said they wanted to see something in writing guaranteeing the village’s protection in the future.
They never got that written guarantee.
The Article 78 proceeding filed on Friday targets the town of Florida Planning Board, the Montgomery County Industrial Development Agency, the state Empire State Development Corp. and Hero Group/Beech-Nut.
Officials in the village, which would lose 350 jobs as well as revenue from property taxes and water and sewer fees, contend government officials ignored the impact Beech-Nut’s relocation would have on the village.
Ignoring the project’s impact on the village is against the law, according to papers submitted to state Supreme Court by Albany attorney Lewis B. Oliver Jr., in behalf of the village.
Village Mayor Leigh Fuller on Friday said he could not discuss details of the lawsuit, but he said he wants people to understand he and the Village Board of Trustees are trying to protect village residents.
“There’s only 900 taxable buildings in Canajoharie. We’re going to lose $1.7 million in income from Beech-Nut plus one hundred-some thousand in taxes. The school is going to lose about $160,000 in taxes. It’s something that comes all the way down the hill,” Fuller said.
“This was our last resort. We have our backs against the wall,” Fuller said.
Oliver on Friday said the village is not looking to put a stop to the work that’s taking place in the town of Florida, so the lawsuit itself sets a September deadline for a response.
“The intention of the Village Board is not to request any judicial intervention before September, so I don’t contemplate that as occurring unless there’s some different circumstances,” Oliver said.
Thousands of pages of documents are part of the review process records, Oliver said. Of those, “there’s a half page about the village.”
“The environmental impact on the village should have been considered,” Oliver said.
There have been many instances where municipalities about to lose major businesses have tried to protect themselves, Oliver said.
The impact of major businesses leaving communities has been felt in the Capital Region before, Oliver said, citing the departure of major portions of General Electric in Schenectady and Mohawk Mills in Amsterdam.
“The purpose of the Village Board here is not to stop the project necessarily. The purpose is to make sure that the interests of the village of Canajoharie, environmental, financial, economic concerns are addressed by Beech-Nut and other parties,” Oliver said.
“I think the village would like very much to engage in negotiations and reach a happy settlement and not even follow through with a court judgment,” Oliver said.
Sources at Empire State Development were not immediately available for comment late Friday.
Some Montgomery County officials said the development is disconcerting.
“It’s extremely unfortunate that the village of Canajoharie decided to pursue this alternative,” said Ken Rose, CEO of the Montgomery County IDA and head of the county’s Economic Opportunity and Development Department.
“We will continue, as we have been, working with Hero Group, state and village officials to address their needs,” Rose said.
Hero Group/Beech-Nut officials could not be reached for comment Friday.
Florida Town Supervisor William Strevy declined to comment on the advice of attorneys.
“I’m very disappointed in the decision that the village of Canajoharie made,” said Montgomery County Board of Supervisors Chairman Vito Greco.
“This is not a good situation and as a county official I’m not too pleased with it. I just think it’s the wrong way to go. I think it could have been handled differently by sitting all the parties down,” Greco said.
“Nobody is going to abandon these guys,” Greco said.
The lawsuit asks the courts to declare several actions leading up to the project’s approval “null and void.”
The actions called into question include the site plan approval, the environmental impact findings statement, the payment in lieu of taxes agreement, the lease agreement between the county IDA and Hero/Beech Nut, and the financial incentive package provided by the state.
The site plan approval and environmental impact statement from the Florida Planning Board should be invalidated, the lawsuit states, because the board “illegally segmented” review of the project’s impact in the town of Florida from the impact in Canajoharie.
When projects are reviewed under the state’s environmental quality review process, any finding of a significant impact typically results in efforts to lessen that impact.
The lawsuit provides a review of state regulations which say a significant adverse impact on the environment includes “the impairment of the character or quality of important historical, archaeological, architectural or aesthetic resources or of existing community or neighborhood character.”
The lawsuit claims officials “segmented” their review of the project’s impact and looked only to the impact in the town of Florida while ignoring Canajoharie.
“Considering only part of an action, or ‘segmenting’ review, is contrary to the intent of [the state’s environmental quality review process],” the lawsuit states.
“The findings statement, the financing and construction of the relocation project in the town of Florida Industrial Park is inextricably interrelated with vacating the existing plant in the village of Canajoharie,” the lawsuit states.
Another segment of the lawsuit says that the payment in lieu of taxes agreement offered to Beech-Nut is invalid because the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors has not approved it.
The law, according to the lawsuit, requires that “any agreement as made between [the IDA] and project occupant regarding fees shall be subject to the approval of the Board of Supervisors of Montgomery County.”
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