Schoharie County treasurer and flood recovery coordinator Bill Cherry recommended to the county board of supervisors that they abandon a plan to build a new jail and public safety facility on the Seebold farm site, a 24-acre plot of land on Rt. 30 just north of the Village of Schoharie.
The county had been eyeing the Seebold plot for the new facility since June 2014 after a yearlong study of 18 possible sites. The $37 million project received approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which would provide 75 percent of the funding necessary, with the remaining 25 percent coming from the state. The previous jail suffered extensive damage from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, and the county successfully appealed to FEMA for funding to replace it at a different location rather than repairing it.
Cherry cited several environmental studies conducted by LaBella Associates, a Buffalo-based engineering and planning firm the county hired to oversee the state environmental review process, that found the site was not ideal for the facility.
One report revealed the existence of significant colonial-era artifacts on the southwest portion of the Seebold farm that could make the site eligible for historic status. In an interview Tuesday, Cherry said a two-part archeological study of the site found pottery shards and structural foundations of the colonial-era homestead of William Dietz, whose family lived on the land for generations dating back to the 1700s. Cherry said that part of the Seebold parcel would have to be avoided altogether or further exhumed and catalogued at great cost during a third study.
Another study noted the presence of federal wetlands along the northern and southwestern portions of the site. “This means that the building footprint cannot be in the geographic center of the parcel as we had originally hoped, but rather it would have to be shifted significantly which would place it fairly close to the southern property boundary line,” wrote Cherry in his report.
A fourth study indicated the presence of a trapped water table 7-8 feet above the final grade elevation of the first floor of where the new jail would be. “Engineers at LaBella could probably find a way to divert this water around the new building, but the cost of the project would increase by millions of dollars in terms of site excavation and preparation, foundation design, and other costs related to this particular site,” wrote Cherry in his report.
All of the studies were carried out as part of the state environmental quality review, known as SEQR, that requires state and local governments to consider environmental, economic and social impacts of discretionary building projects.
The recommendation to abandon the location was contained in a monthly flood recovery progress report Cherry presented to the board at a Sept. 16 meeting and was unanimously approved by the board, said Cherry.
Cherry said LaBella was uncomfortable asking the board directly to drop the site from consideration, and framed their findings as more of a suggestion to look elsewhere. Cherry said he was a little more forceful in giving his personal recommendation that, given LaBella’s findings, the site wouldn’t work.
“Essentially, these specialized reports identify environmentally sensitive areas on the Seebold farm that might have been manageable if if each were taken separately, but when all four are combined, they collectively present what may be an insurmountable problem,” Cherry wrote in his progress report, which he read into the record at the board of supervisors meeting Sept. 16.
Cherry said he was surprised the board didn’t react negatively to his recommendation and agreed unanimously to abandon the site.
They did not agree with Cherry on another recommendation contained in his report that future potential sites feature pre-existing water and sewer hookups so the county wouldn’t have to build or expand such infrastructure to suit.
Cherry said outside funding for the project is contingent on pre-existing water and sewer service on the project site, and recommended five such sites – four in the town of Cobleskill and one in the village of Cobleskill.
The board, he said, agreed to reopen the search for a site but chose not to limit such sites to those with existing water and sewer service.
“There’s a very high likelihood that county taxpayers would have to contribute some amount with that option,” said Cherry.
Cherry believes the ideal site that conforms to the original criteria laid out by the county – sufficient buildable acreage above the 500 year floodplain, close proximity to the county courthouse, water and sewer service at or close to the site and multiple direct access routes to Albany (which limited the eventual site to being located on the east side of the Schoharie Creek) – doesn’t exist.
“There simply isn’t a site that met what we thought was the Seebold site,” said Cherry. “The site simply doesn’t exist.”
Cherry said the purchase agreement with the Seebold site was contingent on the property meeting all environmental requirements. Aside from a $5,000 deposit, provided so that the site would remain off the market during the review stage, the deal is dead, he said.
“It had to be useable for what the county intended,” said Cherry of the purchase agreement. “I was worried about exactly this type of contingency … what if something happens? I didn’t want the county taxpayers to pay for a parcel we couldn’t use.”
The board said they would call a meeting with Cherry sometime next week to discuss finalizing a new search criteria. But all is not lost, he added. Building plans for the jail facility, which his office worked closely on with the NYS Commission of Correction, are still useable.
“It’s simply transferrable to a new site,” said Cherry of the plans. “The building plans, the blueprints if you will, are able to simply be shifted to a new site. That’s not wasted effort or wasted money.”
As for the Cobleskill sites recommended in his progress report, all of which are 10 miles or less from the county courthouse and come with water and sewer hookups, “they may be parcels the board considers, but there may be others.”
Reach Gazette reporter Dan Fitzsimmons at 852-9605, [email protected] or @DanFitzsimmons on Twitter.
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