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A rock-solid niche business, for now

A rock-solid niche business, for now

The number of bluestone quarries and authorized exploration sites in New York has jumped from three
A rock-solid niche business, for now
Proprietor Paul Giebitz is shown at Helderberg Bluestone &amp; Marble in East Berne.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

Like bluestone itself, Paul Giebitz has been in the Helderberg Mountains for a long time.

“We’ve been here 55 years. It started from zero — a $5,000 investment. My dad put up some of the money and I put up the rest,” Giebitz, 81, said of his business, Heldeberg Bluestone & Marble (the business spells its name differently than the mountain range). “We’ve been here so long that we’re selling to third-generation families already.”

Bluestone is a sandstone found only in New York state and Pennsylvania. Ranging in shade of blue from nearly gray to almost black, it was deposited by glacier runoff about 345 million years ago. It can be used for architectural stone, paving stone, countertops, stair treads, or lower purposes such as aggregate stone mixed into cement or asphalt.

Giebitz said Heldeberg Bluestone & Marble sells retail bluestone products in a radius as far north as Plattsburgh, south as Poughkeepsie, west to Utica and east to Pittsfield, Mass. The company employs between six and eight people, some working with expensive diamond saws to cut the bluestone to meet the specifications of architects.

“This is basically a custom job shop,” Giebitz said.

Heldeberg Bluestone & Marble operates its retail business on 25 acres in the hamlet of East Berne. Giebitz gets most of his bluestone from his quarry, located on 160 acres he’s owned for more than half a century. He said his father convinced him to purchase the then-abandoned bluestone quarry in the mid-1950s because more people were using bluestone for residential projects.

Bluestone mines, by county (2007)

Delaware 49

Broome 25

Chenango 4

Ulster 4

Tompkins 2

Albany 1

Source: New York Dept. of

Environmental Conservation

“I was in charge and I didn’t know stone from wood, but you learn as you go. You keep making mistakes and you learn and [the business] just grew and grew and grew and grew,” he said.

Relaxed restrictions

Bluestone mining in the state has grown in recent years into a roughly $100 million industry, according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

DEC officials attribute the growth to a liberalized bluestone exploration law enacted by then-Gov. George Pataki and the state Legislature in 2002. The law created a “bluestone exploration authorization” permit that allows a mining operation of no greater than five employees to investigate one acre of a potential bluestone site for up to two years, with a renewal required after the first year. Miners must post a $1,000 bond and put back any earth disturbed by the mining operation.

The relaxed restrictions were intended to take advantage of Pennsylvania’s decision to increase regulations on its own bluestone mining in 1996. They also coincided with the real estate boom, which enabled many homeowners to use home equity to remode with bluestone.

According to DEC, the number of bluestone quarries and authorized exploration sites in New York state jumped from three in 1997 to 85 in 2007.

But, since the housing boom went bust, the bluestone business has been down.

“I can’t really talk about net profit because we’re not operating profitably right now,” Giebitz said. “The market has gotten worse this year than any year. We used to have orders of 15 or 20 loads of stone [at this time of year], but we don’t have one order right now.”

The law governing bluestone mining was authorized for only a short window of time, and it expires on July 31. In a report to the state Legislature, delivered in April, DEC officials have recommended that the statute be reauthorized.

Brad Field, director of DEC’s Division of Mineral Resources, said elected officials should support a long-term bluestone policy rather than looking at short-term economic trends.

“We’d like it to be made permanent instead of a three-year sunset. We think the program has been successful,” Field said. “The industry likes having that flexibility to do their exploratory work in a confined period to cost-effectively assess the quality of the [bluestone] deposit.”

Using the waste stone

Joseph Tesiero, the owner of Amsterdam-based Eastern Materials LLC, said his business gathers bluestone out of a quarry in Ulster County and sells the material as aggregate stone for concrete and asphalt. He said as a businessman, the sunset of the $1,000 bond, two-year exploratory permit rule would help him in the short term.

“It depends on whether the public wants to pay more for roads. If there are less quarries, then we can charge more,” he said. “One side of me is saying close down all of the extra quarries and pay me more money, but the [moral] side of me is saying that we’re driving business out of New York state and raising taxes to pay for roads.”

Giebitz said he recently started allowing Carver Construction Co. to collect the waste stone out of his quarry and sell it for cement and asphalt mixing because bluestone is viewed as a higher quality material for paving roads than limestone. He said he gets a percentage of what Carver makes on the sale of the stone.

“I should have done that years ago. I would have had more money. I was just dumping [the waste stone] over the side,” he said.

Tesiero said even with the relatively easy exploratory permits, mining operations can still wait for as long as five to 10 years to get a full-fledged mining permit, a process that can cost $1 million.

“We’ve had projects that have taken that many years to get a [large-scale mining] permit, but we’ve also had some that have taken only a few months,” Field said.

New York State Bluestone Association President Mitchell Bush, the owner of Simply Stone LLC, a quarry in Broome County, said his organization supports reauthorization of the current bluestone law.

“The Bluestone Association worked with DEC to get that exploratory permit put in. We’re trying to garner as much support for it as we can,” Bush said. “If you have a permanent policy then you know exactly where you stand and you can plan accordingly.”

According to DEC, bluestone prices also have risen over the last decade. By some estimates, the price of “two-inch high quality” bluestone has grown from $3 per square foot to $3.50 to $4 per square foot. For “irregular” bluestone, some operators report that prices have gone from $120 per ton to $160 per ton.

Bush said despite the collapse of the housing market and the current low levels of demand for bluestone, the price likely won’t go down.

“I’ve been in the business since 1969 and I haven’t seen where the demand and supply laws really affected the price. What happens is stone just doesn’t sell,” he said.

Tesiero said he wouldn’t reveal how much stone he estimates he has in his quarry, but he said he often looks at maps wondering where he could find the next vein.

“If the business is going to go on for my son, I’ve got to start looking for reserves now because it’s probably a five- to 10-year permitting window for new reserves,” he said.

Giebitz said he remembers when he could get a dynamite permit at the town hall for 50 cents. He said after all of his years operating his quarry and expanding his business, he isn’t worried about looking for any more bluestone.

“I’ll never run out of it,” he said.

Giebitz’s extended property is a testament to his success mining the ancient stone. By his own count he’s the owner of 20 different kinds of trucks and tractors, many antiques, as well as an airplane and numerous buildings. Some of his children, his wife and his wife’s 101-year-old mother live on homes on the land he bought years ago.

“I was the kid who didn’t have any toys and now I’ve got too many of them,” he said.

Unlike the stone he mines, Giebitz said he knows he won’t last forever. He said he doubts his own son will want to run his quarry and he’s uncertain who will when he stops.

“The bluestone business has been good to me, but the trouble is I can’t get out of it,” he said.

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