It took Schoharie County nearly three years to get approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to relocate its jail and public safety facility to higher ground after Tropical Storm Irene. Now, county officials are facing the next hurdle: residents who don’t want the new facility built next to their homes.
The county Board of Supervisors approved the purchase of the Seebold farm on Route 30 in the town of Schoharie at its meeting last month, despite an outcry and petition from residents surrounding that site.
“There are 49 houses, residences, within 800 yards of that site, if you go up and down Route 30 and up and down Barton Hill Road,” said Jim Nass, who lives across from the farm. “It is a residential area with a lot of people.”
Shortly after that meeting, a “For Sale” sign went up outside Nass’ historic home. Nass, who has lived there with his wife for 14 years, said the pair had been planning to downsize eventually, but with news of the new public safety facility, they decided to sell now.
Like many other area residents — about 65 signed a petition opposing the facility — Nass said he’s concerned about noise and traffic during construction, as well as ongoing noise, traffic, and constant light from the facility once it’s up and running and the effect on the value of his property.
“[The area] is zoned for rural and agricultural,” he said. “Those 49 families had a right to expect there wouldn’t be a Wal-Mart or an office building or a jail popping up next to them.”
Officials say the jail is an allowable use within the zoning for that area and will be set far back from the road and hidden as well as possible with trees and other measures.
“We’re going to do whatever we can to make that a visually appealing county office structure,” said county Treasurer Bill Cherry. “It will still contain the [district attorney’s] office, probation. It’s not just a jail. That’s one component of it, but it’s a public safety and county office complex.”
Since Tropical Storm Irene flooded the jail and public safety facility in 2011, the county has been spending about $80,000 a month to board inmates at the Albany County Correctional Facility. After a prolonged approval process, FEMA finally agreed in April to fund a $37 million project to build a new facility out of the floodplain in which the old facility now sits.
The county decided on the Seebold farm last June after a study of potential locations throughout the county. It agreed to pay $375,000 for the 30-acre property last month.
“There were several neighbors who spoke at the board meeting who want the jail anywhere but there,” said Cherry, “and I understand their position. But I really do believe that that is the right spot for the public safety facility. Clearly the Board of Supervisors agreed and voted to move forward with the purchase agreement.”
Lynn Basselan was one of those residents who disagreed. Before that meeting, she canvassed residents of Route 30 and Barton Hill Road and was shocked to find they had not been notified of the county’s intentions.
“Nobody knew about it,” said Basselan. “I think maybe one person knew. And everybody but I think two or three people signed the petition. We’ve got pretty much solidarity that we’re not happy with this jail here.”
Besides personal complaints as a resident, Basselan raised several concerns with the siting decision, including how the initial report was conducted, why other seemingly comparable or better sites were discarded, what will happen if the village’s water and sewer treatment plants — which the facility will be tied into — are flooded, and questions of zoning, among other things.
“I think the study should be reopened,” she said. “There’s other land available and new places since [that decision] have opened up.”
Schoharie town Supervisor Gene Milone made a motion to do just that at last month’s board meeting, but was voted down. In the end, he supported construction of the jail at the Seebold farm.
“I fought vehemently to keep this jail in the town,” he said. “Of course, I would have been willing to place it somewhere, if it were possible, that it did not affect any of our residents, but that was an impossible task.”
Through the county’s sales tax sharing system, which is based on total assessment, he said the jail contributes about $38,000 to the town and about $21,000 to the village in annual revenue neither can afford to lose. The village’s water and sewer district is also compensated to the tune of $35,000 a year — though estimated to increase to $52,000 with the new facility — for supplying water to the facility.
Running water and sewer service up Route 30 to the facility will also open that entire corridor for development, Milone said.
“I took into consideration the effect it would have on our entire community, not just one segment of it,” he said. “I know that my residents are upset in that area, and I’m sure I would be facing the same set of circumstances if it were in another spot in the town, as well.”
Cherry said the county has put out a request for proposals for design and construction of the facility and is moving forward with various permitting. He said it will likely be about 18 months before ground is broken.