Fulton & Montgomery Counties -- Members of the Fulton County Board of Supervisors' Economic Development and Environment Committee on Wednesday indicated they want to finish the environmental review for the long proposed Regional Business Park. But they haven't yet committed to spending any more money to do so.
Montgomery County's executive recently said his county is no longer interested in pursuing the park. That county had been paying a portion of the costs.
Committee Chairman Mike Kinowski, Johnstown's 2nd Ward supervisor, said Fulton County has invested money in the project, which requires land to be annexed from the Montgomery County town of Mohawk into the city of Johnstown in Fulton County. He said his committee isn't ready to quit yet, but he also doesn't know if the full board will be willing to spend any additional money to complete the required State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) process.
"It's tough to answer whether we'd proceed beyond with more money. I doubt it, but it's possible," Kinowski said.
The Mohawk Town Board is the lead agency for the SEQR necessary for the annexation. Mohawk recently rejected the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) provided by Fulton County for the annexation, and sent a letter to the county saying it failed to address all of the town's questions and concerns about the park project.
The state SEQR act requires environmental impact statements to be created before certain projects are built. The statements are meant to identify future environmental damages from a project and provide plans to mitigate those damages.
Jim Mraz, the executive director of the Fulton County Industrial Development Agency and the county's retired planning director, has been working on the Regional Business Park project for more than 10 years. He said Sterling Environmental Engineering P.C. of Latham was hired to write the environmental impact statement for the annexation per the specifications provided by Mohawk's "scoping document." He said some of the questions raised by Mohawk can't be determined at this time because it is unknown what kind of company might move into the business park if it is ever built.
"We just can't answer them now, because we don't have a project yet. We don't know if it's going to be 200,000 square feet or a 1 million square feet, 200 employees or a 1,000 employees. Until you can define how big the building is going to be or the parking, you can't answer those questions," Mraz said.
Mraz said it remains to be seen whether Fulton County can address Mohawk's concerns with the DEIS without spending additional money. He said Sterling has prepared a response to Mohawk's 13-pages of concerns, some of which Sterling believes are outside of the scope of what Mohawk originally asked for, and some of which Sterling views as being unanswerable at this time.
"Sterling has built into their contract a certain level of effort to respond to comments. Right now, we don't know how many comments they're going to have to respond to. We got this list from the town, and now we're sending them Sterling's response," he said. "If the town rejects Sterling's interpretation of their comments, then we have to go back to Sterling and ask if they can respond within their current contract or not. That's when we'll know whether we're going to have to come up with additional dollars."
Fulton County had been partnering with Montgomery County and the city of Johnstown in sharing the costs for the creation of the Regional Business Park, a project that requires 263 acres of vacant farm land in the town of Mohawk to be annexed into the city of Johnstown where it can be connected to city sewer and water utilities. The stated purpose of the park is for it to be marketed as one large lot capable of attracting a "game changing" employer, possibly in the nanotechnology sector.
That process was rocked last week when Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort declared his administration no longer supports the project. Ossenfort — citing low unemployment levels in his county and no local support for the project in Mohawk — has said he will not ask the Montgomery County Legislature for any more money to support the proposed park.
The two counties in 2015 agreed to an 80-year 50/50 property tax sharing deal for the park, if it ever gets built. Since then Johnstown and the two counties have split the costs of the project into thirds, including Sterling Environmental Engineering's $100,000 fee.
Mraz said the cost split only applies to Sterling's current contract, not any additional work Sterling might need to be hired to do to fulfill Mohawk's concerns about the DEIS.
"They would need to be asked," he said of Montgomery County and Johnstown contributing money for more work from Sterling.
Mohawk also required the two counties and Johnstown to reimburse the town for the $13,000 cost of hiring Chazen Engineering of Poughkeepsie to create the "scoping document" that outlined all of the issues the town wanted addressed in the DEIS.
Chazen wrote the 13-page response to Fulton County stating that Sterling's work was inadequate.
Mohawk officials have indicated they will likely conclude the annexation has a negative environmental impact on the town no matter what mitigation plans are offered by Sterling, which could trigger a court battle over the annexation.
A property tax sharing deal has been offered to Mohawk by Johnstown, but only under the condition that Mohawk drop its opposition to the annexation, which Mohawk Supervisor Ed Bishop says the Town Board will not do.
Mraz said if the annexation is ultimately determined through a court battle a panel of three judges will be appointed to decide whether it's in the public's interest for the annexation to be approved. He said the land owners — James Miller, Jarold Miller, Stephen Miller and Milltown Plaza Inc. — started the process of seeking annexation in 2016. He said he questions whether Mohawk is properly fulfilling its role as lead agency in the SEQR process.
"The whole point of SEQR is to have an objective unbiased evaluation done of a project's potential adverse environmental impacts, significant adverse environmental impacts. Objective and significant are the key terms there," he said. "Given that the town is on record opposing the project, that it is advancing state legislation [opposing farmland annexations] is that indicative of an objective analysis being done? That's what the statute calls for."
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, announced last week his support for legislation that would place a one-year moratorium on annexing farmland for industrial use in New York state, referencing the annexation fight in Mohawk as his reason. He was supported in his proposal by a Montgomery County group called Citizens Against Local Landfills and a group called Saving the Town of Mohawk (TOM).
After Ossenfort dropped support for the park project, Bishop said he believes the tax sharing agreement between Fulton and Montgomery counties obligates Montgomery County not to hinder the annexation process.
"If it came to a panel of judges, and there has to be a vote from Montgomery County, I'm wondering if he could vote nay, since they're under contract," Bishop said. "There's a clause in [that tax sharing contract] that says the parties will not in any way interfere with the process of annexation."
Mraz said he's uncertain whether the tax sharing deal with Montgomery County might result in litigation over Ossenfort's policy change.
Kinowski said he believes the tax sharing agreement does bind Montgomery County from hindering the annexation process. He said Ossenfort's policy shift is short-sighted.
"Montgomery County's idea that we have enough jobs and we can't fill them now, I personally don't agree with that. Something that comes in that is high tech would draw people, a different labor force than we have now," he said.
However, Kinowski said he doubts Fulton County will initiate litigation with Montgomery County for hindering the land annexation.
"I don't think we'd do that, but that's up to the committee and to the full board," he said.
Ossenfort said he does not agree that the tax sharing agreement binds his county from now opposing the annexation, but he thinks the tax sharing deal may now be "null and void" after his policy shift.
Ossenfort said when Montgomery County agreed to support the Regional Business Park project unemployment was much higher and his county was trying to support job creation.
"We had a national site selector come in who said this could be one of the most attractive sites in the Northeast because of the rail access. So we said let's try to move this forward, but over the period of the last six years or so, a lot has changed," he said. "Now we want to shift our focus to where we think we'll have the most success. I want to focus on things that will unite this community, not divide and rip it apart."