Land acquisition meeting stirs debate; consultant's information draws criticism

By Matthew J. Perry
County officials and a representative of Downeast Group, which is preparing an economic impact survey of Delaware County, toured four towns last week to discuss preliminary study findings and solicit community input. On Nov. 20, Margaretville became the tour’s last stop.
More than 100 people turned out to attend the meeting at Margaretville Central School on an unseasonably chilly evening. Supervisor Lenny Utter began by introducing Greg Brown, Downeast’s consultant, and taking a few moments to frame the challenges created by New York City’s land acquisition program as the latest phase in the historically difficult relations between downstate and local interests.
The economic impact study was commissioned by Delaware County in the hopes of crafting an efficient tool to be used as defense against the city’s aggressive purchasing of land and the eventual tax reassessment battles that many assume will occur. Under the 2007 Filtration Avoidance Declaration, the city is mandated to use $300 million to buy land near its reservoirs in lieu of building a filtration system; it is expected that the majority of those funds will be spent in the Catskill region.
Utter described this arrangement as the latest “fad” to hit the area and implied that its effects could be just as damaging as the eminent domain takings that created the reservoirs. “Middletown has 12,000 acres of developable land left, and New York City owns 7,000 of those acres,” he said.
Brown followed with a power point presentation and a general, often dry explanation of the study’s methods and goals. He included demographical details on the county as well as a breakdown of its primary employers and their projected growth over the next decade.
The study, which is not intended to take into consideration the breaking downward trend of the economy, noted that the county’s largest industries—manufacturing, government, trade and utilities—are expected to hold steady as sources of employment. It also indicated that the small but growing tourism industry may be better suited to expand should extensive city land acquisition continue.
The audience questions which followed Brown’s presentation often put him into defensive positions. At times he reminded questioners that he was presenting preliminary figures, at others he placed the question “outside the scope” of the study. Although Brown reported that he had interviewed 50 local representatives and citizens, some in the audience suggested that input from officials who monitor the city’s acquisitions—such as tax assessors—had not been sought out.
Jean Orr, managing broker for Frank Lumia Real Estate in Margaretville, stated that realtors are on “the cutting edge” of the issue, are not of a single mind concerning the effects of city land buys, and should have been consulted. She also stated that attention should be given to conservation easements, which some believe could have a braking effect on the upward trend of real estate prices.
Others pointed out that Delaware is an enormous county which varies greatly in its makeup from town to town, region to region, and that to study it as a whole would create a “bland description” that wiped out the concerns of particular towns, not least those like Middletown, that are inside the watershed. Brown disagreed.
“This is about Delaware County, not the watershed,” he replied. “It works against your interest to slice and dice the data. It’s easier for New York City to challenge you that way. You’re trying here to have an affect on the review of this program, period.”
In the aftermath of the meeting, there were some harsh assessments of Brown’s presentation. “It was a little Mickey Mouse,” said one woman, who thought that many of the projected data were too small for the audience to read. A man in attendance stated “that report won’t be worth the paper it’s written on.”
But county officials disagree. Some have spoken positively about the consultants Downeast has hired to augment their research, and most are hopeful that the group, which is based in Nova Scotia, will present a detailed and objective study that can be help local interests fight a long, uphill battle.
“You’re looking to identify evidence of impact. That’s what we’re trying to quantify,” Brown said on Thursday. “You’ve said ‘we’re hurting’ and [New York City] has said, ‘how?’ Up until now, you haven’t had an answer.”