- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2004

SHANDAKEN, N.Y. (AP) — Grand hotels were perched on Catskill mountainsides long ago, places where guests rocked on the veranda and soaked in the green vistas.

Though such retreats are relics now in remote southeastern New York state, a version for the 21st century is being proposed — and already prompting complaints. The $250 million Belleayre Resort would include 400 rooms in two hotels, timeshares, golf courses and a spa.

It would be the biggest recent development in this sleepy region, but some worry it could be an environmental spoiler. The stakes could be high not only for the Catskills, but for New York City, which draws drinking water from local reservoirs.

“It’s like putting six small towns in one little spot on top of a mountain that they’re going to have to blast away,” said Michelle Spark, an opponent from nearby Phoenicia. “Any person with any kind of logic can see that this thing is enormous for the area.”

The project would flank the state-owned Belleayre Mountain ski center, about 100 miles northwest of New York City in the Catskill Park.

Dean Gitter, managing partner for the developers, is a veteran entrepreneur who came to the area in 1969. He is an old actor prone to dramatic gestures like the silo-sized kaleidoscope that punctuates the Catskill Corners tourism complex.

This project tops them all, with 750 units over more than 500 acres. One resort, the luxury Big Indian, would include a rounded, multistory main building built into the hillside with green plants growing on the roofs.

Mr. Gitter said the project, developed by Crossroads Ventures, would provide needed jobs while putting the Catskills on the map again for tourism.

Reaction among residents is split. Supporters include local businesses and union members, but opponents have been passionate. Mr. Gitter was greeted by boos at a recent public hearing over the more than 6,000-page draft environmental impact statement released in December.

Opponents fear traffic congestion, population spikes, wilderness degradation and an end to their quiet way of life under a sprawl of fast food joints and gas stations.

Developers counter that they have included every possible environmental safeguard down to organic alternatives to chemicals on golf fairways. Mr. Gitter dismisses some criticism of potential consequences as “hysterical.”

“The population density of the Catskills is comparable to that of the sub-Sahara or Patagonia,” he said. “The word sprawl is an absolute obscenity.”

The wild card in the debate is New York City, which relies on the pristine reservoirs tucked between the mountains to provide water for 9 million residents of the city and its suburbs.

In recent years, the city has tried to limit development on land skirting the reservoirs to avoid building a $6 billion water filtration plant. Its restrictive approach has rankled residents who view the city as a heavy-handed interloper. But watershed towns and the city reached a landmark land management deal in 1997 that has allowed it to avoid building the budget-busting plant.

The hotel proposal is shaping up to be a major test of the agreement.

Though New York City has no official position on the proposal, the prospect of a major development within 20 miles of two reservoirs has caught its attention. In January, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection said it had “areas of concern” over the plan, including wastewater treatment and “optimistic projections of economic benefits.”

State environmental officials extended the comment period partly because of the intense public interest. They will examine the request for environmental permits after April 23.

The project still would need permission from the local towns — and from New York City, for storm water and wastewater permits.

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