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Dan Hust | Democrat

This hillside is proposed to be converted into space for a red meat processing facility for area farmers. It’s located west of Route 17 in Liberty near where the well-known chimney marked “Liberty” sits.

Meat processing plant faces hurdles

By Dan Hust
LIBERTY — January 15, 2010 — Liberty won’t be getting an agricultural industrial park after all.
Turns out the coming loss of the Empire Zone program (statewide), the general economic malaise and, as Walter Garigliano put it Tuesday, “the astoundingly difficult topography” of the proposed site have forced officials to drastically downsize their plans.
“We’re dealing with the world’s worst possible site,” Garigliano told members of the Sullivan County Industrial Development Agency’s (IDA’s) Board, whom he serves as the IDA’s legal counsel.
That might be a slight exaggeration, but as he pointed out, the leaders of the Village of Liberty were none too eager to hang on to the 29 acres they were planning to give to the IDA for the park.
So instead of simply abandoning the plan, Garigliano said County Agricultural Economic Development Specialist Paul Hahn, IDA CEO Allan Scott, project planning/zoning attorney Barbara Garigliano, and Cornell Cooperative Extension Executive Director Joe Walsh re-engineered the site to feature three lots instead of the original eight.
One of those lots, however, is just to accommodate the extension of Willow Lane to reach the steep, wooded terrain above Route 17 between exits 101 and 100.
The largest lot is the bulk of the 29 acres, which the IDA no longer wants.
The third lot – whose deed the IDA plans to acquire from the village – is now being dedicated to just one entity: the Southern Catskill Red Meat Processing Facility.
But even that singular goal required feats of engineering, as the first incarnation necessitated a 22-foot-high cut into the mountainside and 18 feet of fill on the downslope.
“That’s a gigantic amount of earth to move,” Garigliano observed.
And it proved too much for the $1.8 million the IDA has budgeted for the project – specifically, the $600,000 set aside for grading.
“It couldn’t be done for that,” he remarked.
So that idea was scrapped, too – though not entirely.
Over the next few weeks, the IDA is meeting with the Village of Liberty Planning Board to gain approval of the three-lot subdivision and a plan to fit the slaughterhouse into the contours of the hill – eliminating the need for a cut or even retaining walls, said Garigliano.
The idea is to get costs back under that $1.8 million figure, but there’ll still be a price to pay.
“This facility is wedged between two drainage courses,” he explained, referring to creeks that flow down the hillside.
So even with nearly five acres between those brooks, the building will never be able to cost-effectively expand beyond its 5,250 square feet, Garigliano said. There’s enough room for a now-required composting area and for tractor-trailers to maneuver, but not enough for the originally envisioned store.
“We absolutely can’t do retail here,” he acknowledged. “I can’t imagine the public coming in and out of there – it’s ridiculous.”
Grading will still be required in large amounts, he added, but the resulting stormwater and erosion control system will greatly improve what has often been a troublesome flooding issue during heavy rains and snowmelt.
Still, the complications aren’t limited to construction.
Garigliano said the facility’s animal pens will have to be enlarged 3-5 times over in order to accommodate the necessary volume of meat animals that will make a trip by a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspector worthwhile.
“We found out USDA inspectors are not free,” he explained to the board.
So to rein in that cost, the inspector will be on site only when the slaughterhouse has a full complement of butchered meat for him/her to inspect.
But the biggest obstacle to the facility may not be the topography or the operating conditions.
Nearly half of that needed $1.8 million has yet to arrive in the form of an $800,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Garigliano said he’s reasonably confident the money is coming, though he’s not interested in making a bet on it.
“If I didn’t think we were going to build it, I wouldn’t be wasting my time,” he pointed out.
But if the project is unable to secure those funds, Garigliano said you can kiss it all goodbye.
So why on earth have they resurrected and reworked this decade-old plan?
For one, it apparently can’t happen elsewhere. Garigliano said he and others tried but found zoning and community issues too restrictive.
“We came back to this site because it’s the only place we’ve been welcomed,” he explained.
Secondly, around $100,000 has been spent creating and re-creating these plans, and $890,000 has already been secured from the federal, state and county governments through years of hard work.
But perhaps most importantly, local agriculture is under extreme stress, said Garigliano, and this plant may not only lessen the economic burden of travelling great distances to process meat products, it may give struggling dairy farmers and others a new business opportunity.
“There’s about 120 [farms] in the county,” Garigliano said, including non-dairy operations that would likely be the primary users of the slaughterhouse. “The largest single user, we believe, would be the Coombe family [of Grahamsville].”
He added that about 200 users are anticipated overall, based on out-of-county farmers also finding the Liberty location more cost-effective than existing processing plants 80-130 miles away in Pennsylvania and upstate NY.
The IDA, the Sullivan County Agricultural Local Development Corporation and the county’s Partnership for Economic Development will review and then hire a professional operator who will lease the plant from the IDA, he explained.
Amazingly enough, a spring groundbreaking is planned – but they better get it right the first time.
IDA Board member Harold Gold asked if a contingency fund was in that $1.8 million budget.
“What kind of cushion do you have with expenses?” he wondered.
“We don’t,” Garigliano said matter-of-factly, noting the reworking of the site has already eaten into the contingency fund.
“We can’t have an overrun,” he reiterated. “We have no margin for error.”
Hiatt pointed out that two weeks ago he ordered and received 1,000 business cards listing him as vice chairman.
“Want some?” he said with weary laughter.
• Though leader of the Republican minority, Binder said she’s supported Rouis all along.
“I thought Jonathan was doing a credible job,” she remarked, feeling he was open and accessible to her.
She acknowledged that legislators have a responsibility to advocate for change, but those who voted for Hiatt “never tried to work within the system.”
She was not comfortable with the last-minute deals being made, but she also expressed reservations about Hiatt’s fitness for the post.
“I didn’t feel he has the time commitment for this job,” she said, referencing his duties as a private attorney, Fallsburg planning/zoning attorney and son of an ill father.
She hoped that legislators would be able to regroup.
“We’re dependent on a state that’s totally dysfunctional,” she said. “... It’s going to be a rough year.”
• Sorensen was, ironically, the lone Republican to cast a vote against Rouis – and he said that Rouis’ tenure was all his vote was really about.
“Generally [I have] a dissatisfaction with the lack of openness and communication in county government,” he explained. “And the direction the county’s been going in.”
He feels his constituents share that frustration, as does Hiatt. He confessed, however, of being “completely naive” to the behind-the-scenes intrigue of this vote.
“I didn’t understand all the background shenanigans going on,” Sorensen said, hoping “that approach to governance will end.”
He was caught by surprise when Sager did not join him in the vote against Rouis but pointed out that he was never clued-in on anything by the Democrats who were the real motivation behind the attempted coup.
Nevertheless, he doesn’t feel used and is not seeking to make it personal with Rouis.
“I never feared any repercussions,” he explained, “because for me, being a legislator is about public service.”
• Sager may have been a swing vote, but he said it was not so much about Rouis – with whom he’s had gripes – but about who was backing Hiatt.
“I had to vote my conscience,” he explained. “I didn't question Ron as much as I questioned the motives of those bolstering him.
“Who was supporting Ron and why?” he asked rhetorically. “It doesn’t necessarily have to do with the concept of bettering Sullivan County.”
Sager said he realized he would be part of a political game if he voted for Hiatt, even though he’s not sure Hiatt was anything more than a pawn of LaBuda’s and Armstrong’s.
“My hair stood up on my neck,” he said of that realization over the weekend.
He also found it ironic that people who are typically doing county business behind closed doors would decry this vote.
“At the end of the day, how have they contributed to ethical, honest and fair government in their tenure?” he asked.
Though Sager has had issues about openness and fairness with Rouis, he said the chairman “lately has been showing more leadership skills” and demonstrates potential.
“I think we can finally move forward in a bipartisan way,” he predicted. “... Maybe this can actually open up government.”
Sager said there are major issues facing the county, and setting aside political maneuvering – like secret caucuses – is a needed first step of the Legislature.
“There is work that needs to be done,” he remarked.
• In typically reserved fashion, Rouis said Tuesday’s vote won’t deter him from working with the entire Legislature.
“Obviously there are huge frustrations,” he observed – both in the Legislature and in the county as a whole.
Though told about it in advance, Rouis said he was “a little surprised” about the vote (perhaps because he didn’t expect to remain chairman, though he did not offer specifics).
But he does believe it reflected growing concern with the handling of difficult issues: the budget, the solid waste system, the new jail.
He stood by his decisions – “I have to do what I think is right” – but he acknowledged he must work with people who may often disagree with him.
“You have to sit down, roll up your sleeves, and put your differences aside,” said Rouis.
Nevertheless, he added, “I don’t welcome the difficulties to come.”

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