Despite protest, jail site is settled
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Residents living near the proposed site of the new county jail in Monticello have expressed concerns and opposition to legislators.
But county officials say it’s too little, too late, and it appears the jail will be built in the coming years along Old Route 17.
Tom Manza lives about a mile away from the proposed jail site, but it’s too close for comfort, he says.
“It would change the neighborhood, not to mention there is always the chance of inmates escaping,” he remarked.
Plus, visitors of the inmates “may not be the nicest people,” the 12-year resident said.
Manza’s neighbor, Barbara Pavlak, shares his concerns about safety.
“And our property values are probably going to go down,” she said.
After 27 years in her house, “that’s my nest egg,” Pavlak explained, “what I’m counting on when I’m ready to sell.”
“Traffic, noise, people escaping,” ticks off Holly Foschino, who’s called this section of Old Route 17 home for more than 30 years. “They couldn’t find a site without neighbors at the back door?”
County officials say they actually couldn’t, but Manza, Pavlak and Foschino don’t believe it if only because they feel they were deliberately excluded from the site selection process.
“They considered a lot of other logistics about the jail, but we don’t feel they considered the people,” Manza explained.
He said he spoke with residents of the nearby Delano Village mobile home park, none of whom were aware the jail would be built right next door.
“I didn’t understand exactly where it was going either,” mentioned Pavlak, who read an inaccurate news report situating the jail on Old Liberty Road (the next road to the east). “So [at first] it didn’t bother me.”
“It’s not right we weren’t notified,” added Foschino, complaining that the two meetings held specifically on the jail featured little to no notice and no input from those most affected by the jail site.
County officials did sit down with the group two weeks ago to discuss plans, but residents didn’t leave happy.
“They wanted to just show us what they wanted to do,” Foschino expressed with disgust. “They were very concerned about how we felt about it, but their concern was limited.”
“They’ve already made up their mind,” surmised Pavlak. “They were just trying to pacify us.
“They really don’t want to be forthcoming with answers,” she added, recalling how earlier this year she asked for the dates of public meetings specifically on the jail and instead got a calendar listing the legislative committee meeting schedule. “You can’t fight something you don’t know about.”
But now they’re ready to fight, and they hope to convince the county to move the jail elsewhere.
“There’s got to be a better site,” said Manza, though he added that he didn’t really feel it’s his job to help them find that site.
“We’ll try to fight it as much as we can,” concluded Pavlak, “and hope something happens.”
County officials, however, are not keen on changing venues at this stage.
“The site at [Route 17’s] Exit 104 has been identified as the best site,” County Manager David Fanslau explained, referencing a study by the county and its jail consultant, LaBella Associates.
Plus, while the 50-acre parcel has not yet been purchased by the county, 85-95 percent of the nearly $1.9 million spent on the jail project to date has been for site-specific expenditures, like environmental tests and studies.
Fanslau denied that anyone was being kept out of the process and promised to keep all concerns in mind.
“There is not any intent to try to keep the location secret,” he said. “... My responsibility is to ensure ... the jail becomes a good neighbor.”
Sheriff Michael Schiff echoed that thought.
“Personally, I don’t think this is going to make for a bad neighbor,” he surmised.
Unable to recollect any escapes from the current 100-year-old jail on Bushnell Avenue in the heart of the village, Schiff said the new jail will be engineered to the tightest security standards, as it will house inmates accused or guilty of a wide variety of crimes.
County drawings indicate the jail’s outer walls will be no closer than 625 feet to the nearest private structure.
Plus, the eventual plan is to move the Sheriff’s Office and Division of Public Safety to the jail, making it, in Schiff’s opinion, one of the safest spots in all of Sullivan County.
He did admit that he was favorable toward a jail site near the county landfill on the other side of Monticello, but the state Commission of Correction (COC) nixed the idea, citing an unacceptable potential of lawsuits from inmates claiming contamination from the dump.
The State University of New York’s desire to use county land only for educational purposes halted an idea to put the jail near Sullivan County Community College in Loch Sheldrake, according to Fanslau and Schiff, and a spot next to the county airport in White Lake proved prohibitively expensive to bring in water and sewer services.
Pavlak worried that the current proposed site will need to hook into the Town of Thompson water/sewer system at the Benmosche Road pump station, requiring tunnelling underneath Route 17.
But county officials said the hookup will be with the Village of Monticello near Schmidt’s Wholesale, costing far less than the $8-$10 million estimated at the airport location. (They did not, however, specify an exact amount.)
Schiff in particular likes the Old Route 17 location because it is close to the hub of court activities in Monticello, cutting down on increased inmate transportation costs.
He also likes its proximity to Route 17 while still remaining mostly hidden behind a cliff face and foliage.
“This is the site I prefer,” he confirmed.
But he’s willing to literally go the extra mile to prove that to the neighbors, offering to take them up to Binghamton, where the county jail shares intimate space with Broome County Community College.
And while he feels a jail next door is better than a variety of commercial activities that could have come to the site, Schiff did admit he was upset to hear of neighbors’ frustrations with the notification process.
“We’re not happy about that,” Schiff said. “I thought everyone was aware.”
So did most of the legislators, many of whom were equally unhappy when they learned some constituents had been caught by surprise.
“We sometimes live in a bubble here,” admitted Legislator Jodi Goodman of Liberty. “[We assume] the public knows what’s going on, and sometimes that’s not the case.
“Could we do better informing people?” she asked rhetorically. “Yes, we could.”
“I think we could have perhaps made a more concerted effort to make sure people were aware,” agreed Legislator Alan Sorensen of Rock Hill, though he did recall official legal notices and public meetings about the jail.
Legislator Leni Binder felt that was LaBella’s responsibility, though she said her “rule is always to be inclusive, not exclusive.”
But, Binder added, “you don’t do this in secret.”
Other legislators shared that sentiment.
“It was openly talked about,” recalled Legislator Elwin Wood of Roscoe.
“I just can’t believe they didn’t realize where we were going to put the jail,” added Legislator Kathy LaBuda of Wurtsboro.
“There was certainly no intention to leave anyone out,” remarked Legislature Chair Jonathan Rouis of Burlingham.
Legislators David Sager of Jeffersonville and Frank Armstrong of Buck Brook (who’s running for sheriff against Schiff in this fall’s election) did not return requests for comment.
But Legislature Vice Chair Ron Hiatt of Monticello, in whose district the concerned residents live, would only promise to “try not to let their voices be drowned out.”
Hiatt was not a part of the meeting between county officials and the neighbors two weeks ago, but he characterized their concerns as NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) and said any impacts would be minimized.
“It’s all about balance,” he explained.
“It’s the same old story whenever you’re going to build: NIMBY,” agreed LaBuda, saying she actually would “love to have” the jail in her home Township of Mamakating, thanks to the anticipated increase in business for local diners and gas stations.
Rouis, Wood, Sorensen, Goodman and Binder said they would encourage the neighbors to stay in communication with the county to offer suggestions on how to mitigate/minimize impacts. Fanslau and Schiff also said they’d work with them.
“I think it is incumbent upon us as a good neighbor to hear their concerns and, through the design of the project, do our best to mitigate any potential impacts,” said Sorensen.
But none of the seven legislators interviewed are planning to advocate for a new site.
“We have a couple of million dollars into this, and this is year three!” Binder pointed out. “That’s public money.”
“I have to go out and tell my 78,000 constituents [the county’s estimated year-round population] that I blew a million dollars on a site we’re not going to use?” remarked LaBuda. “It is the best site, I think, for the jail.”
“This became the site that fit the needs the best,” affirmed Rouis. “... It’s not going to be an eyesore in the community.”
Rouis did allow the possibility of having another public meeting, but legislators strongly indicated that would be simply to reiterate the county’s plans.
“At this point,” he concluded, “that’s the site we’re moving forward with.”
“There’s been a significant amount of preliminary engineering work done specifically to this property,” added Sorensen. “We’re pretty far along.”
“I’m not saying it’s a done deal,” said Wood. “But it comes down to costs to the county.”
“I’m always open to revisit,” Goodman offered, “but there has not come any options I see better at this point.”