Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart listed reasons why the Rockland Psychiatric Center property is so attractive after Tuesday's meeting, which focused primarily on its future.
"The property is unparalleled," Stewart said. "It is beautiful. It is on the water. It is in Orangetown. It is close to New York City."
The property also has issues, such as the buildings left behind when Orangetown purchased the 348-acres of RPC from the state for $5.9 million in 2003. The redevelopment of the property is one of the largest issues facing the town.
That was the impetus behind Tuesday's meeting of the town board and many town department heads with John Saccardi, who developed the town's comprehensive plan in 2003 and is working on updating it.
"We can't address every land use issue, but Rockland Psych is the one that looms the largest," Stewart said. "We've been having conversations. We've been inviting people in and asking, 'What do you know? What do you think?"
Stewart and Councilman Denis Troy both said earlier in the week that it was important for this group of people to sit down together and discuss the property, something they had not been able to do since Stewart and Councilmen Paul Valentine and Tom Morr took office in January.
"It was important to hear everybody's ideas," Valentine said. "W may have to market small pieces rather than go after a huge developer to do this huge project. The town didn't want to be in the real estate business, but we are in it."
Valentine credited Stewart with pushing the board into action on many issues, including RPC. He argued for breaking the property up into smaller pieces to sell, making it easier to market and easier to control what would be put in.
Stewart said the meeting was productive in that it allowed people to share information and help clarify what must come next.
"It allows us to see the light at the end of the tunnel," Stewart said. "The smart people get together and cooperate. There is a lot of work to be done, but we can get there."
Stewart hesitated when asked what would come next because there are many things that fit that description. One is looking into the market for the property, much of which the town board is looking to sell or find developers for. Saccardi recommended hiring a real estate consultant.
The town will also look into an environmental study, which would help to make the land more attractive to developers in part by reducing the risks they would face taking it on.
Another is checking with the state about the lands it still owns in the area -- the Rockland Children's Psychiatric Center, Staff Court and the power plant; all of which the town is looking to purchase.
"That's one disconnect we have with the PBA and CSEA," Troy said in reference to ongoing union negotiations with the town. "They say you don't have money to give to us, but you have money to go out and buy parcels of land. We're not looking to be real estate barons here. To control the integrity of the town, we need to control our destiny. That's why we bought Rockland Psychiatric with all of its challenges in the first place.
"We don't have any choice here. If there was some other alternative, we'd do that. That is one thing I talk to both unions about. Most of the people in them live here. We're trying to protect the quality of life here in the town. That's why we are looking at the big picture. It is quite a task we have ahead of us."
It was Troy who approached Saccardi in 2011 asking if the comprehensive plan needed to be updated. Saccardi said the plans usually have a life of 15-to-20 years. He investigated the need for an update.
"Many of the proposals we made in 2003 are still valid," Saccardi said. "Not everything was done. But one area in particular that the 2003 plan should be updated was the RPC property because of what happened between 2003 and the current date."
One change was the additional land becoming available from the state. Another was the attempt at age-restricted housing that did not come to fruition.
Orangetown's Financial Challenges
Orangetown Director of Finance Charlie Richardson and Town Assessor Brian Kenney both spoke on issues the town is facing that have emerged in recent years. Richardson said he was using information he presented to the PBA and CSEA.
"I have been talking about the current financial condition of the town, what makes us unique, not necessarily in a good way," Richardson said.
The major change is Pfizer, which purchased Wyeth in 2009.
"At the time, it town's largest employer and taxpayer," Richardson said. "It was 10 percent of the town's tax base with nearly 3,000 employees. Eventually, Pfizer decided to downsize the Pearl River facility and ship jobs to facilities in Ireland and Puerto Rico."
Pfizer also challenged the town's tax rate, leading to a settlement in 2011 in which Orangetown and Nanuet schools agreed to a 45% tax reduction for five years.
"Wyeth (Pfizer) is in the process of downsizing to about 1,000 jobs," Richardson said. "They are also looking to lease or sell vacant space. If you think things can't get worse, one option is to demolish buildings if they are unable to lease or sell them, so the current situation with Wyeth could get worse."
Richardson said Pfizer paid the town $4.9 million in taxes in 2011 and that number dropped to $2.7 million in 2012.
Orangetown is also dealing with the impact of the financial troubles of Rockland County. That includes potentially asking towns to pay for part or all of their own elections, which could mean an additional expense between $170,000 and $350,000 for Orangetown.
"None of the towns budgeted anything for election costs," Richardson said. "That's a problem."
Richardson also spoke of the added issue of the state's mandated two percent tax levy increase. Based on the town's $47 million tax levy in 2012, that comes to an increase of $940,000 for 2013.
"That sounds like a lot of money, but the state is projecting health insurance could go up 10 percent," Richardson said. "That would consume 65 percent of the amount of our property tax cap. Add in other things like election costs and steps for CSEA and police and we will have a tough time going forward with the tax cap."
Kenney agreed with Valentine's point about selling off the land in pieces. He said that the primary option for the land is commercial development.
"This can replace some of the losses elsewhere," Kenney said. "It is not just Pfizer. Since we purchased the property, we've lost almost $60 million in assessment. The only way to replenish that is by development."
Orange & Rockland recently came to the town with the idea of bringing in a data center. The developer in that case specifically asked about Veterans Park. There has been some discussion of moving the athletic fields from there to another part of the RPC land.
The ongoing discussions of the fate of Broadacres Golf Course was brought up, but Troy suggested moving on since it has dominated discussion so much the last two weeks.