The February 14th, 2014 minutes of the Columbia County Industrial Development Agency reveal that the County intends to make a “land donation” of approximately 33 acres to Ginsberg’s Foods.
Former Claverack Planning Board member (and Churchtown firefighter) Nathan Chess dropped that bombshell research at tonight’s joint meeting with the Ghent and Claverack planners, as part of a a scheduled public hearing.
The gift presumably is dependent upon approval of the company’s application for a new 300,000 refrigerated warehouse, office space and trucking center on Route 66, just north of the intersection with 9H on the Ghent/Claverack line.
The IDA minutes found by Chess state that the County’s Economic Development Council (CEDC) “continued to negotiate with Ginsberg’s about the land contract.” The 2014 head of CEDC is David Crawford, the principal of Crawford Engineering—the same firm which is spearheading Ginsberg’s application before the two Planning Boards. David Ginsberg himself was listed as a member of CEDC as recently as its September 2013 meeting.
Mr. Chess further noted that the company appears to be operating under two names, G. Best Realty and Ginsberg’s Institutional Foods, per a letter from County economic development czar Kenneth Flood authorizing the company to pursue an application for a project on County-owned land. Mr. Ginsberg was in charge of the candidate search which eventually hired Flood, according to sources familiar with the hiring process.
Sardonically referring to himself as “an investor” in Ginsberg’s—as a County taxpayer—Chess further noted that the IDA’s December 3rd, 2013 minutes discussed giving the company a $30,000 “mortgage tax exemption” in relation to its Payment In Lieu of Tax (PILOT) deal for its existing, smaller facility further west on 66.
In addition to the apparent land donation and mortgage tax exemption, New York State has agreed to provide Ginsberg’s with roughly $1 million in tax credits, and over $500,000 in community block grants to fund the expansion.
The public hearing was marked by an unusual number of interruptions and admonishments of public commenters by Ghent Planning Board chair Jonathan Walters, (who serves as an editor and writer at Governing magazine). Walters warned those wishing to speak not to repeat others’ comments, and made numerous interjections during various attempts by citizens to enter questions and comments into the record.
Resident Donna Davey was among those cut off by Walters, when she attempted to express concerns about “sprawl.” During the remarks of others, such as Mr. Chess, the hearing officer made eye and hand gestures indicating he wanted the speaker to hurry up or abandon certain lines of argument.
By contrast, officials such as Columbia County Chamber head David Colby and former Claverack Supervisor Jim Keegan, along with employees of Ginsberg’s who spoke in favor of the application, were allowed to speak uninterrupted. A supportive letter from County Supervisors chair Pat Grattan was read aloud by Brandee Nelson of Crawford Engineering, again without interruption.
Meanwhile, concerned neighbor Tom Runyon was lectured to “read the application” before the next time he offered comments, even though Runyon’s softspoken questions reflected an obvious familiarity with key details of the application.
Runyon pointed out that the two Boards had proceeded with a public hearing despite not having voted to deem the Ginsberg’s application complete, a normal procedural hurdle. Joint attorney for the two boards, Jeffrey S. Baker, argued that the application was “substantially” complete, conceding that some environmental formalities remained to be formally adopted.
Walters appeared impatient with what he characterized as Runyon’s “procedural” comments, and urged him to focus instead on the meat of the application. But Runyon was again shot down when he quizzed the Boards and their joint attorney about such particulars. He noted, for example, that the application was for a “warehouse,” but also included other components such as an 85-bay trucking operation. Board members and Ginsberg’s reps claimed that the trucking component was for “repairs,” though other discussion clearly indicated that the trucks would be loading food in and out of the facility.
Runyon’s concern about emissions from the 85-odd vehicles running “all night” appeared to be deemed more germane by several on the two Boards.
Runyon, along with Ghent resident Patti Matheney and others further managed to tease out information that the water tower proposal for the property was a “County project,” which apparently would be paid for by the County, not Ginsberg’s. Though the proposed water tower was a frequent topic of discussion at the meeting, it does not appear to be mentioned in the public notice for the project.
The often hostile back-and-forths with audience members struck this observer as highly unusual, given that Planning Boards serve in a “quasi-judicial” capacity—with an obligation to not render an opinion until all input, including public comment, is received.
At dozens of similar hearings attended over the years, this attendee has seen members of a diverse set of municipalities and agencies take input on a wide variety of topics, without attempting to divert or derail the commenter’s line of thought. Members typically do not interact with commenters during a formal public hearing, of which a transcript is supposed to be made, answering only the simplest procedural and factual questions when these can be addressed succinctly and without tainting the proceedings with any appearance of bias.
Issues and other comments raised by commenters are more usually addressed later in a reply document, which sorts out new substantive issues from those already addressed in the course of the review, and setting aside those not germane to the process. Such reticence helps preserve the appearance of a Board not rendering objective judgements free of premature, arbitrary or capricious decisions.