Camp LaGuardia at the crossroads

| 22 Jun 2017 | 02:25

By Douglas Feiden
— A sharp spike in the criminal activity of young women in New York City during and after World War I played an outsized if largely unexamined role in the history of Orange County.
It gave rise to a land-use battle that roiled local municipalities for a century – and fueled a debate that rages to this day as the “For Sale” sign goes back up on one of the most storied parcels in the county.
That property, of course, is Camp LaGuardia. The undeveloped, 258.4-acre site is yet again at a crossroads, its fate and disposition, not for the first time, uncertain.
Its owner, the county, is envisioning ambitious, even grandiose, plans for its economic development. Meanwhile, a suitor, the Village of Kiryas Joel, unwelcome from the county’s perspective, has been maneuvering to buy it, preparing a new legal challenge to advance those aims.
But on June 16, the plot thickened. After a three-year battle, a deal was forged between KJ and United Monroe to create a new Town of North Monroe, subject to approvals from the Orange County Legislature and then voters of Monroe in November.
If that pact holds up – and the electorate gives a green light – KJ could put its quest for Camp LaGuardia on hold. It wouldn’t need the old camp for new housing. It would have extra space to grow. At last, Orange County would have a free rein to pursue its dreams.
To understand what the future may have in store for the hillside tract that straddles the towns of Chester and Blooming Grove, you have to understand its past. And to see how it became a flashpoint, you have to flash-back into time: The year is 1918.

Missing men, felonious femalesArrests of women for shoplifting, prostitution, breaking-and-entering and pick-pocketing were on the rise. The cause? Disruptions in family life and the absence of men, or so criminologists believed at the time.
What to do? Simple. Warehouse and reform the “wayward elements of the fairer sex,” as female felons were then called. So the city built a vast penal complex that doubled as a working farm on a slope it had quietly purchased a few years earlier off Greycourt Road.
By the early 1920s, the first inmates were shipped up to the “New York City Women’s Farm Colony” – it was considered bad form to call it a jail – which was the first of four names used over time to brand the facility.
A decade later, criminality among women was on the wane. But now, it was the depths of the Depression, homelessness and alcoholism among men were rampant.
In response, the city repositioned the property, shut down the prison, transferred title from the Department of Correction to the Department of Welfare, and in 1934, cut the ribbon for Camp Greycourt.
From crickets to crackDesigned to provide work for the jobless and shelter for the homeless, the 1,001-bed camp was a breakthrough in the history of rehabilitation, offering down-on-their-luck city dwellers a chance to cleanse body and soul in a rural setting complete with cows, crickets and farm fields.
Men hoed the soil or worked in an on-site cannery, producing tons of fruits, jellies and vegetables that supplied schools and hospitals in the city. A pet project of then-Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, the complex in 1935 was rechristened Camp LaGuardia.
The name endured for nearly three-quarters of a century. For much of that time, the place was viewed as a benign haven for the dispossessed, and in the main, its neighbors were tolerant. All that was to change in the 1980s.
As crack cocaine overtook booze as a drug of choice for the homeless, the shelter became an incubator for criminality, muggings took place along the old Erie Railroad tracks, and public lewdness and narcotics in the area were all too common.
For decades, outraged residents demanded it be shuttered, and finally, in 2007, with homeless rates in decline, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg did exactly that. The city then sold the campus to Orange County for $8.5 million.
Once again the name was changed. This time, the bureaucrats carried the day: Today, it is called the “Central Orange Development Area.”
Jubilation in Neuhaus householdAmong the area residents overjoyed by the closure was a Chester dentist named Dr. Ralph Neuhaus, who has practiced for more than 40 years, and his up-and-coming politician son, Steven M. Neuhaus, who was elected Chester town supervisor that same year.
“Camp LaGuardia had a negative impact on our community for at least 40 years,” said Neuhaus, who is now the Orange County Executive and has lived in the Chester area for most of his 43 years.
“I run on the Heritage Trail on a regular basis, and if it wasn’t for the closing of Camp LaGuardia, you wouldn’t see families and individuals out there taking advantage of it,” he said in a lengthy interview.
Noting that he now lives about a mile away from the campus, Neuhaus added, “There was no way in hell we would have bought our house if the homeless shelter was still there … It gave Chester a real black eye.”
County efforts to market the property were, well, a disaster. In 2008, the county authorized its sale for $8.5 million to Scarsdale-based Mountco Construction Corp., helmed by Joel Mounty, who initially planned to build 807 homes or apartments and 170,000 square feet of commercial space on the site.
One plan fizzles, another emergesFor eight years, those plans were debated, contested and downsized. Everything from sewerage infrastructure to housing scale and quantity were fought over. Still, Chester and Blooming Grove balked, and absent their approvals, the project went nowhere.
In June 2016, the county paid Mountco $1.2 million to break the contract of sale, kill the long-stalled deal and basically buy back the development rights. Now, officials are poised to start the sales process all over again.
In a nutshell, this is what they have to work with:
The campus. It consists of roughly a dozen structures, including the three-story, 70,836-square-foot Main Building, an East Barracks and a West Barracks, plus a Warehouse Building, Fuel Depot Building, Pump House and Recreation Building.
There’s also an edifice which is identified only as the “Zanelli Building,” according to a 2007 site description prepared by the Orange County Department of Real Property. The total on-site building area is 199,444 square feet, the inventory says.
The roads. There are access roads leading both to the Main Building and some outbuildings, including LaGuardia Road, a winding roadway that accesses the complex from Greycourt Road. They’re not in bad shape, though some surfaces are pitted and would require work.
The water and sewer. Historically, the property’s water came from the Village of Chester and its sewage went to the county-owned sewer treatment facility in Harriman. In fact, before the camp closed its doors, there was enough water and sewerage to serve 1,001 homeless men and 300-plus city employees, Neuhaus noted.
Could it simply be reconnected? Or would it have to be provided anew to make development viable?
The answer is dependent upon the site’s future use and associated water and sewer needs, county officials said.
The jurisdiction. The campus sprawls over 194.4 acres in the Town of Chester, 59.6 acres in the Town of Blooming Grove and another 4.4 acres in the Village of Chester, according to Tracy Schuh, who heads The Preservation Collective, an environmental watchdog group.
In Chester, a portion of the property was rezoned from Office Park to Industrial, while the rest remains Agricultural/Industrial, she said. Blooming Grove’s chunk is still zoned Rural/Residential, though the town is working to revise it, probably for light industrial uses, and the smallest sliver, in the Village of Chester, is zoned for manufacturing uses.
What happens next? Neuhaus will have a great deal to say about that, although any action to package, facilitate and eventually close a sale must be enacted by the 21-member Orange County Legislature, whose agenda the county executive does not control.
His vision is to subdivide the project into “multiple uses” and seek multiple bids so smaller developers, not only larger ones, can compete. The process would be market-driven, and ideally, lead to a panoply of offers from which the Legislature could then choose.
The government-owned property has long been off the tax rolls. In all likelihood, that’s been the case ever since the first woman entered the first cellblock. Now, that would change.
“There could be multiple small commercial pads,” Neuhaus said. “And they would all pay taxes.”
Big dreams, big obstaclesFor instance, farmers have already expressed interest in purchasing or leasing some of the 125 to 130 acres of so-called Black Dirt ag-lands and wetlands in which they could plant crops or grow hay, Neuhaus said.
Big corporate users might also find a home at Camp LaGuardia, he added, noting that Pratt & Whitney, the aircraft-parts maker, has an aerospace facility in Wallkill, and Mediacom, the cable giant, has its headquarters in Blooming Grove.
A reinvented campus could also host a small medical center, or perhaps even a community college. And it could make the ever-popular Heritage Trail more accessible by providing the extra parking it so desperately needs, he said.
“I’d like to see a good mix of commercial, agricultural and recreational uses,” Neuhaus said.
What’s missing from this picture? You may have noticed that housing was not on the county’s agenda.
But housing is at the top of KJ’s agenda, and the village has long had other ideas for the future of Camp LaGuardia.
Visions for a villageThe village is in perpetual growth mode. Kids under the age of 10 make up 41 percent of its population, and residents under the age of 15 comprise 56 percent. Its median age? A tender 12.9. The average size of a household? 5.7 people.
Accordingly, KJ must constantly seek new land and housing to shelter its ever-growing brood. And it’s done so for the past 15 years, said Gedalye Szegedin, who is both village administrator and village clerk.
In planning for KJ’s internal natural growth, its stewards try to provide enough water, sewer and land within KJ’s boundaries so that KJ families can stay in KJ.
But in a series of email interviews that took place two to four weeks before the North Monroe agreement was hammered out, Szegedin said those efforts have been frustrated as the county and municipalities filed “lawsuit after lawsuit to stop, derail and delay” village expansion.
The result? A “desperate housing shortage” and grassroots efforts to find residential housing outside of KJ, he said in the earlier interviews.
KJ is laboring to provide ample housing within its enlarged borders. Indeed, The Photo News reported on May 26 that as many as 6,150 new housing units are either under construction, in the approval process or on the drawing boards in KJ proper, meaning both the newly annexed lands and inside the village’s original borders.
“But we have to plan for the great possibility that the many lawsuits will bring us to a halt,” Szegedin said last month.
“That is why the KJ leadership has submitted a formal request to the County to buy any part of the Camp LaGuardia land it puts on the market,” he said. “We want to buy it for housing and economic development use – for if and when our efforts to grow in KJ fall apart, we will have an overflow destination.”
Then came word of the breakthrough June 16 deal to incorporate a new town that would separate Kiryas Joel from the Town of Monroe. If it holds, and voters approve the proposal on Nov. 7, will that alter KJ’s desire to purchase the property?
“It goes without saying that we have no intention to encourage overflow and mass-move outs if we can accommodate the KJ housing needs in KJ,” Szegedin said in an email on Monday, June 19.
“So if the new town deal gives us space to grow in KJ, we won’t continue to pursue other options,” he added.
Meanwhile, Neuhaus’ enthusiasm for what the county officially calls the Central Orange Development Area is infectious.
“If there’s a developer out there who has a vision for that property and credibility and a track record, we’d meet with them tomorrow,” he said.
“Realistically, I’d like to see concepts for Camp LaGuardia come out in 2017 and 2018, and reality could start there in 2019 … There could be hundreds of people, maybe even 1,000 people, working there, and it would be back on the tax rolls.”