EDITORIAL: Impact? What impact?

IT DOESN’T TAKE long to come up with good reasons to welcome the plan by Ginsberg’s, the regional food distribution company in Claverack, to build a big warehouse on state Route 66 in Ghent near the county airport. The most compelling one of all might  be the “F” word.

That would be food. Specifically, having lots of it stored locally sounds comforting in an era of unpredictable climate changes. You could argue that we don’t need a lot of the stuff we produce in our society. (What’s on your gift list this season?) But it’s hard to argue we won’t need food.

Jobs matter too. The company proposes to hire 25 people for low- and medium-income positions. These probably won’t show up on a “jobs-of-the-future” list, which doesn’t matter as long as they pay enough to support workers and their families.Maybe you have personal reasons. Take supporting local businesses over companies with no local roots. That distinction receives a lot of press this time of year. Ginsberg’s was founded in the county over a century ago and still has its headquarters here. Though the company’s primary business is wholesale, it’s no outsider.

Even knowing all these significant facts, it was jarring to read that the county Board of Supervisors has determined that the new warehouse project will have “no significant impact on the human environment.”

Yup. Just your average 50-foot-tall, 65,454-square-foot freezer and satellite 8,583-square-foot maintenance building on a 33-acre meadow bracketed by two streams. That’s Phase 1. The full build out will cover over 300,000 square feet with parking for 297 cars and 167 tractor/trailers. How could that have any impact on the “human environment”?

By comparison, the new Chatham Price Chopper supermarket is about 44,000 square feet and a lot shorter.

The no-impact determination was announced November 28 in a legal notice in the Register-Star. The notice is required to alert the public that the county plans to ask the state to release $516,000 for the “Ginsberg’s Foods Expansion Project.” This government money accounts for less than 5% of the $11-million project.

Work at the site has already begun so the notice doesn’t come as a complete surprise. Opponents of the project previously went to court seeking to block a similar no-impact conclusion reached by the Ghent Planning Board, which determined that the warehouse did not need a thorough environmental review based on state environmental regulations. Judge Richard Koweek later tossed out the opponents’ challenges and ordered the town to issue permits to Ginsberg’s.

The county had to base its impact decision on federal standards, and the feds are less strict than this state is when it  comes to protecting the environment. So you could argue that the county had no choice. But any attempt to justify fast-tracking the Ginsberg’s project at this point requires pretending that the last two years in this county never happened.

Only last summer the Board of Supervisors cut off funding for the Columbia Economic Development Corporation (CEDC) , the county authority handling the Ginsberg’s project. The supervisors claimed they were stunned by potential conflicts of interests on the CEDC board uncovered as part of a state investigation. And that scandal was preceded by public outcry over the decision by the CEDC to transfer the warehouse site to Ginsberg’s for $1. It was a legal deal, but county taxpayers didn’t like the smell of it.

Now, without a peep of skepticism, county officials want voters to buy into the magical thinking that this huge project will have no impact on the environment. That’s a stretch. Even the Tooth Fairy could find ways of mitigating the already acknowledged impacts of this project before more public money is spent on it.

Why should the county demand a say in a project located in two towns, both of which have given their approval? Because the county will supply water and sewer services and because the impacts of a project this big will, by definition, spill off the site and beyond the neighborhood.

Government has a role to play in supporting economic development. Ginsberg’s is a logical candidate for assistance. But there’s a third party here: the people of Columbia County. They’ve already seen their interests put at risk. So before the county signs over a half-million dollars more to this venture, it’s time officials explain exactly who is responsible for safeguarding the public interest and the environment we all inhabit.

(Send comments by Dec. 16 to: Patrick Grattan, Chairman, Board of Supervisors, 401 State St., Hudson, NY. 12534.)

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