That Property Down In Coeymans

June 28, 2018

The City of Albany is still trying to
get rid of the proposed site of Jerry’s Dump

Of all the ridiculous messy stinking problems that former mayor Jerry Jennings left current City of Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan to clean up when she took over City Hall, disposing of the three adjacent parcels of land owned by Albany in the Town of Coeymans in the southern part of Albany County has perhaps been the most persistently odorous.  Well into her second term, Mayor Sheehan continues to spend way too much time trying to find some way to dispose of this frightful waste of City taxpayer money. Perhaps the mayor’s efforts may finally be heading for a sanitary resolution, unfortunately we can’t yet say for sure.

Now, I don’t want anybody’s eyes to glaze over, so here’s the quick read teal deer version of the history behind this sordid mess.  Shortly after taking office as mayor in 1994, Jennings started buying up 363 acres of fallow farmland, woodland and wetlands in Coeymans with City of Albany taxpayer money so that he could plant a gigantic garbage dump that he expected would be enormously profitable.  That’s right, a garbage dump.  Anticipating those profits, he eventually paid three Coeymans landowners the ridiculous sum of $5.2 million of taxpayer cash for land that was worth maybe, at most, half a million dollars.  Maybe.  What landowner would refuse such inflated offers?  Of course they sold him the land.

But certain citizens of Coeymans, led by former Albany resident Jim Travers, got together and hired Save the Pine Bush’s former lawyer Lew Oliver and easily stopped the construction of the new dump on environmental grounds.  Angry as a hornet and true to form, Jennings did not even try to dispose of the now useless property while continuing to pay debt maintenance on the land… with taxpayer money of course.  Since the mid 1990s, Albany has been paying Coeymans about $100,000 a year in property and school taxes alone, which Kathy Sheehan has been stuck paying.

Property Owned By The City Of Albany In The Town Of Coeymans Property Owned By The City Of Albany In The Town Of Coeymans

Asking current City of Albany officials about the ongoing efforts by the City to get rid of the land has been like talking to stop signs and about as informative.  I suppose this is understandable. Surprisingly, the best source of information about the ongoing attempts to dispose of the land come from the normally unreliable Hearst-owned Times Union, which is always ready to emphasize anything that makes the City of Albany and especially Mayor Sheehan look bad.

At a recent public meeting I asked Common Council President Corey Ellis about the status of the land, he claimed total ignorance which I find very unlikely.  At another meeting I asked City Auditor Susan Rizzo about the finances involved, since that is totally her area of concern.  Her very friendly demeanor became cold as ice as she first tried to divert the question and then when I pressed her for an answer she also feigned ignorance while firing a deadly glare at me.

So earlier this month I was able to get Mayor Sheehan to comment in public.  It seems she is currently negotiating with the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to buy the land, which she claims she is confident will happen.  Ah yes, I’ve heard her say that before.  In past years she has been so confident of impending sales that she has even included the anticipated revenue from the sales in several of her proposed yearly budgets. Which also makes me wonder how she managed to make up for those shortfalls when the sales fell through, but to her credit somehow those gaps got quietly closed.

Mayor Kathy Sheehan Mayor Kathy Sheehan

One thing the mayor did not tell me was how much she hoped the State would pay for the land this time around, presumably to make it into a preserve.  Back in 2015 she told me it was a done deal that the State would pay $3.6 million for the land, but I got the distinct impression that she considered that an embarrassing loss from the original price her predecessor had paid.  That deal fell through, I’ve heard no reason why.

But we can guess the reason with a fair amount of certainty.  The State must have taken a hard look at the land and realized that it wasn’t worth anywhere near $3.6 million and balked at the price.  Ms. Sheehan, perhaps hoping to not take an even bigger bath on the sale price, may not have been interested at that time in reducing the price down to the relative pittance that the land is actually worth.  Or possibly the State just turned up its nose, said nope and walked away refusing to negotiate with her. They do that often enough.

After that fell through I heard some ever lowering figures for the land being tossed around but nothing for sure until the City announced that it had found a buyer for the property who was willing to pay the much more reduced price of $620,000, which sad to say is still kind of high.  Apparently by this time the mayor was ready to take any price, this time from an adjacent landowner.  That buyer would be the notorious developer Carver Laraway.  Or would have been.

Edge Of The City Of Albany Property Along Old Ravena Road At Right, Privately Owned Fallow Farm Field At Left Edge Of The City Of Albany Property Along Old Ravena Road At Right, Privately Owned Fallow Farm Field At Left

Maybe this is a good place to stop and discuss this property.  A few weeks ago I took The Wife for a drive down to Coeymans to look at the land, not at all sure what we would see or even if we could get near it. We discovered that there was nothing stopping us from looking at it all we wanted, no barriers other than a few faded No Trespassing signs here and there which didn’t bother me because I figured I was a part owner of this land with my taxes and had every right to inspect it.

Turns out there are only two small access points where you can enter the three adjacent properties from public roads.  One access is a strip of lovely woodland on the west side of the Albany properties along Old Ravena Road off of Route 9W, the main local highway through these parts.  This short strip, which is all of 387.5 feet, is between a fallow field adjacent to an old well-kept farmhouse, and on the other side of the strip there’s a barricaded driveway that leads into the LaFarge Cement property next to 9W. We could see some of the LaFarge earthmoving equipment sitting just inside.  

Seeing no way to enter the land at Old Ravena Road except bushwhacking, we drove around to the east side of the property along Route 144, looking for an entry onto the property that we could see on the Albany County tax map called Stylababrack Road. No, that is not a typo caused by me hiccuping while I type.  We figured that if this road really existed (not a certainty with tax maps) and was not barricaded off, then according to the map I’d printed off my computer at home it allowed access deep into the property.

The Wife Looks Back Down Stylababrack Road Toward The Thruway The Wife Looks Back Down Stylababrack Road Toward The Thruway

Turns out that Stylababrack Road is unpaved and from the looks of it not maintained very well, a couple of deep ruts near the entrance that The Wife’s less than a year old car was having trouble navigating. Next time we visit I’m bringing my higher-off-the-ground pickup.  But somehow I managed to slowly drive her car along the ruts without scraping bottom much.

We only drove a short ways to a spot where we could see that other vehicles had parked and turned around, even though the road improved after that and we could have gone a lot further.  It’s really a nice piece of land, perfect for a preserve. The fields alongside the road looked marshy so we didn’t venture to walk onto them, we were dressed for a Sunday ride and not an expedition into the muddy wilderness.  Reportedly, about 60% percent of the property is wetlands, which limits what you can do with the land and as a practical matter precludes using most of it as a dump.

We did walk up the road a little ways, we could see some brush and tree clearing had been done but not recently, maybe five or ten years ago. From the map we could see that the access road did not bring us up to Coeymans Creek which winds through the property in an S curve on its way to the Hudson. Further upstream in Feura Bush is a plastics plant that has been dumping toxic waste and heavy metals into the creek, we can only wonder how much this has damaged the wetlands here and how much of that poison ends up in the Hudson. 

Approaching The Stylababrack Road Thruway Underpass, Seen Through A Dirty Windshield Approaching The Stylababrack Road Thruway Underpass, Seen Through A Dirty Windshield

Shortly after driving onto Stylababrack Road we encountered an astonishing thing.  The New York State Thruway runs through the property close to Rt. 144 at this point where the road enters the land, and we had to go through an underpass to get past the Thruway.  The short tunnel looked to be in good shape, the concrete that is lining it not at all decaying.  Clearly it must have been put there when the Thruway was built in the 1950s so the then landowner could have access to his or her land.  Yet it looked pretty good after 60 years, could it possibly have been re-surfaced some 15 or 20 years ago.

But here’s the thing, the tunnel is small and narrow. It’s barely big enough for one full sized municipal garbage truck to squeeze through.  Larger trucks and big earthmoving equipment could not possibly fit. And one thing we know for sure is that no matter how much influence Jerry Jennings imagined that he had, there was no way the State was going to build him a bigger tunnel here.  So this could not have functioned as the primary access to the land, although it is quite possible that Jennings imagined that it could have.

Which means that either Jennings was hoping to buy more land for his dump east of Rt. 144, or that the 387.5 feet of land along Old Ravena Road was the spot where there was going to be a steady stream of garbage trucks entering and leaving at all hours seven days a week, coming off of Rt. 9W.  The more I looked at this property the more I thought, “What the hell could the guy have been thinking?”

Decaying Cut Logs Along Stylababrack Road Decaying Cut Logs Along Stylababrack Road

You see, to make the kind of big profits he must have had in mind, Jennings would have had to have a lot of garbage hauled in from all directions.  He wanted this to be the dump to end all dumps.  Supposedly this would benefit the City of Albany taxpayers, but we can reasonably assume that this business model would have benefited him personally, eventually making him a powerful big man.  Very likely that was his main incentive.

But would trucks full of garbage been enough to make this dump profitable? We noted that active train tracks also ran through the property, another way to deliver garbage.  But it has always appeared to me that only one thing would have made this property a fabulous source of cash. and that would have been if this dump could have found a way to accept a whole lot of garbage from New York City via the Hudson River.  

That would have meant the property needed access to the Hudson.  Barges full of crap floating up the river and unloading at Coeymans would have gone a long way to solving NYC’s ongoing garbage crisis, which was particularly acute in the 1990s when Jennings first came up with this plan.  But that meant he needed a port so that the garbage could be unloaded.  There was an unused and rundown port already on the river, but rebuilding it was quite a bit beyond his capabilities.

Carver Laraway Carver Laraway

That’s where Carver Laraway comes in.  It was back in 2001 that Laraway bought the land situated between the location of Jerry’s Future Dump and the Hudson River, bought with the intention of rebuilding a decrepit port that was part of a defunct brickyard. The timing is right, I think it very likely that Jennings and Laraway were wheeling and dealing at this point. Or rather that Jennings imagined that he was dealing, Laraway turned out to be the bigger shark who eats characters like Jennings for lunch.

We know for a fact that the two of them were working together at this time.  It seems that Laraway wanted to build an asphalt plant, somewhere, anywhere.  In the year 2003, Jennings told him that a great place to locate an asphalt plant would be on the north end of the Port of Albany about where the Global oil tanks are currently located, close to the neighborhoods of the South End.  It was a perfect spot, with easy access to highways, rail and of course the river.

Only one little problem.  Asphalt plants are serious polluters, and there would be a steady stream of truck traffic in and out of the facility that would pass through Albany neighborhoods.  This spot along the river is the lowest point in Albany and very densely populated.  According to various health agencies, because it is a low point it had and still has some of the worst air quality in the region.

Standing On South Pearl Street Near The Family Dollar Looking Toward The Approximate Location Of The Proposed Asphalt Plant Standing On South Pearl Street Near The Family Dollar Looking Toward The Approximate Location Of The Proposed Asphalt Plant

What Jennings didn’t count on was that the entire South End would rise up to oppose this asphalt plant, including elected officials.  After automatically approving the original proposal like it usually does, the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) was forced by outraged public demand to reopen the case and hold a public hearing.  After listening to pretty much unanimous opposition from the hundreds of people who packed the auditorium at Giffen Elementary Public School, the DEC was forced to rescind their “positive declaration” and admit that yes indeed asphalt plants may possibly in fact have an impact on the environment and this one ought to examined for toxicity and pollution in the proper legal manner.

This meant that Laraway would have to submit a proper Environmental Impact Statement, which meant the effective death of the project.  Oh, it was glorious.  Laraway and his now deceased prime investor Elias Wiesal sat there in the auditorium grimacing and listening to speaker after speaker holler at the DEC officials for casually approving this assault on our health and well-being.  Jennings was smart enough to stay away from the hearing.  It was a humiliating moment for him. All of us low-born citizens and elected officials convincingly demonstrated to Jennings’ erstwhile business partners that he was not in control of the situation and couldn’t deliver on his promises.

But Laraway, wily shark that he is, didn’t sit back and depend on Jennings to deliver the goods.  Several weeks before this watershed moment in the history of Jerry’s 20 Year Reign, Laraway and his lawyer Donald Zee (well known to Save the Pine Bush as a developer’s mouthpiece) sat down at a table with a dozen or so of us concerned citizens to, supposedly, explain his asphalt plant proposal to us and to reassure us that it was a benign thing that would enhance the neighborhood.  In reality, their purpose was to gauge the depth and effectiveness of the opposition among us neighbors.

Jerry Jennings In 2013 At The End Of His Fourth Term Jerry Jennings In 2013 At The End Of His Fourth Term

The other concerned neighbors around that table were a bit too hesitant and polite. Most of what I heard from them that afternoon concerned truck traffic, a valid concern but not the main problem, which was the steady diet of deadly fumes and godawful noise that would emanate from this proposed outpost of Hell day and night.  Laraway was indeed forced to concede to us that he had grossly understated the volume of truck traffic on his environmental impact form, but that was hardly a decisive factor as he well understood.

It was my rude questions that showed me his measure.  For example, I asked him about the volume of particulates generated by the facility, those particles smaller than 10 microns that enter your lungs but tend to not leave.  I asked about a lot of such things that didn’t appear on his environmental impact form.  Laraway and Zee repeatedly replied that they had no idea what I was talking about and that such questions were too technical for them to answer.

I started to get tired of the two of them pretending to to be ignorant. Finally I asked Laraway, “I see you live in Altamont [which is in western Albany County.] Would you want to have this facility sited next to your house?”  Shifting in his seat and forming a grimace across his face that was meant to be a smile, he said, “Yes, I would.”

I took copious notes of this meeting and fashioned them into an email, which I immediately spread all over the South End and beyond to anybody who had a computer hooked up to the internet.  Back in 2003 email was still cutting edge technology, utilizing this newfangled wonder to spread vital information like this was still rare and surprising.  But it had a tremendous effect. I heard a lot of details from it quoted at that public meeting at Giffen Public School. And yes, it turns out I still have that email.

Th Port Of Coeymans Today The Port Of Coeymans Today

Since then we have seen that Laraway is no fool, after that meeting he dropped the South End asphalt plant proposal.  He has indeed rebuilt the port at Coeymans on the riverside property next to Jennings’ planned dump that he had bought, word is that it is thriving.  And he did indeed build, or rather acquired and refurbished an old asphalt plant far away from Albany.  And he had no more use for Jennings, who angrily continued to pile imported garbage onto the Rapp Road Dump in the Pine Bush.

So we have to wonder why Laraway decided to buy the 363 acres of adjacent land from Kathy Sheehan, what did he have in mind?  The property is, like I said, some 60% wetland and there is not much you can do with such land without running into problems with regulatory authorities.  And angry citizens, of which Coeymans has a fair number.  

Which also again begs the question, what was Jennings thinking with his dump plan?  My suspicion is that he had dollar signs blinding his eyes and didn’t really think this through.  When he proposed selling the Lincoln Park Pool and several years later proposed usin part of Lincoln Park to site a useless and damaging roundabout in my neighborhood it’s clear he didn’t understand what alienation of parkland means.  I suspect he considered wetlands protection and preservation laws a minor speedbump that he could easily fly over.

Coeymans Creek Off Old Ravena Road Just Outside The Albany Properties Coeymans Creek Off Old Ravena Road Just Outside The Albany Properties

But Laraway is a lot sharper than Jennings and ought to have known better.  He definitely had plans for the property. Last Autumn a fellow I know who was given permission to hunt deer there told me that he saw that Laraway had been doing alterations to the land, building roads and digging and such.  But it appears that whatever he started there he has abandoned.

This past March the Hearst Times Union reported that Laraway had backed out of the contract for the property citing a contingency, something about access to the land that was promised but not forthcoming.  I asked Mayor Sheehan about this, saying to her that the access issue sounded like an excuse to me.  Slightly irritated, she insisted that the access issue was a legitimate negotiating sticking point that they couldn’t get past.

Seriously, that’s absurd.  As I mentioned earlier, Laraway owns land that he already uses adjacent to this property, he could make all the access he wanted. But I didn’t press the mayor, what’s the point. It wouldn’t make the slightest financial sense to sue Laraway for breach of contract, a case the City could not win.  So it’s time to move on, find another buyer.

City Of Albany Property, Coeymans City Of Albany Property, Coeymans

Except who could possibly want three parcels of overpriced land, two thirds of which is wetlands that can’t be developed.  That’s where the State comes in, maybe just maybe they could turn this into a nature preserve.  Isn’t that the job of big government, to clean up messes created by little governments? Maybe something like The Nature Conservancy might be interested in holding the land for a spell while the State gets around to ponying up the money, we can only hope.

Meanwhile Mayor Sheehan has managed to reduce the expenses that City of Albany taxpayers pay to maintain this bizarre failed boondoggle of Jerry Jennings.  A court decided to reduce the Town of Coeymans assessment on this property from $3,639,400 to the magic number $620,000.  The Hearst Rag reports that this means the City of Albany will only have to pay $18,000 per year in property taxes.

Good news for Albany, very bad news for Coeymans which has been hit with several big tax reduction cases at once this year.  Mayor Sheehan certainly isn’t making any friends down there.  But hopefully this reduced assessment will make the property more attractive to potential buyers, the State or somebody. Really, anybody at all, buy it please.  Take it off our hands.  We can’t afford to maintain this relic of past corruption anymore.