Halcottsville bridge plans stir troubled waters

 

 

Business owners, county officials spar over efforts to replace structure

 

By Julia Green

The sixth line item on last week’s Town of Middletown Town Board meeting wasn’t a surprise to anyone in attendance.

That item, the proposed replacement of a bridge in Halcottsville, was the reason behind the larger-than-normal turnout, and monopolized the majority of the conversation Tuesday night.

In addition to concerns over the possible straightening of the road, which Town Supervisor Leonard Utter says is no longer a consideration, and a compromise of the hamlet’s historical integrity, there is a considerable amount of concern on the part of Jim Kelly, who owns property adjacent to the bridge in question. The property is also home to Susan’s Pleasant Pheasant Farm, which includes a bed and breakfast on over a mile of river. The Mill House that characterizes the property dates back to 1810 and is also owned by Jim and Susan Kelly.

Utter provided a brief history of the bridge’s troubles, including a plan to replace it in 1996. However, a flood that year wiped out what he estimated to be 200 Delaware County bridges, which, according to Utter, “Threw the schedule into a skew.”

“This is not a town project,” he added. “We have absolutely nothing to do with it.” He did acknowledge the potential danger that could be posed to the Kellys’ property.

“There could possibly be damage to Mr. Kelly’s property,” Utter said, citing the hazards posed by the use of vibratory hammers and other construction tools. He then proceeded to criticize the property itself, which is currently featured in a tourism book for Delaware County as part of the “I Love NY” campaign.  The photo, of the Mill House and half of the bridge, urges tourists to visit the eastern half of Delaware County.

“During construction, there is no way that bridge can be rebuilt without some disruption,” he said. “Jim bought a real bad, used piece of property and he should realize this.”

His characterization of the property, which included the word “dilapidated,” drew a strong reaction from Kelly.

“I think that that hits a very strong emotional spot in my heart, and I can’t even think of the words to respond to that,” he said. “It’s just utterly false. I have people who have infinite wealth say to me, ‘What a lucky guy.’ I have one of the nicest spots on the planet. There are a lot of special spots on this planet, but I think that this is one of the nicest spots on the planet, and quite frankly I think it’s priceless and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.” Kelly adds that he has books where people “go on for pages” about how much they love it.

He also ex-pressed disappointment at Utter’s characterization of the issue as a county matter that had nothing to do with the town.

“I think that he certainly misspoke,” Kelly said. “I think that this is and very much should be a Town of Middletown issue. It’s way more than just a county bridge; it affects one of the unique rural hamlets. For a town supervisor to say this is not a town issue – well, number one he should have recused himself from even getting involved in this on a town end since he’s wearing the highway hat. I think from the historical perspective, the local employment perspective, the kayak and canoe business, the number of guests that we had at our bed and breakfast form an economic gain to this area, there are probably more than a dozen people who saw an ad, came here to this small rural hamlet, fell in love with the area and become second homeowners. Why the county or the town would want to be embroiled in a legal battle, incurring legal costs and potentially having to pay me for the value of our place is somehow going to help our economy in these days of fiscal conservatism… there should be a way to put the bridge in and let the business remain there.”

Kelly added that were it not for the very real danger of severe structural damage to his property, he would not be raging such a fight. 

“I think that certainly there could be some negative impacts just in terms of the timing with our seasonal business, but that commercial loss of business because they’re doing construction I wasn’t concerned with as much as the physical damage to my building. If there wasn’t potential damage to the building, and the septic plays into that, any of the commercial loss of business – I don’t have a problem with that. I’m not looking for them to compensate me for that.”

“I think that what I’m hoping is that this spurs enough response so that the county can come forward and tell us what their plans really are, and maybe the town does get more involved and consider it a county and town issue,” Kelly said. 

The project has been in the works for a number of years and has seen a number of different plans, which both Kelly and Utter acknowledge; however, Utter didn’t mince words when describing the fate of other proposed plans. Utter stated that an original plan to build a covered bridge to replace the current one didn’t come to fruition, since due to “Mr. Kelly’ stonewalling and throwing road blocks in the way, we lost that money.”

Kelly argued back. “I was told that the covered bridge wasn’t moving ahead because of their time commitment to their waste facility project and the manpower commitment to that project,” he said. “Last I heard, they had taken it off the table because they had lost their engineer, Pierce, and they didn’t have a guy to do it, and in the same breath Wayne Reynolds said some of the funding had been lost for that.”

The funds had been committed by the O’Connor Foundation, and the plan was to work without disrupting Kelly’s septic system – another issue in the debate. 

Utter stated at Tuesday’s meeting that the county had offered to relocate the septic system, but that Kelly refused the offer – another statement Kelly vehemently refutes.

“The county wanted to relocated it, and they wanted me to pay to relocate it,” he said. “I wasn’t going to pay to pump it off my property, and pumping it up behind my animals was out of the question. The DEP, who is monitoring all this water, they don’t like the septic not to be on the same parcel of land where that building is located.”

Kelly doesn’t disagree with Utter’s statement that “the county has tried to work with Mr. Kelly,” saying that that has been true “on and off” during negotiations, but that there has been no communication since a letter sent in December.

Kelly characterized the current debate as “a battle,” and added that the property is “one of the most important things in [his] life.”

Following a meeting between the Kellys and their attorney and representatives from Delaware County and Utter, there was correspondence between the Kellys and the county, which Kelly said has since come to a halt.

“We said, ‘What happens if when doing the jack hammering right next to our place and you have a big trench built between our bed and breakfast and the road, my house falls in the river?’” Kelly said. “They said, ‘Well if that happens, you’d have to sue us and we’d fight it.’”

He added that they sent him proposed designs, which he was advised by his legal counsel not to choose between since if the design they chose didn’t work, the liability would be his own. They responded with a letter to that effect and asked for more information about why the bridge is failing and “why there can’t be a solution to keep our business standing.”

“That was the last we heard from the county,” he said. “My lawyer has faxed them a number of times after that letter to see the plans, the current status of the project, saying, ‘You told the Kellys there was a short window.’ They’ve just refused to respond, and since that’s the case, we decided to bring the issue up at the town board meeting.

“Since the last letter came out, that was kind of a line in the sand and we responded, and now they’re just stonewalling us,” he added. “So my plan now is that we’re going to file formal Freedom of Information requests to get some of that information to even understand what’s going on, because the county has not responded to us since that letter.”

Fred Travis, a Halcottsville resident who attended Tuesday’s meeting, expressed his concern regarding the project and added that he is troubled by the lack of communication from the county as well as the potential danger to the historical character of the hamlet.

“I’ve never been informed of a public meeting where I could view the plans,” he said, adding that he thinks property owners should receive notice from the county and that “in the middle of the night without notifying anyone seemed a way to get it done quickly.”

Kelly added, “I’m hoping that if the story gets out, enough people can shake some sense into our town government and county to get this resolved. We’re going to try and take this public and get more grassroots support so more people understand what some of our issues are. And we’d really like to know what the county is planning.

“I’m both a local boy and a downstate businessman,” he said. “And I’m gonna use all of my mountain savvy and city savvy to fight this battle.”