Legislator Shimsky: “We’re talking about the largest piece of county-owned property. We’re talking about a 99-year lease”
WHITE PLAINS — Westchester County is going to put a little more time into its review of plans for a $1.2 billion biotech center in Valhalla, despite pleas from the developer to hurry it up.
A consultant from the land use law firm Zarin Steinmetz, hired by the county and paid for by developer Fareri Associates, recommended on Tuesday that the county hire at least one other consultant to take a look at the economics of the deal.
The firm also recommended conducting another appraisal of the 80-acre property targeted as the future home of the Westchester Bioscience and Technology Center, which includes 60 acres of undeveloped county-owned land, known as “The North 60” at the edge of the Grasslands Reservation near the Westchester County Medical Center.
“We’re talking about the largest piece of county-owned property. We’re talking about a 99-year lease,” County Legislator Mary Jane Shimsky, a Hastings-on-Hudson Democrat, said at Tuesday morning’s Infrastructure Committee meeting. “(We) have to get it right for taxpayers.”
The plan, backed by County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican, calls for building a biotech and medical office complex, stores and a 100-room hotel along with an estimated 8,000 permanent jobs and an additional 4,000 construction jobs.
But first, the project needs approvals from the county, including a two-thirds majority vote to override a county law limiting leases to 30 years.
Last month, developer John Fareri expressed dissatisfaction with the length of the county’s review process. In a June 1 letter, he asked the county to make the development a priority. He told the Journal News potential tenants were opting for New Jersey, Connecticut and Rockland County instead.
“I get frustrated because I see what’s happening in Westchester economically and what’s happening in the marketplace and other areas are eating our economic lunch,” Fareri said. “Sometimes by not making a timely decision, you’re also making the wrong decision.”
Geoff Thompson, a spokesman for the developer, said the lack of a timeline for the review has created a situation where Fareri can’t tell potential tenants much besides that the project is under review and still a ways off from being built.
“It’s really a tough situation that we need to address and hopefully the board will really expedite whatever they’re doing here,” Thompson said.
After a county approval, the BioScience Center would still need land-use approvals from and an environmental review by the town of Mount Pleasant.
“The delays are hurting,” Thompson said. “The [county] budget discussion is in the fall – that’ll get everyone sidetracked again – and this is just not helpful.”
At the meeting, Shimsky, who chairs the committee, advocated for a slower approach.
“It’s the last asset of its size the people of this county have left,” she said. “I do not want to sign off on a $1.2 billion (project) without understanding if it’s the best deal for us.”
Ned McCormack, a spokesman for the county executive, said the Board of Legislators needed to balance a careful review with urgency.
“This is an important initiative that involves jobs and tax revenues and the board has a responsibility to do its due diligence, but it needs to do it in a very timely manner,” he said.