Battle of the bricks over porposed Legoland in Goshen

(Courtesy of Legoland)

(Courtesy of Legoland)

Something big wants to settle into someplace small – something whose potential impact is being measured in the millions: millions of dollars in costs and taxes paid (and forgiven), millions of visitors, millions of gallons of water. It’s being called a lifesaver and a life-killer, the polar opposites that all such big somethings bring with them to places small.

The proposed Legoland water park resort in the Orange County town of Goshen (2010 population 14,000) will, if approved, have at least as much economic and social impact as the gambling casinos now scheduled for construction in and about the mid-Hudson region. Legoland’s British parent corporation, Merlin Entertainments, wants to site the $500 million project on a 150-acre tract within a larger 520 acres of now-empty land along Harriman Drive. The company says that the project will create 800 construction jobs, 500 full-time, 300 part-time and 500 seasonal jobs. Roads will be widened and sound will be buffered by the project’s surrounding acreage, the company says.

Despite having the support of some pretty big political figures at the state and local levels, opponents of the project say that the fight to stop Legoland from creating what they believe would be a disaster for Goshen has just begun.

If the odds seem stacked against opponents who lack Merlin’s millions, opponents will point you to the slightly tinier town of Haverstraw (2010 population 12,000) in neighboring Rockland County. Haverstraw was Merlin’s first choice for settling. It too had plenty of official state and county support. But, after loud and sustained complaints from residents, the company was forced to abandon its project after town officials, who had been initially supportive of the project, decided against the plan late last year. Merlin went looking for another site and found it in Goshen.

The official reaction to Merlin’s relocation plan was overwhelmingly favorable. State and county and even town officials have identified it as an economic “game-changer,” whose promise of jobs, increased tourism dollars to existing businesses and the growth of new businesses would be a winning combination. But amid all the optimistic predictions, assurances and promises, discouraging words are not difficult to find among the town’s residents. To some, “massive” into “small” simply does not go.

Attorney Michael Sussman, who is not representing opponents of the project but who has spoken against it as a private citizen, said that the environmental review of the project has been inadequate, arguing that what he calls the project’s environmentally sensitive acreage is neither zoned for such a large project, nor does it comply with the town’s Master Plan. In addition, he called the length and reimbursement levels of the project’s requested 30-year tax break in the form of payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) unprecedented. While he agreed that the county needs jobs, he said that it needs them in Middletown and Newburgh and Port Jervis, not in a relatively isolated area such as the project’s proposed site.

Town resident Brad Barnhorst is a chemical engineer by profession who moved to Goshen for the peace and quiet it offered. He can’t see how those qualities of life can survive the Legoland project. “I’m not anti-growth. As a chemical engineer, I usually find myself on the side of industry. But I’ve been taken aback by the scope of this project.”

Barnhorst, like Sussman, has been unhappy with what he considers a lack of hard data about the project’s long-range impacts. “There needs to be a cost/benefits analysis, but I’ve seen nothing quantifiable,” he said. He also said that he’s upset that the project has already triggered animosity between neighbors – a feeling that project supporter Carol Cullen has also noted.

Cullen, the clerk of the board of the Goshen Library, considers herself “an average Joe” who speaks only for herself. “For years, Goshen has suffered from economic deflation,” she said. “The Village and Town Boards have struggled to find answers, exploring housing, manufacturing and tourism as possible solutions.” Tourism of the sort offered by Legoland is a what she calls a “win/win” for the community.

Cullen says that she shares the same concerns as opponents of the project. The difference she sees is her belief that concerns about traffic and land use and noise can ultimately be resolved by professionals and by the men and women who serve on the Village and Town Boards. It’s a difference that will be sorely tested in coming weeks, months and maybe years.

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