Frustration mounts over delays for proposed Portland cabins


OBSERVER Staff Writer

Opening a rustic family campground in Portland has been one man’s dream for over a year, but local governmental red tape has delayed the project.

In December 2011, Jerry Speelberg and his wife Beverly purchased a piece of land on Woleben Road in the town of Portland with over 70 acres of land, much of it wooded.

Just after the purchase, Speelberg’s lawyer, Daniel Gard, was walking the property with the couple when an idea grew out of their conversation. Everyone agreed the land had beautiful assets and thought it would make a nice campground.

“I was with him when the project was conceived. We were looking on this trail, looking down on a gorge with a little teeny waterfall, and I said, ‘I’d pay a lot to have a cabin here,’ and that’s how it started,” Gard told the OBSERVER.

The property is accessible by Chautauqua Rails to Trails so Speelberg envisioned a place for cross country skiers and other trail users to camp. Gard said the plans were to build rustic cabins without plumbing or electricity, but with access for disabled veterans. “Jerry is a highly decorated airborne soldier himself. He spent 35 years in the military. He himself is a disabled vet,” Gard explained.

Speelberg wanted to partner with nearby wineries to develop a tourism package and with the Wounded Warrior Project regarding the cabins for disabled veterans.

When he first began working with the town, he wanted to build 10 cabins, each 24 by 24 feet and elevated on poles. He looked at the local code and requirements of the Department of Environmental Conservation and began the application process for a special use permit.

Gard said a survey of the land is required in the code, but it is written so it can be waived by the code enforcement officer. “So he goes to the planning board and says this is the project, this is what the code says. He asks if they’ll waive the survey (requirement) if he provides other maps. They say, ‘Absolutely. No problem. We love the project.'”

But Gard said their attitude changed. “They did a total 180. They gave a list of things he had to do, and when he did them, they responded by giving another list of things.”

First, Gard said when Speelberg spoke with Code Enforcement Officer Signe Rominger, she said she wasn’t going to waive the requirement.

Next, Gard, who was the attorney for the city of Dunkirk and has experience with planning boards, said Speelberg was given an unusual list of requirements. Those included a geologic survey, an archaeological study, topographical maps of the property with 5-foot intervals, aerial photographs, and certified engineering plans for the rustic cabins.

“They wanted engineer-certified, stamped plans. We hired an engineer, Hill Engineering of Northeast, Pa., and (the planning board) rejected the plans. They’re the engineer of record for the city of Dunkirk. They build wastewater treatment plants and things like that,” Gard said, noting locations of smoke detectors not listed on the plans was the reason given.

“This is one of the most respected engineering firms in Western New York and Pennsylvania, and they rejected their plans for a stick building with no utilities, because (the planning board is) saying these guys did it wrong?”

Gard said they also claimed to have rejected the plans because the insulation factor wasn’t listed for the buildings, which he said wasn’t required. He said they had to pay their architect to redraw the plans because the board wouldn’t accept the information on R-values separately from the engineering plans.

At public meetings they attended, Gard said misinformation and rumors were brought up, and passed along to the county health department. He said people who attended the meetings speculated about gun fire on the property, gray water discharge and utilities being installed. “None of this had any bearing on the project, but they sent that information to the health department,” Gard said. “In October, we got a letter asking where the cattle would be housed. There are no cattle,” he explained.

Speelberg wasn’t attempting his plan without garnering support from others. A letter dated May 23, 2012 from Senator Catharine Young expressed her support for the project. It stated she appreciated Speelberg was “committed to preserving the natural beauty of the area” and said she was in favor of the campground. A June 19 letter of support from Deputy Director of Planning and Economic Development Mark Geise stated Chautauqua County supported the venture. It stated, “The preservation and promotion of our natural assets, including further development of trails, parks, waterways, natural areas and infrastructure” were part of county goals, and Speelberg’s venture was “consistent with recommended actions” in the plans to “attract outside tourism dollars to our community and establish Chautauqua County as a regional outdoor recreation destination.”

The DEC sent a letter to the planning board stating it supported the use of composting toilets planned for the site, and a letter from Thomas Gould, a certified state code enforcement officer, wrote in support of the project. “In my professional opinion, I see no reason to deny this building permit. As a matter of fact, it appears to me after reviewing the town of Portland local law, this project would fall under ‘permitted use’ under the existing zoning code, and should be welcomed as an asset to the community,” Gould stated in the letter.

Gard said Speelberg met each of the requirements put forth by the board, but it would not approve or deny the campground plans. An appeal can’t be filed until a denial is made, so Gard said he filed a cross motion against the board in November. The grounds for relief were listed as, “The inaction of the board exceeded the time limits set forth in the town law, was arbitrary and capricious, and exceeded the time limits set forth in the Portland Zoning Code.”

By that time, Speelberg also reduced the number of cabins he planned to build down from 10 to five, with one for personal use. Gard said it made the project easier and eliminated the need for health department involvement, but it resulted in another delay: the change meant the planning board had more time to render a decision. Gard said because the day the plans changed to reduce the number of cabins, it reset the starting time of the case coming before the board. “It started the time line over, so instead of 90 days (passed), it was only 30,” Gard said.

Meanwhile, an additional list of requirements was given to Speelberg, including an endangered species study, a tree survey and an itemized list of all trees slated for removal to put in the cabins, composition and depth and composition of planned roads and written documentation about how erosion would be prevented from rain water running off the cabin roofs.

Gard said in his years as an attorney and time spent representing planning boards such as the city of Dunkirk’s, he has never seen so many requirements of one small business. This prompted him to file Freedom of Information Act requests to learn what requirements other businesses in the town of Portland have had to complete before being constructed and opening. He provided a list of the requirements to the OBSERVER. Among the details, the list says the Cornell University research center provided an unstamped sketch for its building plans and no aerial photos, no geologic, archaeological or endangered species studies or topographical maps. These items were not listed for the Jordan Winery project, SUNY Fredonia’s two wind tower projects or any of the other six projects listed.

“You know, people talk about how no one wants to do business in New York state. This guy has already done rehab on two buildings and has never asked for a tax break or grants or anything. He funded everything on his own,” Gard said, speaking of the Ehler’s building in Dunkirk which houses Speelberg’s business, Old Sarge’s Drop Zone.

The project will come before the planning board again on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Portland Town Hall.

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