Halting progress in Portland

New York state may be “Open for Business” when it comes to boosting development and enterprise, but the town of Portland is not getting the message.

For more than two years, businessman and resident Jerry Speelberg has been battling the town’s Planning Board over a campground and cabin proposal on Woleben Road. Not only is Speelberg paying taxes on the land he cannot develop, he also is starting to tally a high cost for attorney fees.

Currently, he says his tab has run over the $25,000 mark.

Portland’s legal costs also are mounting, but that is no big deal to the elected or appointed officials. Taxpayers are on the hook for those costs, not those in office.

Speelberg’s most recent request – made Nov. 14 – is for a workshop with Town Board members regarding his stalled attempt. On Nov. 15, he received correspondence from town Supervisor Dan Schrantz that members were not available, but he would get back to him “as soon as I find out when everyone will be available.”

As a follow-up, Speelberg sent out another request for a meeting on Dec. 3 and made one other request this past week. Still, no date has been set to meet.

Portland could use some sort of development. Many property owners are reeling from the recent change in equalization rate from 62 percent to 54 percent. That rate decrease means land owners are paying an increase of the more than 2 percent tax cap in their school and county taxes.

And while some say it is time for a revaluation of properties in the town, it still does not fix the problem facing Speelberg.

One of the largest impediments to progress, as usual, comes down to Chautauqua County’s overabundance of governments and boards. In Portland, Town Board members have gone on record as favoring the project. Both elected officials Al Valentin and Schrantz have sent letters indicating their backing.

But the town Planning Board continues to toss road blocks at Speelberg.

Ironically, Robert Patterson, town Planning Board chairman, has voiced his complaints about the region not growing or making progress economically. Patterson directed many of these comments toward New York state while serving on a committee of the Local Economic Development group.

However, Patterson and his board are larger players in stunting progress than they would like to admit.

In an interview with Patterson last May, he apologized and admitted the Planning Board made the approval for the building permits of Speelberg’s cabins much tougher than it needed to be. “I don’t feel the town is anti-business,” Patterson said at the time.

But actions speak louder than words.

Speelberg’s development plans continue to collect dust while excuses for the project to not happen continue to mount.

Even Mark Thomas, former county executive and current director of the Western Division for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, has made his support known. “In as much as the Western New York Economic Development Council has identified tourism as one of the prime economic drivers for the expansion of our Western New York economy, I see this project providing a unique recreational, tourism opportunity for our residents and visitors alike,” Thomas wrote in September. “The development of suitable enterprise along rail corridor trails has long been successfully advanced in other areas around the country to the advantage of the local economy.”

Unfortunately, this is Chautauqua County. Common sense, especially with public boards, often falls by the wayside.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.