Monday, November 30, 2009

Staten Island Greenbelt habitat in jeopardy


For a visual of the property on a trail map, look at Boy Scout Pouch Camp to the right of "Bloodroot Valley". The private camp lies in the heart of the Greenbelt

Conjuring environmental battles of decades past, a Scout camp's proposed sale imperils a key piece of the Staten Island Greenbelt

By Karen O'Shea

November 25, 2009,

The Boy Scouts of America is looking to sell Pouch Camp.STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. --

It's the worst time to ask the city and state to pony up $30 million to buy Pouch Camp in the Greenbelt -- a unique Staten Island wilderness that has been used by thousands of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts for nearly 60 years -- but that's precisely what the Greater New York Councils Boy Scouts of America is doing now. And if the Boy Scouts don't get government to pay for a conservation easement to preserve the campgrounds, the nonprofit will sell the 120-acre William H. Pouch Scout Camp and 20-acre Ohrbach Lake to private developers. Boy Scout executives said yesterday that the Island camp is one of only two key assets that can be leveraged to raise funds for the cash-strapped organization. "It's certainly not a threat. It's absolutely very real," William Kelly, a Boy Scouts spokesman, said of the announcement that the organization would begin marketing the wooded property off Manor Road for sale. "We don't want the outcome to be a sale of the property. We want the outcome to be a conservation easement that preserves the land for children in perpetuity, but if that doesn't happen we have to look at other options and the other options are a full or partial sale," he added. Yesterday's press release, a copy of which was obtained by the Advance hours before it was released by the Greater New York Councils, did not set a price for a potential sale, but several people said a conservation easement would cost government roughly $30 million, or half the $60 million appraised value. An easement would allow the Boy Scouts to continue to operate the camp in exchange for giving up the right to develop the property, which is zoned for housing. Kelly said the Boy Scouts executive committee voted last week to pursue a sale, and the organization is in the final stages of selecting a real estate firm to market the property. The site represents the largest and one of the only privately owned parcels in the Greenbelt, which bisects the Island and includes parks, a golf course and other city and state land. "We are not going to put a for sale sign up outside, but we are just going to quietly market it to people who might be in a position to work with us," Kelly said.


The timing of the announcement surprised some public officials, who spent yesterday morning working the phones, trying to drum up dollars for a purchase at a time when the state and city are facing unprecedented budget holes. But those same officials also said they had been talking to Boy Scout executives for some time about a conservation easement. "What this announcement does is it shows the urgency that we need to make sure we preserve this land," said Assemblyman Michael Cusick (D-Mid-Island). Cusick and other Island politicians met with Boy Scout executives last spring, and talks about an easement date to least three years ago. In 1992, the camp was added to the state's open space plan, a land acquisition wish list that makes it possible to purchase and preserve private lands with public money. Charlie Greinsky, vice president of relationships and intergovernmental affairs for the Staten Island Council of the Boy Scouts of America, said he was "blindsided" by yesterday's announcement. The native Islander, an Eagle Scout who earned badges at Pouch Camp and worked there as well, said he had a discussion with Kelly just Saturday -- and the subject of a possible sale never came up. "The lack of camp improvements under legislative grants was discussed and I wanted to know what were the delays," Greinsky said. "I was to have gotten a call on Monday. But I never got one." State Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island) said he had an agreement in early 2008 to secure $15 million toward a Pouch Camp easement. But elections in November last year resulted in Republicans losing the majority in the Senate and Lanza's losing the money, he added. A devastating financial collapse on Wall Street was happening at the same time. "I'm not surprised; I am disappointed," Lanza said of the potential sale of Pouch Camp to private developers. "The time has come for us to figure out how to do this. I think it is a good use of taxpayer dollars, even in tough times," he said of an easement. But squeezing any extra dollars from state and city administrations won't be easy. The city must close a $4.1 billion budget gap and the state is facing a $3.2 billion deficit. "These are the tightest financial times we've had in years and years," said Borough President James Molinaro. "But under no conditions can we lose this. It would not be good for the Boy Scouts or for Staten Island."


The Boy Scouts, meanwhile, slashed their own budget from $15 million to $10 million but still lost $5 million in charitable donations over the last 18 months. The organization purchased the first piece of Pouch Camp in 1949 from the estate of Ernest Flagg, the Island architect who famously designed the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. The second parcel was acquired from the city in 1956. The total cost to assemble the camp, which was named for a Scout and benefactor, was $113,300. Over the years, thousands of Scouts have used the summer day camp and weekend camping facilities, where they have learned to fish, build campfires, tie knots and practice other survival skills. The Boy Scouts also pay for low-income campers to attend Pouch, and the YMCA uses the camp. Assemblyman Lou Tobacco (R-South Shore), an Eagle Scout who earned several merit badges at Pouch Camp, was reaching out yesterday to the mayor's office, various state agencies and the Trust for Public Land, which helped broker the $25 million sale of Mount Loretto to the state. '


A staffer in Tobacco's office said Pouch Camp could become "another Todt Hill" if sold to a private developer. The site has the same restrictive residential zoning that permits only large, single-family detached houses on 10,000-square-foot lots. That notion doesn't sit well with Kathleen Vorwick, president of the Greenbelt Conservancy, which partners with the Parks Department to care for and raise funds for the Greenbelt. "The heart and soul and lungs of the Greenbelt would be destroyed," she said of a private sale of Pouch Camp. The Boy Scouts also said yesterday that they are considering "cash-producing" options at the 12,000-acre Ten Mile River Scout Reservation in upstate
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