County sued over demolition plan

Attorney Michael Sussman: $74 million government center plan squanders money needed by crucial projects

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  • Retired Newburgh engineer Frank Carbone (left) and Central Valley architect Stephan Brander speak about the lawsuit against Orange County to block the demolition of the government center. Standing in the back is county legislator Matthew Turnbull (D-Campbell Hall). Standing (on right) is attorney Michael Sussman, who is representing the plaintiffs. (Photo by Nathan Mayberg)

  • A rendering of the latest renovation plans.

"This is an action to enjoin a profound public waste, committed over years by the leading government officials in Orange County who have continuously misled the public, violated the public trust and now are poised to unnecessarily expend tens of millions of dollars to destroy the integrity and primary architectural features of an iconic building."
From the lawsuit

By Edie Johnson

— A lawsuit to stop the government center renovation says collusion between elected officials and contractors is running up a huge tab that amounts to "profound public waste."

Attorney Michael Sussman of Chester said at a press conference Monday that hundreds of people are offering to join the suit he filed March 27 on the behalf of three plaintiffs. He also asked for an injunction to halt the demolition, which is expected to start later this month.

"Every time the legislators have voted to save the building, other forces have come forward to do the exact opposite," Sussman said Monday. "They voted 15-6 to save the building rather than demolish it. A few months later, they were presented with different options. Clearly on one side has been the will of the people, and on the other is a back room ad hoc committee."

The architectural firm in charge of the renovation plans, Clark, Patterson Lee, says the project will cost up to $74 million, a figure most Democratic legislators say is way over the top. Sussman said the millions going to this project are needed elsewhere. For example, he said, the money could be used to prevent flooding along the Wallkill River, which has devasted farmers in recent years.

It was a flood, during Hurricane Irene in 2011, that shut down the government center in the first place.

Republicans, on the other hand, and the Democratic legislator from Goshen, Shannon Wong, want the renovation to proceed — and fast — to get a government center up and running after more than three shuttered years.

Goshen Mayor Kyle Roddey supports the current renovation plan as the quickest way to get the government center back. Businesses in the village miss the daily influx county workers who once dined and shopped downtown.

"The Village of Goshen desperately needs the return of the government center," said Roddey. "Anything that further delays this from happening will be damaging to the village. The renovation plan was approved by a democratically elected legislature, and I don't see how any court could see fit to reverse this decision. It is my hope that county government will continue to aggressively move forward on the renovations so that we can see the county building finally reopen."

Dain Pascocello, spokesperson for Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus, said the lawsuit has no legal merit.

"The county will vigorously defend against this challenge to the legitimate legislative process," he said in an email Wednesday.

Not the original planMost Democratic legislators dispute the idea that legislators approved the current renovation plan. Legislator Matt Turnbull (D-Blooming Grove) says it's changed dramatically. For one thing, the overall size has increased by more than 20 percent.

For another, Clark, Patterson Lee dropped its plan to preserve the building's iconic corduroy block, offering instead a look-alike block that CPL says will perform better. The corduroy block is the signature style of Paul Rudolph, the world-famous architect that designed the building back in the 1960s.

But what most shocked legislators is the latest demolition estimate, which shot up from Clark, Patterson Lee's original estimate of $3.2 million to more than $7 million. Legislators who oppose the renovation say it's more of a demolition project now.

“The result is what I call ‘Stonehenge Rubble,'” said Legislator Myrna Kemnitz (D-Monroe).

The demolition's skyrocketing cost is because of asbestos, a known carcinogen found in many buildings erected before the 1980s. Asbestos is dangerous when its cancer-causing fibers are disturbed and escape into the air. Kemnitz noted that the demolition would be done in spring and summer, when people are barbecuing outdoors and shopping at the Farmer’s Market.

Turnbull said these changes came from "decisions made in back rooms" after two important developments: First, the federal government said it would not give Orange County the full amount of disaster aid promised because the renovation would destroy an historically important building. Second, two design teams tasked with preserving the artistic qualities of the building quit, citing ethical and professional reasons.

Turnbull said the project was "highjacked" by one faction of the legislature and the executive's office.

"We carefully word what we want, and then they do the opposite," Turnbull said.

Orange County Legislator Leigh Benton (R-Newburgh) and Neuhaus are both named as defendants in the suit, along with Orange County. The three plaintiffs bringing the suit are Stephan Brander of Central Valley, Frank Carbone of Newburgh, and Vincent Ferri of Middletown.

Brander, an architect, said Rudolph created structures that "were reflective of the time they were built in. We were going to the moon then. They represented the idealism."

Collusion driving up costsThe lawsuit's collusion charge targets Benton, chair of the Physical Services Committee. Last year, Benton accepted a lucrative job offer from Clark, Patterson Lee while his committee was making important decisions about the renovation. Benton was fined $1,000 for ethics violations.

The suit also points to campaign contributions made by other contractors involved in the project.

At Monday’s press conference, Sussman said that although he likes the so-called “two building solution" — that is, sell the Rudolph building to architect Gene Kaufman for $5 million for use an arts center, and build a less costly government center — it's just a preference.

“That is not what this lawsuit is about," he said.

The lawsuit states: "This is an action to enjoin a profound public waste, committed over years by the leading government officials in Orange County who have continuously misled the public, violated the public trust and now are poised to unnecessarily expend tens of millions of dollars to destroy the integrity and primary architectural features of an iconic building."

The lawsuits Sussman has been filing against Orange County lately have been more effective than its lawmakers. In 2013 he successfully sued the county to secure, through redistricting, fair representation of minority residents in Newburgh after objecting to the county's redistricting plan. In 2014, he successfully sued to stop the legislature from transferring the county-owned nursing home, Valley View, to a local development corporation for sale to a private buyer.

He is also representing a group of Chester homeowners who are suing the town and county for not taking steps to prevent the flood that ruined their homes during Hurricane Irene.

"We have fought you in court before and won, and we will win again," he told Neuhaus.

Editor's note: Nathan Mayberg contributed to the reporting of this story.

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