Caverns plan clears first hurdle


By Patsy Nicosia

Howe Caverns’ plans to add everything from a zipline and mountain coaster to an RV park and—maybe, someday—a 250-room hotel and indoor water park—passed its first hurdle Monday.
After asking a series of questions on the project’s impact on local roads and traffic, Cobleskill planners agreed to recommend the zoning change necessary to move the project ahead to the town board.
“This is one of the best and most complete applications we’ve seen,” said Planning Board Chairman Andre Nadeau.
‘We really feel that this is what the PDD is intended for.”
PDD—Planned Development District—is a designation that would allow a wider variety of uses than what the 330-acre site’s current B2 and residential zoning allow.
Planners didn’t OK the project’s specifics—that will come later; their recommendation for the zoning change is still subject to a public hearing and town approval.
Supervisor Tom Murray, however, said he likes the idea.
“I think you did a good job on everything,” he told Howe Caverns LLC Vice President Emil Galasso and a half-dozen other project representatives.
As proposed, the project will be built in phases, beginning with construction on a zip line and mountain coaster this summer, and work on Dinosaur Canyon, a visitor’s center with life-sized dinosaurs, completed by December 2012.
There will also be a new entertainment building with a 4-D theater and flight simulators, a tree canopy tour, and a gemstone mining building.
If the economy warrants, the hotel and attached water park will be the final piece of the project.
The project is expected to create 300 new jobs and an additional 450 jobs at local businesses.
Monday, planners focused most of their questions on potential traffic.
Mark Sargent, traffic engineer for Creighton Manning Engineering, said local roads are adequate to handle the increased traffic the project will bring—even at full build-out.
With the RV park, Mr. Sargent said, they expect a traffic increase of one car every three to four minutes.
Still, planners said, when people are used to one car every 10 minutes, that will seem like a lot.
“Probably that increase in traffic is going to be the most noticeable thing about this project,” Mr. Nadeau said. “That and the increase in sales tax revenues.
Planning Board member Bruce Wetsell pointed out that in the late 1980s, Howe Caverns had as many as 230,000 visitors this year.
Mr. Galasso said they’re looking to do a little more than twice that with the improvements, 500,000 visitors a year.
“You don’t need one person more than 500,000 to make it work,” he said.
Project developers said they have adequate water and sewer for all but the final part of the project; if the hotel and water park are built, plans call for new onsite water and sewer systems.
They’ve already met with local emergency services agencies—including the Schoharie County Sheriff’s Department—and said plans are more than adequate.
One condition that planners attached to their approval is that work must be begun within three years.
Not a problem, Mr. Galasso said.
The town will likely schedule a public hearing on the planning change at its June meeting; planners warned the RV park and traffic could be a sticking point for neighbors.
“It’s been unrelenting,” Mr. Galasso said of requests for RV space at the Caverns.
“So many people call, requesting a spot and we don’t have it. We’ve had 2,000 requests so far this year alone. That was the only genesis for the idea—past history. It’s something they talked about for years.”