A lawsuit filed by a group of opponents to a $500 million Legoland theme park in Orange County was dismissed by a state Supreme Court judge on Jan. 30.
Concerned Citizens for the Hudson Valley and a group of residents near the proposed site in Goshen asked the court to approve judicial review of the town’s actions in the Legoland process. The group asked the court to, among other actions, allow the state Department of Environmental Conservation to take over as lead agency of the review, have the town Planning Board rescind its acceptance of the project’s current draft environmental impact statement and order the town to allow adequate time for the public to review any final draft environmental impact statement. The group is represented by Goshen attorney Michael Sussman of Sussman & Associates.
Supreme Court Judge Robert A. Onofry sided with lawyers representing Merlin Entertainments PLC, the British-based, American-owned developer of the project, and dismissed the proceeding.
The Orange County judge said that none of the issues raised in the complaint are ripe for judicial review. Actions taken by an agency in a state environmental quality review proceeding are subject to judicial challenge only when deemed final, Onofry wrote.
He said the court had not found authority to “take the extraordinary step of injecting itself into the proceedings in order to, in effect, micro-manage the SEQRA review process.”
The lawsuit exemplifies the tensions surrounding the proposal for the 153-acre theme park. Plans calls for a 250-room hotel and more than 50 rides, shows and attractions for children ages 2 through 12 on a 523-acre plot of undeveloped land off Route 17. Merlin says the park could attract 10,000 to 20,000 daily visitors during peak season and create 500 full-time jobs and 800 part-time jobs once it launches. But the size and visibility of the project have brought up concerns about traffic and environmental impacts in the town of about 14,000.
This isn’t the first attempt to bring a Legoland to the Hudson Valley, which is seen by the developer as a promising location because of its proximity to New York City as well as population centers in Boston and Philadelphia. Two years ago, the developer proposed to build a Legoland theme park in Haverstraw in Rockland County. The Haverstraw town board backed away from the project in October 2015 after hearing strong opposition from residents. Merlin Entertainments in late 2014 was awarded a $3.1 million economic development grant from the state for its canceled project in Rockland.
The same Concerned Citizens for the Hudson Valley group filed a lawsuit shortly after the Goshen Planning Board accepted a revised draft environmental impact statement from Merlin Entertainments in November and scheduled a public hearing. The group asked the courts to issue an injunction to stop that public hearing, arguing the draft environmental impact statement was incomplete. That request was also denied and the meeting went on as planned.
Sussman said the group would likely challenge the project again if approved by the Goshen Planning Board.
He called the project irresponsible environmentally and pointed out it was not aligned with the town’s zoning or comprehensive plan. The town board has proposed two laws that would change the zoning and comprehensive plan to allow the project. The Concerned Citizens for the Hudson Valley group has demanded the town board complete a separate general environmental review before changing the laws and has petitioned for the change in laws to require a super-majority vote from the town board.
“We’ll see whether (Merlin) have rectified the profound problems and deficiencies of the DEIS in the final environmental impact statement,” Sussman said. “If they don’t, and I quite frankly expect that they will not, then we will have to proceed substantively into state Supreme Court.”
“That is not affected one iota by what Justice Onofry did yesterday,” Sussman added later in his remarks. “(The decision) was predicated simply on the idea that we weren’t ripe. We become ripe when they make final decisions… then we’ll be back in court.”
Legoland does have support among local economic development leaders. The Mid-Hudson Regional Economic Development Council identified the park as a priority project for the region last year. The state later awarded Merlin Entertainments a $3 million grant as part of the Consolidated Funding Application process in 2016.
“Merlin Entertainments has been moving through the application process for LEGOLAND New York in an exemplary and responsible manner,” Halahan said. “The ongoing assertions that the application and approval process is illegal have no merit as today’s decision by Judge Onofry demonstrates.”