By Alex Gault, Watertown Daily Times on September 25, 2022
FISHERS LANDING — Despite months of activism from local residents and environmental groups, the purchase of the land by the Thousand Islands Land Trust, and a local offering of a nearby site, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol are still considering building their new border patrol station on Blind Bay.
In February, CBP filed a preliminary study of a property on the inlet between Fishers Landing and Alexandria Bay, which concerned the proposed construction of a nearly 50,000-square-foot facility on 20 acres, to support 75 Border Patrol agents and their vehicles, boats, dogs and other equipment.
The CBP and their surveying company released a report which, besides detailing the planned facility, said it would have no significant impact on the community or environment.
That plan was met with swift, near-universal opposition from local residents, business owners, elected officials and federal officials, including U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who strongly called on CBP to reconsider the chosen site. Blind Bay is an undisturbed shallow-water inlet on the St. Lawrence River, playing host to a multitude of the rivers most sensitive animals and plants, such as the muskellunge fish. Despite CBP’s report finding the construction would have no significant impact, locals and environmental experts agree it would mar the natural beauty of the St. Lawrence River and would pose a significant threat to the environment and the species that Blind Bay supports.
It’s also surrounded by residential and vacation properties, and nearby owners including the Thousand Islands Park company have expressed concern that the facility will mar the natural beauty of the region and decimate property values with a sudden, industrial development along the banks of the St. Lawrence.
In a press release issued Friday, a CBP Buffalo office spokesperson said the agency is still formally considering the Blind Bay property, even absent a willing seller, and will issue further environmental impact reports to study the potential impact of the facility.
“During the public review period, CBP received more than 1,000 comments on the drafts,” the spokesperson said. “To address questions and concerns raised in the public comments, CBP plans to conduct additional environmental surveys at the proposed location and evaluate alternative sites for the project. The results of the additional surveys and evaluation of alternatives will be documented in the draft SEA (Strategic Environmental Assessment).”
The spokesperson said the public will receive notice of the new draft documents, and CBP will allow for a new public comment period on them. The documents are anticipated to come in 2023, with no more specific date provided.
“CBP is committed to advancing its mission collaboratively for the protection of the United States, its people and its natural resources,” the spokesperson said.
When TILT began the process of purchasing the property last month, the possibility of CBP buying the land for their project ended, but that didn’t eliminate the possibility that the agency could use the power of the federal government to take the site.
Jake Tibbles, executive director of TILT, said his organization is concerned about a potential legal battle with CBP.
“I don’t think there’s anything an organization can do, especially not a nonprofit, to prepare for a possible legal battle against the federal government,” he said. “And I hope it doesn’t come to that. However, the river community has rallied behind this cause and I think they would again should it come down to that.”
He said he was “surprised but not surprised” by the news that CBP is still looking at taking over the Blind Bay property, and said their decision to keep going shows they aren’t listening to the St. Lawrence River community.
“After receiving over 1,000 comments, mainly opposed to the Blind Bay project, they now have said clearly that they’re still interested,” he said.
After officials and TILT staff have offered assistance in locating other sites, asked for a hand in the process and requested it be informed of the project, Mr. Tibbles said there seems to be no reciprocity from CBP officials on this issue.
Jefferson County Legislator Philip N. Reed Sr. said that no matter what happens, it is clear his constituents in Alexandria and Orleans will not accept the construction of the Border Patrol facility as defined now.
“People are feeling that we aren’t being consulted, someone far away in this country is making decisions that will have a huge impact on our landscape for decades to come,” he said.
Mr. Reed, Alexandria town officials, local residents and environmental groups have asked that CBP be more open with the other potential sites they have said they are considering for the facility. Rumors have circulated in the region for months on possible other locations, some with just as negative a reaction from the locals as they had to Blind Bay. CBP’s most recent statement makes the other considered properties no more clear than before.
“Why is the community left in the dark on this?” he asked. “Just come out and tell us; sit down and work with us.”
Mr. Reed said the standard, impersonal and often unfruitful public comment process isn’t working for this project, because the community is demanding an informative response that has not yet come from CBP.
Mr. Reed said this community has had their voice heard before, and are not ready to give up on this issue.
“Obviously, CBP isn’t going away, and neither are we, so lets work together,” he said.