Customs and Border Protection considering new station in Blind Bay; locals united against plans

By ALEX GAULT Published by the Watertown Daily Times on Feb 25, 2022 

FISHERS LANDING — U.S. Customs and Border Protection is looking to build a new station in Fishers Landing, to replace the aging facilities on Wellesley Island.

But local officials, environmental groups and business owners are seemingly united in their opposition to the project, which calls for a nearly 19-acre development on Blind Bay, an environmentally diverse inlet just upriver of the Thousand Islands Bridge.

According to a draft environmental assessment prepared for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security by Gulf South Research Corp., CBP is looking to build the new facility on a strip of land that stretches from Route 12 up to the river shoreline on Blind Bay.

The property is owned by Blind Bay Associates LLC, which according to Jefferson County property records has a secondary owner name listed as Dennis G. Weller, with a Clayton Post Office box. County records show the property spans 37.63 acres. Mr. Weller could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

The proposed station would provide space for 75 Border Patrol agents in a 17,300-square-foot main administrative building, with another 15,800 square feet of “support space.” There would be a 15,100-square-foot parking garage for 33 vehicles, as well as a canine kennel, storage for 12 ATVs or snowmobiles, marine storage for 4 boats, a 30- to 40-foot dock and ramp, enclosed vehicle wash station, fuel island, communication tower and backup generator, all behind a perimeter fence.

According to the report, the new station is considered a need by the Department of Homeland Security because the Wellesley Island Border Patrol Station has outlived its usefulness. The environmental review states that the island station is operating at three times its designed capacity, isn’t appropriately located to uniformly protect regional borders and has become structurally unsound.

The beginning stages of the planning process started in June, when Gulf South approached Orleans officials requesting information about the proposed site. The environmental assessment released this month was started in June 2021, according to dates in the document.

A CBP spokesperson said the agency is looking into feasible properties around the region for a station relocation, but the process is long and any planning is being done without any decisions made as of yet.

“As part of the planning process, an environmental assessment will be completed and circulated to the public for review and comment,” the spokesperson said. “The current Wellesley Island station remains Border Patrol’s sole operational facility in the area.”

Local environmental groups are vehemently opposed to the new station on Blind Bay. Save the River, the upper St. Lawrence Riverkeeper organization, on Wednesday sent a letter of opposition to CBP’s Acting Environmental Branch Chief John P. Petrilla. In the letter, Save the River Executive Director John M. Peach explained that Blind Bay is one of the most prolific muskellunge, or muskie, spawning areas in the entire St. Lawrence River basin.

“There’s been years and years of research done in there by the 1000 Islands Biological Station,” Mr. Peach said in an interview Thursday. “They continue to catch and release muskie, pike and many other species there.”

Jeffrey T. Garnsey, president of the Save the River Board of Directors and a fishing guide with decades of experience on the river, said muskie have only just started to see a resurgence in the region, after their numbers were decimated by viral hemorrhagic septicemia, or VHS.

“VHS almost destroyed the entire indigenous population of muskie,” Mr. Garnsey said. “We lost about 70% of our indigenous base of spawning muskies.”

Mr. Garnsey said Blind Bay is especially important to the effort to rebuild muskie populations, and is among the top three or four most viable spawning grounds for the fish in the St. Lawrence River basin. The bay represents about 20% of the viable spawning area monitored in the river since 1990. He said the move to build such a large and disruptive CBP station on Blind Bay is a “huge gut check” to those monitoring the return of large numbers of muskie.

“This is the most environmentally selfish move I’ve ever seen on the river,” Mr. Garnsey said.

He said the bay’s location, shallow waters and the substrate that lines its bottom make it perfect for the cold-water spawning muskies, but also make it viable for other species like small and largemouth bass, which spawn in warm-water climates.

The bay also has very little through traffic for most of the year, due to its low level of development and shallow waters. Mr. Garnsey said the bay hosts many species that avoid the busier waterways along the shipping channel, and the increased boat traffic generated by a CBP station would be incredibly damaging.

According to the environmental impact report, the station would have permanent, but “negligible” impacts on the land environment, potentially impacting local populations of the Indiana bat and northern long-eared bat. The study does not specifically address potential impacts on the aquatic environment in and around the proposed construction site, and states that the Department of Homeland Security is still working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to identify more potential impacts.

The environmental impact report states that no further analysis or documentation, like a full environmental impact statement would.

Environmental groups aren’t the only ones opposed to the new station.

Lloyd M. Withers, general manager of the Thousand Islands Park, said he is totally opposed to the proposed project.

The station would go in right across the river from the park, which hosts hotels, attractions and more than 300 vacation homes on Wellesley Island, directly across the river from Blind Bay. Mr. Withers said the natural beauty of the Thousand Islands is a major draw for vacationers, and an industrial-appearing site right across the river would be a huge detriment.

“Our community is investing significantly in our property,” he said. “We spent millions to improve our infrastructure, maintain our businesses and waterfront, and to improve our cottages. We’re comfortable investing like that because of the history of the maintenance of this area in a natural state.”

The environmental report includes a section identifying nearby sites on the National Register of Historic Places, and acknowledges that the site itself could be included on the register. While the report recognizes a church in Fishers Landing and the Rock Island Lighthouse as nearby places on the Historic Register, it does not identify the Thousand Islands Park, although it has been on the register since 1982, Mr. Withers said. The park is just over a mile and a half across the river from the proposed CBP station.

Mr. Garnsey said he has seen a wealth of conversation sprout up about this proposed site since it was first made public, and it seems the entire St. Lawrence River community is united against it.

“Everyone that I’ve spoken to, without exception, that has any skin in this game is scratching their heads asking ‘why would you take such an amazing area and diminish it just for convenience for the Border Patrol folks?” Mr. Garnsey said.

Mr. Peach said he is hopeful that the federal government will stop the process of establishing the new station before construction can begin.

“There are other sites on the river,” he said. “I heard they investigated eight or 10 other sites, so there are clearly other sites available. I would think they can find sites closer to the heart of existing harbors in Clayton or Alexandria Bay.”