By Alex Gault, WDT, November 18, 2023
WATERTOWN — Local leaders remain concerned about plans being developed to build a new Border Patrol station for the St. Lawrence River, and they’re worried they may be running out of time to convince U.S. Customs and Border Protection not to build it right on the water.
The process began in 2021, when CBP started surveying a property on Blind Bay for a new patrol station. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, federal agencies have an established process with timelines for identifying, reviewing and obtaining land where they can build federal facilities.
The process for CBP and other agencies in the Department of Homeland Security is generally obscure and not public, but agencies do have to provide public notice of projects, post environmental reviews and project details publicly and take feedback from the community.
In a meeting on Thursday, state Sen. Mark C. Walczyk and Assemblyman Scott A. Gray, both Republicans of Watertown, Jefferson County Legislator Philip N. Reed Sr., R-Alexandria, Clayton Town Supervisor Lance R. Peterson, Alexandria Town Supervisor Brent H. Sweet, Thousand Islands Land Trust Executive Director Jake R. Tibbles and Save the River Executive Director John M. Peach sat down with the Watertown Daily Times to discuss the latest developments and their concerns, now almost three years into the process.
Tibbles said that timeline worries him. He said he fears that CBP will be able to move forward with whatever property it wants under the NEPA process if something isn’t done soon.
“We’re running out of time,” he said.
CBP officials have been looking for property on the mainland for years, hoping to build a new border patrol station to replace the aging facility on Wellesley Island. In February 2022, the agency identified the plot on Blind Bay in the town of Orleans, garnering immediate opposition from local residents, elected officials and environmental advocates.
Then, after months of community organizing and with help from U.S. Rep. Claudia L. Tenney, R-Cleveland, local officials met with CBP officials a number of times alongside a representative from Tenney’s office. In August, Tenney announced that CBP had committed to consider alternative sites for the project, although Blind Bay remained on its list.
The Thousand Islands Land Trust in November 2022 purchased the 20.5-acre property Blind Bay property CBP was studying. The conservation group pledges to keep all the properties it purchases “forever wild,” free from development.
TILT already owns a significant amount of land along Blind Bay, recognized as a singularly important habitat for nearly 60 different native species, including the iconic muskellunge fish. The muskellunge, or muskie, has seen its numbers in the St. Lawrence River plummet over the last half century, and has only now started to see a resurgence thanks to conservation efforts in places across the islands, including in Blind Bay.
About five months after the purchase, in April this year, CBP sought access to the property to complete its environmental studies.
“It’s starting to look like … probably in the last two weeks, about 10 to 14 days, CBP through Army Corps of Engineers — which acts as basically a real estate agent for Customs and Border Protection — reengaged the Land Trust looking to obtain a copy of the deed to Blind Bay,” Tibbles told the Times in April. “Obviously, that’s a red flag to us. Clearly it means that they’re continuing to evaluate that as a possible site.”
Then last month, residents around Heaslip Lane off Route 12 in Clayton reported that surveyors who identified themselves as being hired by CBP were looking at the Dockside Cottages property.
CBP officials have not confirmed their reasons for looking at the property, but it has many of the same characteristics of the Blind Bay property including open, undeveloped land, highway access and water frontage on the American Narrows area of the river, a deep and narrow stretch of water between the mainland and Wellesley Island. The Dockside Cottages property is also similar in size to the Blind Bay property, although it’s in a much more developed area with homes nearby.
The community has responded with overwhelming opposition to building a station in Clayton, for many of the same reasons they opposed the Blind Bay construction.
Advocates and residents alike agree that there is no good place on the river shore around the American Narrows to build what CBP has called for, and CBP has expressed no interest in putting the station anywhere off the Narrows.
Tibbles said it appears, according to public indicators of the CBP property search process, that CBP has fast-tracked its review of the Dockside Cottages property, and will likely soon release a draft environmental review to the public, which will detail plans and any possible environmental impacts that would come with construction.
“At some point, they’re going to be so far into the process where they won’t look for other properties,” Tibbles said.
On Thursday, the local leaders said they remain steadfastly committed to advocating that CBP build the station at the town of Alexandria-owned Bonnie Castle recreational center property on Route 12. They said it offers much more space for a large facility that would not interfere with the riverfront character, environment or property values.
That stretch of Route 12 has seen significant commercial development in the last few decades, so a large government facility would not appear as out of place as it would among riverfront homes and cottages, they say. It would also help to revitalize the now-abandoned Bonnie Castle Stables property, which looms on a hill overtop Route 12. Local leaders said that hill would provide another advantage to CBP, providing views of the river, the bridge and the horizon not available along the river.
Tibbles said he believes the region’s federal elected officials should consider passing legislation that would require CBP to look at Bonnie Castle Stables as another alternative site in their search process. That would require the agency to create a draft assessment of the property, develop site plans and take community feedback on the proposal. It would not, however, ensure that CBP selects Bonnie Castle stables as its final choice.
As they have since the start of this process, the local leaders said they are supportive of CBP’s mission and understand the agency’s need to build a new patrol station in the Thousand Islands. The CBP now operates out of a remodeled house on Wellesley Island, formerly the home of a Coast Guard station, handed over to the CBP when it was created in 2001. THe agency has since spent millions of dollars retrofitting the structure to suit Border Patrol needs, but according to the draft environmental assessment released for Blind Bay in 2021, officials have run out of ways to make the structure useful for modern border protection.
“We are very supportive of CBP’s mission, and the constituents that I talk to about this are all on the same page,” said Reed, the county legislator representing the towns of Alexandria, Orleans and Leray.
But they think that the clear answer is to work with the community transparently, and they are convinced that the Bonnie Castle Stables property, despite lacking waterfront access, is the best option possible.
They suggested that CBP could take notes from the way the New York State Police and Park Police have built their own headquarters in the region. Both agencies have built main buildings off the waterfront and used docks at a nearby state park to store their boats, something that they hope CBP could consider.
Peterson, the Clayton town supervisor, said he would like to see more transparency from CBP officials. He said he has heard nothing about CBP’s plans for the Dockside Cottages property. He said it was troubling that they would consider building a station in Clayton and not approach the town in any way. He is also concerned that the agency has not communicated with local officials on why it doesn’t want to consider Bonnie Castle Stables.
“CBP is welcome, we’re grateful for their presence,” Peterson said.
Peterson said he would be happy to see CBP’s project completed, but wants there to be public input for the project and collaboration with local leaders.
Walczyk, Gray, Reed and a representative from Tenney’s office will be meeting with CBP officials again at the end of the month.
In a statement sent Friday, Tenney said she will continue to connect local officials with CBP leadership, as she has done since she first announced her campaign to represent the 24th District. Blind Bay, while not in her district, remains an important issue for her constituents, she said. The Clayton property is in her district.
“During these ongoing discussions, I am dedicated to advocating for a more transparent process to allow our community to know which sites are being surveyed,” Tenney said in the statement. “I will continue to facilitate conversations between the St. Lawrence Seaway community and Customs and Border Protection, with the goal of finding a site our community supports and upholds the mission of CBP to keep the northern border secure and brave officers safe.”
U.S. Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Willsboro, who represents the district covering Blind Bay and the town of Alexandria, has not spoken publicly about any of this since she was asked about it in a Watertown Daily Times interview in October, when she was seeking reelection. At that time, she said she didn’t view the issue as something she should be involved with, and instead said there needs to be dialogue between local officials and CBP.
Last year, Stefanik said in an emailed statement that her office was continuing to engage “the federal government to listen to all concerns and feedback from local stakeholders and has connected stakeholders directly with CBP.
“Our nation’s border security is paramount, and I will continue to work towards a solution that works for everyone,” she said in the prepared statement in September 2022.
A spokesperson for the congresswoman did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Peach, the Save the River executive director, said he would like to see Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul speak out. She has spoken about having a long history with the Thousand Islands, vacationing in the area as a girl and apparently paying the region at least one unannounced, private weekend visit as governor. Peach said he would like to see her add her voice to the likes of Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Tenney in opposition to the Blind Bay project, at least. A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to a press inquiry sent Friday.