Fate of reservoir land reaches a critical point

Thursday, July 19, 2001

Staff Writer

United Water Resources wants out of the real estate business, adding a twist to the long fight over development around the utility's Bergen County reservoirs.

A sale could mean a fresh opening for those seeking to preserve 20 acres of woods in Emerson near the Oradell Reservoir and 42 acres in River Vale by Lake Tappan, although some worry that the land could go to another company less willing to sell.

"It could be a chance of a lifetime," said Thom Ammirato, the spokesman for county Executive William "Pat" Schuber. "The question is can we marshal the forces fast enough? Can we come up with the public and private finances we'd need to buy the land?"

United Water could end a decade and a half of sparring with local and county officials by selling the land to the government. But it could also sell to its partners in its housing projects or someone else. The concern among conservationists is whether the new landowners would continue open space talks or take an even harder line than the utility.

The decision to sell comes from Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, the French conglomerate that bought United Water last year. The company has decided that its subsidiary's development projects don't fit a water-first business strategy.

"We have realized that the water services business is its core business, and that real estate is not part of that core," said Rich Henning, a United Water spokesman. "We're analyzing and evaluating the properties and are in some stage of discussions with our partners in these interests and the communities."

The Emerson and River Vale projects have stirred stiff opposition in the towns and from county officials, who say building houses near reservoirs would endanger water supplies that serve 750,000 people in Bergen and Hudson counties.

United Water's real estate arm, United Properties Group, had planned to build 112 town houses off Main Street in Emerson and initially proposed 230 houses by Poplar Road in River Vale.

The company's partners in the housing plans, including Raimondo & Sons Construction Co. of Fort Lee and Reduce Construction Co. of Englewood Cliffs, are likely buyers, open space activists said. Neither company returned calls seeking comment over the past week.

United Water also has put four acres in Westwood on the block, as well as office buildings in Fairfield and Montvale. But it is holding on to two golf courses, Valley Brook in River Vale and the Emerson Golf Club, Henning said.

Suez Lyonnaise, one of the world's largest water purveyors, began shopping its holdings early this year, while it dismissed or reassigned some United Properties employees, town officials and activists said.

River Vale Mayor Ray Darakjian said he had spoken with about four would-be buyers. He declined to name them, but said United Water could complete its sales by September.

What that could mean for the properties is an open question among conservationists.

Even if new owners were willing to sell the land for open space, adding them to the equation could "send the price skyrocketing," said Mark Becker, co-director of the Bergen Save the Watershed Action Network, or SWAN. SWAN's other co-director, Lori Charkey, said United Properties' partners in Emerson already have rejected that town's $5 million bid for the land.

Darakjian was more optimistic. River Vale has offered United Water $8.6 million in state, county, and local money for the Poplar Road land, but talks stalled once Suez Lyonnaise committed to sell, the mayor said.