by DINA CAPPIELLO, Staff writer
A building that Pine Bush protectors once protested for being constructed in the rare pine barren became part of the preserve on Friday, when the state announced it traded a piece of the Harriman State Office Campus for the State Employees Federal Credit Union on New Karner Road.
The deal adds 11.5 acres in the town of Colonie and the city of Albany to the 2,725-acre preserve, while allowing a growing company to expand its operations without the environmental battles that would ensue over the endangered Karner blue butterfly and other rare species if it built farther into the Pine Bush.
SEFCU will build a headquarters on a 7.5-acre parcel off Washington Avenue Extension and receive $250,000 from the state in the swap.
The Pine Bush Preserve Commission will then convert the current credit union building — a two-story, 29,000 square foot structure — into an interpretative center.
“We had a choice, between expanding on the vacant land or looking for an alternative,” said Michael J. Castellana, SEFCU’s chief operating officer, who signed the contract sealing the agreement in October. “This alternative allowed us to achieve our financial goals, and environmental goals … and avoid conflict.”
Since 1988, when the state Legislature created the Pine Bush Preserve Commission, there had been plans for a center to educate and introduce visitors to the rare ecosystem, which is the remnants of a glacial lake.
“Tens of thousands of people visit the Pine Bush every year. The point they always have made is there is no centralized location to go into the Pine Bush,” said Christopher Hawver, the executive director of the commission.
The $3.3 million project was initially slated for undeveloped farmland in the preserve, a move that concerned some environmentalists, who felt that any money spent should go to buying more land.
By updating the SEFCU building the commission says it will save the $1.3 million it expected to spend in construction. It has already secured $100,00O for the cent
er from a state grant and expects the rest to come through private fund raising. “For years, the Pine Bush would come in and talk about the interpretative center,” said Assemblyman Jack McEneny, an Albany Democrat. At the other site “it wouldn’t be visible,” he said. “Having it on Route 155 with the heavy traffic … will increase membership.”
The agreement was worked on for about a year by various state agencies along with the Nature Conservancy and other groups.
SEFCU plans to relocate in 18 months. The Pine Bush center won’t open for several years.
On Friday, environmentalists took some of the credit for the acquisition. In the mid-1980s, Save the Pine Bush brought legal action against the SEFCU building, and a judge found that it was constructed without the proper environmental review. Lynne Jackson, a Save the Pine Bush member, said it sent a lasting message.
“This deal validates the lawsuit,” she said.