Buchanan Is on the Path to Reinvention in Westchester

Indian Point’s property takes up 240 acres of Buchanan’s waterfront.
AdobeStock/Phil Cardamone

With the closure of Indian Point, one of Westchester’s smallest villages is facing a major challenge — but maybe also an opportunity.

For more than half a century, Buchanan has had a strange duality.

The village’s downtown, in Northern Westchester, has an old-fashioned quality: a quaint roundabout, post office, barbershop, and just a few other businesses. Small neighborhoods fan out from there, lined with capes and ranches. On a recent winter afternoon, the village hardware store — just a few blocks from that central roundabout — was busy selling shovels and sidewalk salt.

“Small Town, USA” is how Theresa Knickerbocker, Buchanan’s mayor, describes the sleepy village, which has a population of just more than 2,300. “My great grandparents lived here,” Knickerbocker says. “My mom and her brothers and sisters were born across the street from the house I live in today.”

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“You go there and feel like you’re in the 1950s,” says Ali Alvarez, a real estate salesperson with Houlihan Lawrence, based at the firm’s Croton-on-Hudson office. “It has a different flavor than everything else around it. It has a lost-in-time feeling to it.”

But just a few miles away, still within the village borders, is something entirely alien to that motif: Indian Point, a hulking power plant where, for more than four decades, two nuclear reactors had produced as much as of 2,000 megawatts of electricity. That’s enough to power millions of homes across New York State.

The nuclear plant’s eastern perimeter is lined with chain-link fences topped with thickets of barbed wire. Viewed from the west, Indian Point is one of the Hudson Valley’s most striking man-made vistas: a sprawling industrial complex with two huge domes that could pass for small sports arenas.

Indian Point has been an outsized part of Buchanan’s identity since opening in the 1960s. It has contributed jobs, energy, and — perhaps most importantly for the village — taxes. One-half of Buchanan’s annual revenue comes from Indian Point. It’s a windfall that for decades has funded law enforcement, firefighting, and a range of other services. Indian Point has also contributed less-savory elements, like pollution and a sense of unease. This, too, has been woven into the fabric of Buchanan.

But now, everything is changing. In 2017, New York State and Entergy, the company that owns Indian Point, announced the plant would power down — environmental concerns and public pressure finally winning out. By April 2020, one of the plant’s two operational nuclear reactors had been shut down; the second and final one will be turned off in April 2021. Meanwhile, Holtec International, a company specializing in nuclear decommissioning, expects to acquire the property in mid-2021 and dismantle it — a process that is expected to take about fifteen years.

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It’s a closure with widespread repercussions. Municipalities across New York State will feel economic, energy, and environmental impacts, but none more than Buchanan. As the plant powers down, Buchanan is slated to lose a part of its identity and face an uncertain future.

Indian Point looms literally and figuratively over the village of Buchanan. Photo by Frank Roberts
Indian Point looms literally and figuratively over the village of Buchanan. Photo by Frank Roberts

‘Many sleepless nights’: Buchanan in the short-term

The most pressing issue that Buchanan faces amid its identity crisis is money. “We have a small budget, and we’re going to be losing $3 million in that budget,” explains Knickerbocker.

That $3 million from Indian Point taxes fuels services that Buchanan residents have come to cherish. The village has its own police department, housed within the handsome, brick village-hall building. A small fleet of police cruisers sit parked behind it. And while other small villages might pool services or rely on their respective towns, Buchanan also has its own highway department, pool, and firehouse.

“We’ve gotten really used to having good services here,” Knickerbocker says, such that deep service cuts are unpalatable. Based on sentiments aired at public hearings, Knickerbocker adds that “the people do not want any of their services cut,” even if taxpayers have to pitch in more.

To fill the $3 million gap, Knickerbocker and other village officials have been tirelessly seeking solutions. “We are looking at every possible option,” she says. “Many sleepless nights… thinking, thinking, thinking.”

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Buchanan is hoping for some financial assistance from the state, from a fund dedicated to power-plant closures. There’s also the novel idea of taxing the spent nuclear fuel that will remain on the property throughout the decommissioning process, or until such time that the Department of Energy removes it from the site or a purchaser can find an interim storage facility. But the most promising lead is land: developing acreage that could then contribute to Buchanan’s tax base. Two hundred and forty of those acres are part of the Indian Point property, currently owned by Entergy but expected to be sold to Holtec. “It’s up to whoever the purchaser is if they’d be interested in selling any of the parcels that could be sold,” Knickerbocker says. (There is also a handful of parcels outside the scope of Indian Point, along Route 9A, that could be developed.)

It’s a closure with widespread repercussions. Municipalities across New York State will feel economic, energy, and environmental impacts, but none more than Buchanan.

The plant itself occupies only a fraction of this land; Knickerbocker hopes it is the outlying acreage that will be sold and developed. “Some people have said, ‘It’s all contaminated,’” explains the mayor, “but no, the property is not all contaminated.”

Holtec is “open to this possibility” of selling off outlying acreage, says Joe Delmar, a spokesperson for the company. “[But] before any parcels can be sold, they must meet the designated cleanup standards set by both the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as well as the State of New York.”

The question then becomes: What could be built on those parcels? “The whole [village] board agrees it should be something mixed-use,” Knickerbocker explains, ambitiously imagining a blend of residential, retail, restaurants, and perhaps even a marina. “We would recommend to the developer for the property to have access to public-use parklands and walking trails,” she adds.

Currently, the mayor and others in the village are working with a consultant to map out plans. “If the property becomes available, we want to be ahead of that,” Knickerbocker says. “We want to know exactly what we’re looking for.”

Some have opined that Buchanan might serve as a rather poetic county locus for clean- and renewable-energy companies, yet that is one idea Buchanan’s leadership is not entertaining. In fact, they are averse to any repurposing of land for industrial and/or manufacturing uses, because, as Knickerbocker points out, “That’s a lower tax base.” As a result, Buchanan’s dual identity as a sleepy village and an industrial powerhouse is coming to a conclusive end.

In addition to economics, the environment is also on Buchanan residents’ minds. Since the 1960s, Indian Point has contributed ecological harm, from toxic leakage to legions of dead Hudson River fish. And while the plant’s closure signals an eventual end to these problems, the decommissioning process presents a range of short-term issues.

“We’re going to be watching,” says Richard Webster, legal director of Riverkeeper, the Ossining-based nonprofit protecting the Hudson. Riverkeeper has been one of Indian Point’s most ardent critics over the years. “We want to make sure the plant is not only closed but that the site is restored to other use correctly — safely, efficiently, and effectively.”

Webster says the biggest concern throughout the process is contamination, which can place radioactive elements, like strontium and cobalt, into Buchanan’s groundwater. “We want to make sure that those contaminates don’t go off-site and are treated properly,” Webster explains. Physically dismantling the plant and dealing with the spent fuel on-site are also tricky processes, he adds.

In order to keep Buchanan and the greater Hudson Valley safe, Webster says Riverkeeper is pushing for legislation that would mandate greater transparency into the decommission process. “That would be an extremely useful forum,” says Webster. If that doesn’t work, Riverkeeper will rely on a mixture of advocacy and litigation.

The village roundabout in Buchanan could be the center of any revitalization plans. Photo by Frank Roberts
The village roundabout in Buchanan could be the center of any revitalization plans. Photo by Frank Roberts

‘An artisan town’: Buchanan in the long-term

If the economy and the environment are the short-term issues, then image is the long-term one. For decades, Buchanan has been the village with the nuclear power plant in its backyard. Can that perception ever change?

Ever since the plant’s nuclear facilities went online, homebuyers have been apprehensive. “It definitely comes up,” says Alvarez. “I would say 30 percent of the time, you have someone decide: I don’t know if I want that area,” even though the plant has also lured in some residents, who feel they can make better deals for themselves when it comes to real estate.

In the years ahead, Alvarez says this dynamic won’t disappear. Just because the plant is closing doesn’t mean the apprehension disappears. In fact, the closure process — which will take decades — might exacerbate the worry. “It’s one thing when the power plant was running and just did its thing,” she says, “but the decommission is a little bit unknown. If something goes wrong with the decommission process, that’s a problem.”

Alvarez also points out that over time, the area could attract artistic types who help rejuvenate the community, like in Cold Spring or Hudson, NY. “Buchanan has that potential; it’s still very old,” she explains. “There are old buildings. There’s charm to that.”

The village’s center roundabout could be revitalized and expanded without sacrificing its charm, Alvarez suggests. “These types of towns are disappearing. You don’t have [this charm] in Cortlandt Manor, where there are strip malls.”

A savvy planner or developer, Alvarez says, could shepherd in a host of small businesses and shape an artsy community. “You could give incentives for artists to come in and create an artisanal town — not a big, corporate, cookie-cutter thing. You could create an interesting area.”

She also notes that this sort of transformation isn’t a fantasy. Something similar is already happening, just a few miles away. “Peekskill has a lot of great, old architectural houses that were run down. People were coming in and seeing great opportunity, and they will lean toward that opportunity. And the prices kept going up. It can happen.”

According to Knickerbocker, this is already happening, to a degree. “Our houses are going up for sale and are sold very quickly,” she says. “We have a lot of new young families coming in. They like what they see here.” In December, about a half-dozen homes were on the market in the village, from a two-bedroom cottage at less than $300,000 to a six-bedroom Colonial at just over $600,000.

Another long-term question is the viability of a major potential resource: Buchanan’s waterfront. Can the village capitalize on it the same way Tarrytown, Yonkers, Peekskill, and others have in recent years?

Riverkeeper’s Webster says Buchanan’s waterfront will be open eventually but that it’ll be a while yet. “It’s likely that restrictions will remain in place for at least the next decade,” he says. But there could come a day where the village of Buchanan has a robust, bustling coastline. “That’s the goal,” Webster says. “We have an opportunity to remake the coastline as a resource for citizens… and as a habitat.”

“It’s important to get this right, to maintain our quality of life here. It’s about our future.”
—Theresa Knickerbocker, Mayor of Buchanan

While many in Westchester are applauding the closure of Indian Point, those who live and work closest to it are facing an existential moment. “This closure really hurt the people here,” Knickerbocker explains. From homeowners now facing a likely tax hike to small businesses that can no longer rely on the plant’s workers as customers, the closure is a forced reckoning, not an invited one.

In the months and years ahead, the village will rely on those same adventurous types who put down roots next to a functioning power plant. Except now, they’ll be putting down roots next to a decommissioned one — anticipating the day that Buchanan steps into the next chapter of its existence.

To Knickerbocker, this next chapter has a lot riding on it. “It’s important to get this right, to maintain our quality of life here. It’s about our future.”

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