FALLSBURG, NY—On State Route 17 in Bloomingburg, New York, a billboard tucked away near the treeline of the highway has drawn the ire of local residents.
The billboard shows four people in graduation hats and gowns holding what look like diplomas and the words “Thompson Education Center” and “Exit 112” in Chinese and English.
At a Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) meeting in the Town of Fallsburg about 16 miles away, Basha Kill Area Association member Bob Muller slapped a picture of the billboard onto the table of the board’s March 15 meeting.
“This is a billboard that’s been up for two years of the Thompson Education Center (TEC) that supposedly is right off of exit 112, and it has some happy students here graduating, and they seem to be learning a lot,” he said, “but this place doesn’t exist.”
Muller attended the meeting, not to raise alarm about the illusory college that’s being advertised off exit 112, but about a house that the developer of the same project wants to build in Fallsburg adjacent to the proposed campus in the Town of Thompson.
House or College?
The billboard for a nonexistent school is just one instance of a project whose details don’t match its promotion, leaving observers unsure about what the developer really has in mind, and attracting opposition from close to a dozen groups.
But at the same time, they tried to build it separately from the college when it came to the environmental review, a move that the BKAA warned in a letter to the Town of Thompson would be illegal segmentation under the State Environmental Quality Review Act.
If the house is part of the college, it needs to go through the lengthy environmental review process the college is subject to. By transforming it into a single-family residence, Li effectively skirted that review.
But according to an Oct. 11 site plan, the most recent one the Town of Thompson has made available, the “independent single family residence” is still phase 1A of the college. Similarly, the most recent environmental assessment form (EAF) Thompson has released, dated June 14, 2017, also lists the house as part of the college complex.
Several groups have called for the town to revoke an initial permit for the house, saying that while it is labeled as a house on the site plans, it’s not designed like a single-family home, and they suspect it won’t be used as one.
Aside from being wary of developers in the area (the town enacted a moratorium on residential developments two years ago because of the frenetic pace of building in the town), locals complain that Li hasn’t been forthcoming about her plans for the site.
One of the groups opposing TEC is the Basha Kill Area Association (BKAA), which is concerned about the effluent that could travel from the college to the Basha Kill wetlands and bird conservation area about 7 miles away. The BKAA’s attorney, John Lyons, of Rhinebeck-based Grant & Lyons, LLP, urged the ZBA to rescind the house’s permit, saying that if it “walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.”
He zeroed in on several details of the site plan that seemed particularly out of place for a single -family residence: a 24-foot-wide driveway, plans to put a double-sided sign out in front of the house facing the road, an “emergency lighting fixture” inside that he interpreted as an exit sign, and the strange layout of the building.
The 9,000 square-foot structure has two wings and two floors. There are three bedrooms and six guest bedrooms, three warming kitchens, a breakfast nook, and a full-sized kitchen. It’s other rooms include a dining room, a family room, a playroom, a sitting room, a screening room, a home office, a data center room, and a powder room.
Andy Willingham, a civil engineer who reviewed the plans on behalf of the BKAA, said everything about the house looked commercial, noting the sprinklers on the interior and the ramp up to the front door as particularly excessive for a single family home.
“Nothing about this building resembles a single-family house, with perhaps some superficial references on the title block,” said Willingham of New Paltz-based Willingham Engineering at the March 15 ZBA meeting.
Li’s lawyer, John Privitera, acknowledged that the building used expensive materials usually reserved for commercial buildings, but argued that wasn’t grounds for denying a permit.
“Yeah, it’s rare, expensive construction. That’s true. You can’t say that nobody can build a house that’s rare, expensive construction,” he said at the same meeting.
Greg Korn, a New York City-based architect who was not familiar with the project but reviewed the floor and the site plan for The Epoch Times, said that while some of the features and materials looked commercial, it was not unheard of for houses to be built like that. In full disclosure, he said he has worked on a number of projects with engineering firm TWIG (The Wall Street Consulting Group, Inc, which has been contracted by TEC).
“It’s modern looking, quite massive, but per the floor plan, still pretty much a house. There’s not anything I see that sort of lends to commercial nature,” he said in a phone interview.
As for ramps and sprinklers, he said the sprinklers may be required for houses over a certain size under new state code, and that this wouldn’t be the first time he’s seen a ramp built on a residential house.
Li, a Long Island resident, first made a name for herself when she proposed building a “Chinese Disneyland” on 2,200 acres in Thompson, Fallsburg, and the Town of Mamakating about six years ago. After public outcry, however, she scaled the project back to just a private college on about 575 acres in Thompson and Fallsburg. Or at least that’s what she said on paper.
After supposedly dialing back her plans for China City of America, she was quoted in an Associated Press article saying that she still planned to build the amusement park.
“We haven’t cut back our sizes,” she said, according to The AP. “We’re going to be doing it step by step.”
In January 2014, Thompson Supervisor Bill Rieber canceled the project’s scoping session, saying that “unless they tell us the truth,” there was nothing to review, reported the Times Herald-Record.
Originally, Li was going to use the controversial EB-5 investor visas to partially fund the project. EB-5 is an employment-based visa that grants foreigners a green card if they invest at least half a million dollars in certain areas of the United States and create at least 10 full-time jobs over two years.
Back when she was planning to build the Chinese theme park, Li said 40 percent of the funding would come through EB-5 investment.
But it’s unclear if that’s still her plan. Larry Behar, the EB-5 lawyer who started the project’s application to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) told The Epoch Times he hasn’t spoken to Li in years. He said he left the project because there was no longer a need for his services.
According to documents FOILed by the Yankee Lake Association, one of the groups opposing the TEC development, the application for the China City project was rejected in 2014 and the denial was never appealed. Neither was a new application submitted for TEC.
But as recently as last July, Li was featured in Chinese media promoting TEC in Guangzhou, China, as an “easy” way to get an American green card.
An article on Science.China.com.cn states that the Thompson Education Center fully meets U.S. immigration requirements and can help Chinese investors to get a visa.
“As long as you invest in this project and meet the United States government’s immigration eligibility requirements, we can guarantee 99 percent that you can get a green card,” the article says.
Neither Li nor her lawyer returned phone calls and emails seeking comment for this article, but the attorney for the Town of Thompson, who declined to comment for this story, was quoted the same month that Li was promoting her project in China, as saying she didn’t think EB-5 funding would be used for the project.
“I believe that they stated at the last two meetings that they were not using EB-5, but the only one who can tell for sure about the funding source is the applicant,” said attorney Paula Kay, according to the Times Herald-Record.
Adding to the confusion around Li’s efforts have been the assertions, almost from the beginning, that the project, whether it be China City or TEC, is in the execution phase.
“We have made great progress in advancing our original concept to the actual planning and execution stage,” Li was quoted as saying in a December 2013 press release about China City.
“Thompson Education Center has received a large number of reports from major media at home and abroad, including the New York Times and Yahoo Finance, since its planning and construction,” a 2015 press release in Chinese states.
In the six years since China City was first proposed, it has only gotten approvals for several test wells and an access road on the property. No construction has been permitted.
The test wells drilled did not meet the needs of the project, documents show, and because of ecologically sensitive habitat on the property, the applicants needed a permit from the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to extend the access road to drill more.
No such application was on file with the DEC.
The project itself is still in the very early stages of the environmental review process. Last September, the Thompson Planning Board voted to classify the project as having a significant environmental impact, and Li has not appeared before any boards since.
But despite the lack of approvals, “It is expected that the project will be completed in three years, and investors will be able to get real estate,” the same July report in Chinese media states.
Li and Politics
Li made headlines last year for her generous campaign contributions to President Donald Trump, which at $270,500, shot her to the top of the list of donors for the Trump Victory campaign. Most recently she donated $17,100 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, $5,000 to Vp MIke Pence’s Great America Committee PAC, $25,000 to the “Protect the House” fund to keep the House in Republican hands, $1,000 to South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham (R) and $5,000 to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).
While she seems to favor Republican lawmakers, she didn’t always. In 2014, she gave a combined $55,000 to Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and $2,500 in 2013 to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, also a Democrat.
Originally from China, Li has publicly embraced the “American dream,” saying she supports President Trump’s campaign to “make America great again,” and boost the U.S. economy.
“As a real estate developer, I share the same American dream and the same American value with you,” she said in a January 2017 press release.
But at the same time, her home address is given as the New York headquarters for an organization that supports the most brutal Chinese leader in recent history, Mao Zedong.
The United Nations Mao Zedong Foundation lists 2 Centre View Dr., Oyster Bay, New York, as its world liaison headquarters, the same address listed on at least six Delaware LLCs registered to Sherry Li, and the New York-based LLC China City of America, Inc.
“The central task of the United Nations Mao Zedong Foundation is to publicize and implement Mao Zedong thought,” the foundation’s website says in Chinese.
Mao Zedong was the father of China’s Cultural Revolution, a campaign to eliminate China’s traditional culture that took millions of lives. It made intellectuals, property owners, and people of faith into state enemies, and pitted family and friends against one another in an effort to foment constant revolution.
Its website says the foundation plans to establish investment companies in Boston, Beijing, China, and Hong Kong in order to “make the funds of the foundation produce economic benefits and expand social benefits.”
“The investment areas of the foundation include society and people’s livelihood, economy and commerce, science and technology, culture and arts, publicity and education, medicine and health, environmental protection, and so on.”
Air Business College
One small measure of progress that Li has been marketing to her investors is the Air Business College that she appears to have broken ground on last June.
“Chairman Lin Gaobao and Sherry Li, Chairman of Thompson Education Group of America, signed the contract for the Air Business College USA Base at Thompson Education Center and attended the groundbreaking ceremony of the U.S. Air Business school,” says a report in Chinese media.
The article is accompanied by a photo of three men with shovels in their hands standing around a stone sign with writing on it in Chinese, presumably a marker for the college.
A November TEC press release describes the school as an “international aviation college” that will award bachelor’s and associate’s degrees for “different students’ needs on aviation license and training business; introduce aviation manufacturing to China and realize the development in China.”
But there’s one problem—the sign shown in the groundbreaking ceremony is outside Li’s proposed house in Fallsburg.
At the March 15 ZBA meeting, one ZBA member questioned the relationship between the house and the Air Business College.
“Honestly, when I first looked at this layout, it kind of reminded me of my college dorm,” said ZBA member Mike Bensimon. “The east wing kind of resembles more of a guest house within a house rather than a wing or part of the house itself.”
He said at that meeting he would vote to rescind the house’s building permit unless modifications were made to the floor plan and the Air Business College sign were removed.
“I find that a little odd, especially for a private residence,” he said about the sign.
“I understand that Thompson Education owns the property, but until I pay off my mortgage, the bank owns my house, but they don’t put a sign out front reminding me of it.”
A resolution the board voted on on April 19 didn’t have any stipulations about the sign or modifications to the interior, and so Bensimon voted against it. He was one of four board members present, and the other three voted to keep the permit.
“There were no mistakes made as of yet,” said ZBA chair Steve Burke. “You can’t make a decision based on what’s possibly going to happen.”
ZBA member Paul Lucyk agreed.
“Her [Li’s] track record is not good, but can you go by something that can happen?” he said.
The permit was only for the foundations of the house, and Li will need to get additional permits before building the rest of it.
“They could build [the foundation] and come to find out I’m not going to approve the final plans because they can’t fix something,” said Fallsburg deputy code enforcement officer George Sarvis. “It’s at their own risk.”
The Basha Kill Area Association has decided not to appeal the ZBA’s decision in court, but they’re keeping a watchful eye on developments with the college and are prepared to fight it through the environmental review process.
As for the billboard off of Route 17, it’s still up. The robed students are still smiling and holding up diploma-like scrolls as if they’ve just passed a major milestone. Faded into the sky behind them, as if to suggest what is in store for the area, is the site plan for the Thompson Education Center.