NXIVM cuts training school from plan

Halfmoon -- Controversial company's latest proposal still seeks to build headquarters, offices on town site

Times Union/December 21, 2003
By Dennis Yusko

A company that says it instructs people in how to reach their full potential has again downsized its building proposal for Woodin Road, saying it no longer will include a training center for its controversial self-improvement courses.

NXIVM, pronounced NEX-ee-um, said it has scratched plans to build a "human potential" school on 8 acres at the intersection of Stone Quarry Road. The company, which teaches self-described philosopher and Halfmoon resident Keith Raniere's Executive Success Programs, or ESP, still wants to build its international headquarters and offices on the site, according to documents filed with the Planning Board this month.

The latest proposal by engineer Daniel Hershberg differs from NXIVM's first two designs in that it does not mention classrooms, a campus and a dormitory, as earlier plans did.

"The project sponsors have significantly altered the program for the proposed building. This building will no longer be used as a training center," Hershberg wrote to the Halfmoon Planning Board in a letter obtained through the Freedom of Information Law.

Preliminary plans for the site had represented "a tribute to civilization," including a stone foundation and steel and glass pods. Planning Board members questioned several aspects of the designs, including use, visitation intensity and potential traffic.

NXIVM said in June that its classes at the proposed Halfmoon site would run from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily for 100 to 150 people at a time.

The Saratoga County Planning Board informed the town in September that schools and training centers were not permitted under the area's commercial zoning laws.

The latest proposal still doesn't provide enough information, said the board's chairman, Steven Watts.

"They still have not indicated to us what's going to occur there," he said, adding that he has requested more information on the new proposal.

NXIVM has hired an architect to revise its building designs to contain leased office space for physical therapists, financial planners and others, as well as a gym and a locker room, Hershberg wrote. NXIVM is determining a method of providing sanitary sewer service to the 8-acre site at 7 Woodin Road that is owned by Mary O'Donnell of Kingston, Mass., according to Planning Board officials.

Reached at his Albany office, Hershberg said the plan's specifics had to come from NXIVM. Repeated attempts to reach Raniere and President Nancy Salzman, a certified nurse who formed ESP with Raniere, were unsuccessful.

Both Salzman and Raniere, dubbed "Prefect" and "Vanguard" respectively by students, live in subdivisions of this fast-growing suburb. NXIVM offers "executive training" courses in Colonie, Saratoga Springs, New York City and Mexico. It also holds recruitment presentations.

Many Halfmoon residents oppose the development on Woodin Road. More than 100 neighbors signed a petition opposing NXIVM's proposals, and at least 10 families have written protest letters to the Planning Board, including the town historian and a former employee of Raniere's, according to the board's NXIVM file.

They cited the project's noise and lights, and its potential to increase traffic at the "dangerous" intersection. Some also mentioned what they called Raniere's "questionable" business ethics.

"It's been one of the more intense series of complaints and concerns from town residents," Watts said.

Jill McLaughlin, formerly of 1 Woodin Road, was typical of the letter-writers: "I am pleading with the town planning department to decline this proposal," she wrote.

McLaughlin fired off an e-mail to Raniere this summer, saying the proposal would ruin the property value of her single-family home, which is adjacent to the NXIVM site. Raniere wrote back and immediately sent NXIVM representatives to her home, McLaughlin said.

The recently formed NXIVM Properties LLC then purchased McLaughlin's home for $175,000, plus moving costs. Raniere was a pleasure to work with, she said.

"They offered more than we would have asked. I was pretty blown away by how accommodating they were to us," said McLaughlin, now of Clifton Park.

NXIVM Properties LLC has bought at least two other properties nearby in September, including 3 Hale Drive in Clifton Park from Elizabeth Quackenbush for $114,900, and 12 Wilton Court in Clifton Park for $110,000 from Sabrina Nitkowski, according to deeds filed in the Saratoga County Clerk's office.

Some opponents of the project are not convinced classes won't be held at the site.

"I guess I would just question if that's actually the case," said neighbor Greg Mayo. "I would hope that the town had some sort of auditing mechanism in place. What would be the recourse if they were holding training?"

ESP courses help professionals achieve their full potential, NXIVM states. The 5-year-old company earns $4 million annually, according to an October article in Forbes magazine.

The piece, titled "Cult of Personality," identifies as ESP students state Health Commissioner Antonia C. Novello; Sheila Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television; Stephen Cooper, acting chief executive of Enron; and Ana Cristina Fox, daughter of Mexican President Vicente Fox. But it says of Raniere's "human potential" formulas: "You might think it pure genius. Or maybe horse manure."

Raniere still owes the state more than $48,000 from a 1993 judgment of a civil suit filed by former state Attorney General Robert Abrams. The suit alleged Raniere's Halfmoon-based company, Consumers Buyline, was a pyramid scheme. The company ceased operation after signing up at least 250,000 customers nationwide and bringing in more than $33 million in a year.

Raniere promised the state in October that he would pay off his balance by the end of November, but he has not done that, according to the office of state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

After Consumers Buyline, Raniere and an associate formed National Health Network, a vitamin distributor in Clifton Park, which folded soon after.

ESP "intensives" can last more than 10 hours for up to 16 consecutive days and cost $7,500, former members say. Students, or "Espians," wear various colored scarves to mark their position in the company, according to former members. They bow to Raniere, Salzman and others, a practice company officials compare to martial arts.

Mental health professionals who have seen NXIVM's confidential manual and treated former students liken NXIVM to a cult. One of those professionals is Carlos Rueda, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Our Lady of Mercy Hospital in the Bronx. He also serves as an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College in Valhalla, Westchester County.

ESP filed two federal lawsuits against its critics for the manual's dissemination and ensuing critique on a social commentator's Web site. The pending suit seeks to remove any mention of ESP from the site and asks for almost $10 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

Students are paid commissions if they bring in recruits, according to the former students.

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