Plans for Mohonk Preserve foothills begin a long process to determine land uses

A view of the Mohonk Preserve Foothills along Pine Road in the Town of New Paltz. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

The 850 acres of the Mohonk Preserve foothills includes wetlands, woodlands, cattle pastures, and ridgeland plus the Testimonial Gatehouse (where visitors entered The Mohonk Mountain House and Resort by horse and carriage), two working farms and six historic structures. The Smiley family sold the land to the Open Space Institute (OSI), with the understanding that the Mohonk Preserve would take over the management and ownership as funding allowed.

Representatives of OSI, and their planner, Michael Rudden of DiMella Shaffer, invited interested community members and neighbors to a public meeting this past Saturday at SUNY New Paltz to discuss a draft land management plan. The draft plan divides the property into four regions: ridgeland, marshland, farmland and Testimonial Gateway.

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The ridgeland region includes the Kleinkill farmhouse, old farm fields, and direct access to existing carriage roads and trails. The marshland portion is home to the Humpo Marsh, the duck pond and other ecologically sensitive areas. The farmland region includes Brook Farm as CSA, Pine Farm, cow and horse pastures, and farm fields. Finally, the Testimonial Gateway region includes the old gatehouse, the pin-oak allee, the Gateway lily ponds, and the old stone Lenape Lane bridge.

John Thompson of the Preserve provided an overview of the historic and ecological importance of these lands, while Rudden and Mohonk Preserve executive director Glenn Hoagland discussed a draft management plan and fielded questions from the public.

For the marshland region, the draft plans call for the protection of the marsh habitat which is home to dozens of rare and endangered species as well as some 200 permanent and migratory birds. The Humpo Marsh has also been the occasional home of beavers and beaver dams. Hoagland said he hoped to see the beavers return. Potential uses for this sensitive area were limited, but could include a bird-watching center, an interpretive nature trail and observation deck, reed-grass marsh research, a turtle migratory corridor and very limited, controlled parking.

The ridgeland area plan call for the management of old farm fields, scenic vista maintenance, maintaining and renovating the Kleinkill farmhouse, research, education and “connectivity” between the foothills and the eastern side of the ridge, where carriage roads and trails naturally come together.

The farmland area offers a plethora of possibilities and new ideas. To name a few, the draft plans consider using those farmlands for a farm day camp, community supported agriculture, experimental biological farm research, and incubator programs for young farmers. Hoagland said that the plans call for at least preserving the farm uses that already exist.

The Preserve, OSI and the planner have already held a by-invitation-only meeting with neighbors on Gate House, Butterville and adjoining roads to discuss their draft plans for the Testimonial Gateway. The feedback they received was that the neighbors wanted to preserve a buffer between the gatehouse area and Route 299. While approving of safety improvements to the intersection of Gate House Road and Route 299, many expressed concern that a theme-park-like entrance to the Preserve would impact negatively on traffic patterns and quality of life.

“Whenever you make changes to an intersection like that it requires cooperation and approval from the state, the county, the town, the DOT,” warned Hoagland and Rudden. “It will necessitate traffic studies, and we’re a long way off from that.”

The idea for the gatehouse, according to Hoagland, was like having “a new, big front yard to the Mohonk Preserve and the Shawangunk Ridge.” He could envision “limited, controlled parking,” and a place where those visiting the Preserve could stop, “take a tour of the gatehouse, stroll down the pin-oak allee, take in the views of the ridge, and then go home. Others who might be more ambitious could use it to access the Preserve and spend the day hiking or biking.”

There would be times, Hoagland said, when the Preserve would need to turn people away. He used the term “greenlock” to describe that situation. “Instead of just saying, We’re closed, we could send them to our Visitors’ Center, to the Testimonial Gateway, back to the Village of New Paltz to walk the rail-trail, experience Huguenot Street or go to the D&H Canal museum,” he continued expansively. “This is something we continually try and promote. It’s ecotourism as its best, but without losing tourists. We can send them to local farms and CSAs, on our regional wine trails. It helps spread the wealth.”

Michael Zierler, former village deputy mayor and co-chair of the town’s Open Space Commission responsible for creating and adopting an open-space plan, said that he was very happy with the OSI land acquisition. “This is an iconic piece of the entire viewscape from the village, and I believe and hope their plans will dovetail with the town’s open-space plan. Their mission is admirable and I’m excited, but as always the devil is in the details.”

There are plenty of details. One is what will happen to Pine Road. OSI and the Preserve have been in discussions with the town board about the maintenance, duties and responsibility for that rural road. Chris Marx, the town highway superintendent said he’d be more than happy to turn it over to the Preserve, as it was a difficult rural road to maintain, particularly during the winter months.

Several residents were concerned that a Preserve/OSI takeover might limit public access. Many locals now park in a small parking lot at the dead end of Pine Road. The spot provides convenient access to the aqueduct and the duck-pond trail and the carriage roads.

“There is still a lot of discussion that needs to take place,” conceded Hoagland. “First the town has to ask us if we want to assume responsibility and ownership of that road. Secondly, we will need to decide if that’s in our mission’s best interest. We’re here to gather public input. If that is a community-based access point, then maybe we could keep it as it is, or create a small, managed parking lot that is for members only.”

He noted that several school buses, particularly those from New Paltz, utilize that parking lot when taking students to visit various Mohonk Preserve’s environmental education programs that are tied into elementary curriculum.

Susan Stegen, a neighbor to the Testimonial Gatehouse region, thanked the Preserve and OSI “for having these public information meetings and the meeting with the neighbors so that we could have a dialogue.” She contrasted that attitude with that of SUNY New Paltz, which, she said, “just does what they want and then residents have to react.”

“You have really kept the dialogue open and I believe have listened to our concerns,” Stegen told the meeting. “Of course, we don’t want things to change, we know that they will, but if managed correctly, I believe that the changes could have minimal impact on neighbors.”

Marion Dubois, a former town board member as well as an ardent environmental activist, applauded OSI and the Preserve both for the acquisition and for their management and stewardship plans. “I think it’s incredible,” she said. “This will help to preserve our viewscape, provide connectivity for the vast wildlife that lives in the foothills and the ridge of the Shawangunks, as well as providing more access for passive, public recreation.”

She continued her praise. “I’m so excited that they want the beavers to return to Humpo Marsh. Beavers clean our air our water, and are our greatest, natural environmentalists. I know some on Butterville Road want nothing to change, but guess what? Change happens, and this kind of change is something that protects our open space, preserves our clean water, clean air, our wildlife corridors and our tourist economy as well as our quality of life.”

More detailed plans for the management of these lands is due out in March of 2012.

 

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