Mohonk Foothills meeting draws standing-room-only crowd in New Paltz

The Mohonk Foothills. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

The Mohonk Foothills. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Mohonk Preserve’s Testimonial Gatehouse project drew a standing-room-only crowd to New Paltz Town Hall Monday night. Neighbors, advocates and detractors all showed up to deliver comments to the Planning Board about the project, which calls for the restoration of the iconic 1907 gatehouse, as well as work to create a boardwalk at Humpo Marsh. Traffic and parking were some areas of concern. Mohonk Preserve plans to purchase 536 acres from Open Space Institute, including land on the mountain ridge, the swampland and the gatehouse area. The entire project is expected to cost $2.15 million.

According to Ronald G. Knapp, past president of the Mohonk Preserve’s board, 2014 is not the first time parking and traffic have been an issue in projects. When both the West Trapps Trailhead and the new Visitor Center opened, concerned citizens were against adding parking there — sometimes preferring on-street parking.

But the parking that has gone in at the Preserve has been hidden — landscaped behind a shield of trees and not visible from the road. Tree removal has stayed to a minimum, Knapp added.

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Peter Karis, landscape architect on the project, noted that on-street parking along Gatehouse and Butterville roads are already dangerous — mostly because curious onlookers want a glimpse of the tower.

“We see this as problematic. It’s becoming unsafe for people to park and drive on the roads the way they are,” Karis said. “We hope the proposed project will alleviate that.”

Testimonial Gatehouse is the Preserve’s fifth capital improvement project to include parking, with 90 spaces at the gatehouse and 23 at Hasbrouck House in Humpo Marsh, according to Knapp.

Lou Cariola, of Jacobs Lane, thought the Preserve had underestimated the number of parking spaces needed.

“I think this is a lovely project … the only problem is that it is going to be very successful,” Cariola said, adding that he thought a restored Testimonial Gatehouse would increase traffic.

Other people with mixed or critical opinions of the project asked the Planning Board to give it a full environmental impact statement (EIS).

Bruce Simon, of Butterville Road, said he’d come to see Mohonk Preserve not as the friendly neighborhood nature preserve, but as a big developer.

“The way the lot has been presented to you is a form of segmentation, which is clearly inappropriate and unlawful — as defined by the Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York,” Simon said.

Segmentation is a big issue for critics.

Currently, Mohonk Preserve wants to phase the project into three parts. The first will include the restoration of the gatehouse and the Humpo Marsh site. The other two phases include carriage road resurfacing and other work.

Critics want Mohonk Preserve to present all three phases at once as part of its site plan.

“Mohonk Preserve is not engaging in segmentation,” said Karis. “Under SEQRA, phasing a project is perfectly permissible provided potential environmental impacts are examined by the lead agency.”

Ray Lunati, another New Paltz resident, said that “the plan looks great,” but he had a minor problem with the plan. He didn’t like the horse farm-style fence the Preserve plans to add to enclose the site on Gatehouse Road.

Glenn Hoagland, the Preserve’s executive director, pointed to the benefits that Mohonk’s 8,000 acres provide. Mohonk has 14,000 members and about 165,000 visitors per year. It provides numerous hiking, skiing, equestrian, mountain climbing and recreational opportunities — as well as a chance to commune with nature. Also, about 5,700 kids go there for educational programs or field trips each year.

On top of that, Hoagland pointed out that one estimate showed that Mohonk helps pump $12.3 million into the local economy. It also purchases from around 300 local vendors.

Mohonk Preserve offers free hiking at the Visitor Center in Gardiner — on several miles of trails. But to hike the full Preserve it costs $12 for a day entry fee.

In 2014, the Preserve’s operating income was $3.6 million and its expenses were $3.65 million. That leaves about a $58,200 deficit. Mohonk Preserve relies a lot on members and donors to survive, Hoagland said.

“We have 34 full-time, year-round employees and 22 seasonal employees,” the executive director said. “That actually makes us about four times the size of the average Ulster County business. Twenty-two of our staff members and nine of our 21 board members actually live in the New Paltz zip code. So these are people who live and own homes, pay taxes and shop and work here in the community.”

New Paltz resident Matt Logan liked what he saw in the plan. “Their restoration and trailhead plan is minimalist on balance,” Logan said, adding that he thought people making out Mohonk Preserve as a large-scale developer were overstating the situation.

“Rather than bemoan the lost property taxes, the board should consider the fantastic potential being offered our community here,” he said.

New Paltz Town Planning Board members are just getting started in their review on the Mohonk Foothills project. According to chairman Mike Calimano, a public hearing on the project will be held at some point in the future.

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Knapp, the Preserve’s past president, also felt it important to remind the public that what they see in June 2014 might not make it into the final site plan — depending on what requests they get from Planning Board members.

“We look forward to hearing your constructive comments on our proposal. We wouldn’t at all be surprised if this proposal undergoes changes during this process with the Planning Board,” he said.