Culminating more than a decade of study, planning and negotiation following the “Beavergate” trapping controversy of the early 20-aughts, preservation of a continuous wildlife corridor running all the way from Woodland Pond’s forever-wild acreage to the Duzine School’s back yard is finally about to become a reality. On July 22, the New Paltz Village Board unanimously passed three resolutions enabling the village to become the owner of a 64.5-acre parcel owned by Peter Bienstock under the name of Shawangunk Reserve, Inc. Formerly known as Stoneleigh Woods, the property constitutes the missing link in the long-envisioned tract of protected lands to be known as the Mill Brook Preserve.
The first resolution authorizes mayor Tim Rogers to enter into a contract of sale for the property, names the village lead agency for State Environmental Quality Review and issues a Negative Declaration of adverse environmental impacts for the land project. The second resolution allows the village to issue bids for financing of up to $650,000, the property’s listed purchase price. And the third adopts an Intermunicipal Management Agreement (IMA) between the village and the town regarding their respective financial responsibilities for capital improvements to the Preserve, such as trails, bridges and a parking lot. At its meeting the following evening, the Town Board also voted to authorize town supervisor Susan Zimet to finalize and execute the IMA.
Mayor Rogers explained that the village will be solely responsible for the costs of acquisition and maintenance of the parcel, but the costs of improvements will be shared proportionally based on the amount of acreage that each municipality owns within the Mill Brook Preserve lands. “No improvements will be made unless we both agree,” said village trustee Tom Rocco. “The town and the village have to be on the same page.”
Supervisor Zimet said that, although a budget has not been finalized for the entire project, “we have to fast-track” the IMA in order for village planner Dave Gilmour to submit a grant proposal by the July 31 deadline. The village is seeking a grant of up to $500,000 in Environmental Protection Fund monies from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which will require local matching funds of 25 percent.
According to town councilman Marty Irwin, the terms of the agreement require that if the newly added Preserve lands are not officially designated parkland by June 30, 2016, a conservation easement must be executed to protect them permanently. The project represents the fulfillment of a longtime dream for Irwin, who chaired the town’s Clean Water and Open Space Protection Commission (CWOSPC, formerly called the Open Space Commission or OSC) until his recent appointment to the Town Board, and has been an active member of the Friends of the Mill Brook Preserve citizens’ group, founded by Julie and Mike Lillis. One of the most enthusiastic Friends, he reported, is the Lillises’ daughter Bridget, who at age seven sold lemonade to raise funds for the Preserve and gathered 66 signatures on a “pitichon” to save it.
Irwin also credited CWOSPC’s Seth McKee and Michael Zierler for laying much of the groundwork on establishing the ecosystems value of the Mill Brook Preserve lands. “This is their vision,” he said. According to studies done in 2003 by Erik Kiviat of Hudsonia, cited in the Management Plan for the Mill Brook Preserve released in August 2014 (and accessible on the Town of New Paltz website), the area is home to a rare and vulnerable reptile species, the wood turtle. Several protected bird and plant species have also been identified in the Preserve. On a recent hike through the area, this correspondent startled a muskrat and two deer, heard the “Who cooks for youuuuu?” call of the barred owl and watched a beaver, apparently unafraid of human company, patrolling the pond where its lodge of piled sticks sits on a small island.
The varied terrain of the Mill Brook Preserve provides significant wildlife habitat and supports a diversity of plant and animal species. Much of it consists of wetlands forming the watershed of the stream known colloquially as the Mill Brook and more drily and formally labeled Tributary 13 of the Wallkill River by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Consequently, the existing trails — many of them no wider than deer paths — tend to be circuitous, wending their way around the swampy, wildlife-rich low-lying areas. There are also uplands featuring hardwoods and a five-acre hemlock stand. The map of proposed trails prepared by engineers Brinnier & Larios is of some help to exploration, but novice visitors would be wise to turn on a GPS as well upon entering the trail system. Long pants and socks are also highly advisable, since poison ivy is abundant and difficult to avoid in the narrower passages.
Town and village officials expect the terms of the purchase agreement to be finalized in the very near future, with trail-widening, bridge-building and parking-lot-designating to begin soon thereafter. The critters of the Mill Brook watershed will thenceforward be forever protected from suburban development, but they’ll likely have to get used to an upsurge in the number of human passers-by.