Not since the Crossroads project was proposed for the uptown property now being considered for Wildberry Lodge has the New Paltz Town Planning Board had so many people attend a public hearing on one of its projects, and the town’s community center was ill equipped to handle the interest during the September 16 session regarding the Mohonk Preserve’s proposed Foothills Project. Outside, cars were parked in every space designated for the center and the abandoned Town Hall, as well as in a number of extralegal areas; inside, people who weren’t fortunate enough to have a seat crowded into the back of the room and around the walls, or strained to hear what was going on from the hallway beyond the meeting room. Nearly 50 people signed up to speak, and at least half a dozen of them gave up and left before their name was called, or couldn’t hear that it was their turn because they couldn’t cram into the room to listen. If it were a numbers game, supporters of allowing the project to move forward without preparing an extensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) edged out those who wanted more studies by only a handful: an informal count suggested 22 in favor of quick approval, 17 opposed and one or two whose support was unclear from the comments offered.
It is not, however, a numbers game. In considering how to proceed on this project to develop trail heads and parking areas in the 857 acres Mohonk Preserve is receiving from the Open Space Institute (OSI) — bound by Route 299, Gatehouse Road and Pine Road and encompassing a portion of Butterville Road — as well as subdividing off a nearly 20-acre residential parcel to convey back to OSI, members of the Planning Board are charged with considering the weight and merit of arguments, not the number of people voicing them.
All members of the board were in attendance, and appeared to be listening carefully to about two hours’ worth of thoughts on the merits of the project. At issue is whether or not the applicant will need to prepare an extensive Environmental Impact Statement to study the various impacts of the project. An EIS adds considerable time and expense to any development plans, as there first must be a public session to determine the scope of what needs study, followed by a public hearing on a draft version, and then the submission of a final EIS in which the applicant must address every single concern raised at the prior public hearing, and the writing of a findings statement by the Planning Board before the project can be approved or denied. Town engineer David Clouser, when asked to provide a ballpark estimate, said that the median cost of an EIS is around $50,000.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the people desiring a quick approval for the project spoke of their enjoyment of the outdoor recreation made possible by the Preserve, or expressed a desire to be able to walk in the flatter terrain of the Foothills. Part of the project proposal is to create an elevated wooden walkway through Humpo Marsh, to allow access now restricted to those with hip waders or kayaks, an idea which was also spoken of highly. The idea of adding more parking was heralded in particular by those residents who recall a time before there was any formal parking to hike or swim, and cars lined the shoulders of Routes 44/55. They also warned of the hundreds of houses which could fill up that space under current zoning if it were sold to private developers. Preserving the Foothills has consistently been identified as a top conservation priority by town residents, they reminded the board.
Those who wish to slow the process down are organized as the Citizens of the Shawangunks. They generally took pains to declare their membership in the Preserve, their love of nature and their desire to see the Foothills remain open space during their comments, while also expressing worries about the increase in traffic and noise which might result from the project’s approval as planned. The impact of traffic would ripple back through the village on peak days, they predicted, making an already difficult problem significantly worse. They argued that the very declaration of this action as a Type I under the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) Act presumes that the impacts will be significant enough to warrant a full EIS, and one even suggested that the River-to-Ridge Trail proposal be deemed part of this project in light of laws against the segmentation of development proposals. An EIS, they told the board, is exactly the right tool to make sure that this project meets with community needs and expectations.
Some of the arguments offered by the Citizens of the Shawangunks and their allies, both during the hearing and through their public outreach campaign, were branded as manipulative or misleading. Phrasing which had supporters crying foul included describing the project as a “Disneyfication” and called the elevated wooden walkway through the marsh a “Boardwalk.” They also bristled at suggestions that board members of the Mohonk Preserve might not be keeping the best interests of the community in their hearts in designing this plan.
One area of general agreement seemed to be that lowering the speed limit from 55 to 45 miles per hour along this stretch of Route 299 would be a big help. However, that would require approval by the state Department of Transportation after it does a traffic study, which usually must be requested by both the town and county first. Among the differences of opinion were whether adding trail heads, parking and informational kiosks would create more traffic problems or reduce them, which seems to hinge on whether the additional facilities will attract more users, or simply redirect the existing hikers and bikers that already come to the preserve. Some supporters expressed that if traffic were to increase, it would be a small price to pay.
Former Planning Board member Lynn Bowdery may have summarized the viewpoint of Preserve cheerleaders best. “I know what a pos-dec is,” she said, referring to the positive declaration of environmental impact, the vote for which by the board would trigger the need for an EIS. She said she was “quite impressed by [the applicant’s] prep work,” and that from there the Planning Board could easily tweak the plan and get more information if needed. “An EIS is tremendously expensive and often used to deter and retard development,” she said.
Irwin Sperber, who leads the Citizens of the Shawangunks, continued to reference a report by the town’s Environmental Conservation Commission which criticized the project as being too extensive. That report has been the cornerstone of the group’s concerns from the get-go.
The board did not make any decision on the fate of the project, and will take it up at a future meeting.
River to Ridge Trail
OSI representatives submitted a formal application to the Planning Board last Wednesday to create the River-to-Ridge Trail, which will tie together a number of projects still in the planning stages. The trail will start at the Carmine Liberta Bridge, which when it is replaced is expected to have an ample bicycle/pedestrian lane. It will then turn up Springtown Road and go through the village’s boat landing site, where it’s hoped the informal parking area can be striped to support as many as 40 cars. The ten-foot-wide, crushed-stone multi-use trail would then wind along the tree line, cross Lewis Lane and create a loop that reaches to Butterville Road. Free access to a portion of trail in the Mohonk Preserve would increase the appeal, as will the connectivity with the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail and plans to link that up with the Hudson Valley Rail Trail to the east. Both of those trails hook up to trail systems which extend through several counties.
This trail would be built at grade, the board was told, and is expected to flood from time to time. No motorized vehicles would be permitted, and OSI is exploring the possibility of it being patrolled by rangers from the Preserve to ensure that the rule is not violated. Bicyclists, hikers, horses and cross-country skiers would all be likely to enjoy the trail once it’s completed. In addition to Planning Board approval, the institute needs to work with the village several issues around the boat landing, including how to ensure that the village DPW can continue to dump snow there without restricting access to parking. The town Planning Board voted to circulate a notice of intent to declare itself lead agency for this application, so no significant action will be taken by the board until 30 days after that notice is sent.