New Paltz Town Planning Board members on April 11 wrapped up the months-long public hearing on the site plan for the development of the recently-acquired Foothills portion of the Mohonk Preserve, but left open one regarding the related subdivision, which would lead to just over 19 acres to be conveyed back to the Open Space Institute (OSI). A new hearing began on OSI’s River to Ridge trail, which is so interrelated with the Foothills project that the board discussion wove back and forth between the two.
If planning was a purely democratic process, then this chapter of the site plan hearing was a vote for not requiring the more extensive environmental impact statement, as the people who favored a positive declaration of environmental significance were outnumbered by their opponents by more than a two-to-one margin. However, such public hearings are not a nose-counting affair; board members are expected to weigh the value of the arguments, not the number of people who expressed them, and especially not the number of times a particular idea was uttered during the long months of this public hearing.
Two broad areas of thought emerged during this portion of the hearing: one, that this project has been adequately studied and mitigated and should be granted approval forthwith; the other suggests that an EIS would enable board members to have the wide array of studies — all provided for by consultants on Mohonk Preserve’s dime — evaluated by experts hired by the town, and in addition that an EIS would ensure that alternatives are studied as thoroughly. One such alternative is to place most of the parking west of the Wallkill, farther away from the residents who live nearest the property, and closer to the Foothills area than the lot proposed for near the Testimonial Gateway.
One comment that likely gave board members pause was written by attorney Bruce Simon, but read by another member of Citizens of the Shawangunks, members of which are urging board members to require an EIS. In his letter, Simon noted that the proposed curb cut on Route 299 would “not be safe” unless a lower speed limit was approved for that stretch, and noted the fact that the accident rate is presently 8.8 times higher than at typical crossings. He suggested board members confirm that town insurance would be sufficient to protect them should a lawsuit name them individually.
Resident Matt Logan, who spoke after Simon’s letter was read, remarked that the implied threat was “shameful and disgusting,” and told board members, “Most of us have your back.”
The continuing public hearings on the Foothills project have, in fact, been for two separate applications — one for a site plan, the other for a subdivision — although chairman Mike Calimano has run them concurrently throughout the process. The demarcation becomes clearer now, as board members agreed to close the site plan hearing, but leave the subdivision one open. That 19.1-acre parcel is one of the ways that these applications are closely tied to the River to Ridge trail; the stated intention all along has been to convey that lot to OSI.
According to OSI’s Peter Karis, there will be no “mission-related activities” on this lot. He would not rule out the possibility of a sale, but the subdivision plans won’t allow for additional subdivisions, and specifies the envelope in which any primary structure must be placed, thereby controlling the future development.
The proposed trail will be run along this so-called “hillside lot,” and its route will connect to a loop — which will be accessible free of charge — in the Foothills tract of the Mohonk Preserve. The entire 857 acres were purchased from OSI, and the original rationale for giving back the hillside lot was to help pay for the land. Since the River to Ridge trail idea has been advanced, principals in both organizations have said that the parcel has greater strategic importance. In short, the chances of it being sold to a private developer may have been reduced.
Only a handful of people spoke at the trail hearing, most of whom said glowing things about a project that will provide off-road, pedestrian and bicycle access to the ridge from the village. Andi Weiss-Bartczak called the project segmentation, because in many senses it seems to flow naturally into the development of the Foothills. Because there are two different landowners involved — OSI and Mohonk Preserve — it’s probably not legally segmentation, even if common sense suggests otherwise.
Another Citizens of the Shawangunks member, Irwin Sperber, said that he’s not necessarily opposed to the project, but that “tourism is not an unmixed blessing” for a community, or for a natural environment in need of preserving. He pointed to the fact that a multi-use facility in Gardiner is being shut down due to overuse.
Beyond the core members of Citizens of the Shawangunks, other residents have been questioning the various projects being advanced in the name of conservation. Most, however, are uncomfortable putting their names on the record, as they are concerned that it will imply that they are opposed to land preservation. While their concerns cover a variety of projects on both Preserve and OSI lands, the overall sense is that the plans don’t necessarily get adapted to the views of neighbors.
Parking is a major issue for residents on the roads that are close to these projects, from Butterville and High Pasture roads to Jacobs Lane. Some agree with the concern occasionally raised at Planning Board meetings, that adequate parking could be established west of the Wallkill, but that alternative won’t be explored unless the issue is forced by board members making a positive declaration of environmental significance, which would precipitate an EIS. Others have lived with people parking on their streets to walk these lands for several years, and have even taken it upon themselves to issue informal parking notices, leaving them on windshields. As it stands, the town roads most affected don’t have parking bans, so enforcement when it happens is limited to citations regarding parking on pavement and similar issues. While Preserve officials are seeking to have staff members deputized to write parking tickets in Gardiner, but according to communications director Gretchen Reed, it’s a moot point in New Paltz because there are no parking restrictions posted.
Neighbors also continue to wonder about the fencing that now surrounds OSI lands, cutting off access to wildlife as well as passersby. “The fencing absolutely detracts from the view and creates ‘closed’ spaces rather than open spaces,” said Jim Bacon, who stressed that he was not speaking in his capacity as a town justice. “I’d understand if they were keeping livestock, but they are not. There is absolutely no defensible reason for the fencing in my opinion.”
In fact, despite the largely warm reception given to the trail idea, neighbors are expressing a lot of concerns about what’s happening with OSI lands. During the hearings, Todd Matthews expressed opposition to the demolition of the Studley barn, not because it was a matter before the board, but because there’s no review process for that decision at all. Bacon, who represented Studley, thought he’d be displeased with that decision, and mused that perhaps some of the money used to erect fencing might have been instead spent to shore up this iconic structure.
As board members moved towards closing one of the hearings, they zeroed in on events that might be held on this part of the Preserve. There are occasional weddings and member-appreciation events already being held at sites in other towns, but Mohonk Preserve Executive Director Glenn Hoagland said that the same was not at all likely in the Foothills. Board member asked about events at the Testimonial Gateway itself, as Hoagland had noted that because it’s technically a residence, property taxes are paid on that parcel.
“It’s not habitable,” Hoagland said.
“Someday it will be,” Planning Board member Adele Ruger replied.
Member Lyle Nolan said that events, with their light and noise impacts, represents the gravest risk to community character. The possibility of generators in particular concerned him, but attorney Michael Moriello assured him that a list of mitigation measures had been prepared to address them.
While the hearing was officially and finally closed, written comments will be accepted until April 25.
Even though the projects are seen as being closely tied, the public reaction to the River to Ridge trail was quite different, and board members agreed to close that hearing as well, while also accepting written comments through April 25. There will be a site visit so that members of the board can see the trail’s course, including the seven places it crosses streams and wetlands, areas for which the plan must be approved by the town’s wetlands consultant. The trail will also be laid out adjacent to active farmland, with a largely unmown swath providing a buffer to discourage people from wandering off the crushed-stone path.
The subdivision alone has a hearing open, as board members want to be clear on its possible future uses before closing the hearing and completing the review.