Woodstock residents urged state officials to balance parking needs with preservation and the need to maintain peace and quiet as plans were unveiled to increase accessibility to Overlook Mountain.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation recently acquired 576 acres of land around Overlook, nearly doubling the Overlook Mountain Wild Forest from 590 to 1166 acres. As part of that expanded area, the DEC proposes two additional parking areas to alleviate overflow onto Meads Mountain Road.
During the popular summer and fall months, cars park along Meads Mountain Road, creating a dangerous situation and making it difficult for emergency vehicles to pass. Jeff Rider, supervising forester for DEC Region 3, noted a dramatic increase in the number of visitors who signed the log book at the trailhead. In 2012, there were 7491 visitors, while in 2015, there were 12,610. Rider noted it is a significant increase since sign-in is voluntary and he estimates about 20 percent of visitors sign the book.
The Overlook Mountain trail has grown in popularity thanks to social media and the current parking lot cannot meet demand during peak times. “We are now occupying every square foot of area we own,” Rider said.
Several options were explored for new parking, including an area near the beginning of the trail that was ruled out because of a large bank that would have to be cleared in order to yield about 20 spaces. Another area considered near Magic Meadow would only allow for about a dozen spaces. At a cost of around $73,000, the DEC would construct two new parking lots, connecting trails and new portable bathrooms.
The DEC proposes a 25-30 car lot along the north side of MacDaniel Road, southwest of Magic Meadow and through a land acquisition from the town, another 10-car lot near the cell tower on California Quarry Road. New trails would connect the lots with the existing trailhead.
Those who park at the MacDaniel Road lot will make use of a proposed 1/2-mile foot trail which will end up just past the gate at the bottom of the existing trail, eliminating the need to walk along the shoulder of the road. The DEC also plans to build 1/3-mile loop trails near the MacDaniel lot, a more family-friendly option for those who do not want to hike all the way to the top, but still have some views.
Similarly, a new trail will wind around an existing bluestone quarry near the California Quarry Road lot and provide elevation for a scenic vista before taking hikers to state land just below the Overlook trailhead. A gate will prevent motorists from driving to the cell tower site.
Woodstock town councilman Jay Wenk, who lives on Meads Mountain Road just below the trailhead, is not convinced adding more parking spaces will stop the illegal parking. He suggested the DEC provide a shuttle bus service to the trailhead.
“That’s out of our jurisdiction,” replied Rider, who suggested someone with an entrepreneurial sprit may see the demand and decide to run a shuttle business.
“You’re going to have that demand whether we create it or not,” Rider said of the need for spaces, conceding additional spaces are “…not going to solve the problem” but will alleviate it.
Randi Steele, who lives on California Quarry, said the 40 additional spaces proposed are “…never going to suffice” and will continue to lead to cars spilling out onto town roads. Steele suggested that if more spaces are created, they should be available on a reservation system so that local residents are not disturbed by the increased traffic.
“This is going to be a significant change in our lifestyle,” she said.
Several representatives of the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra monastery in attendance noted that they provide parking and even bathrooms to hikers when the space is not needed for an event, but the DEC must choose between providing parking or preserving the mountain’s natural beauty.
Residents wary of vehicles on the trail
As part of Overlook improvements, the DEC is proposing granting vehicular access to those with mobility issues who want to access the hotel ruins and fire tower, a plan that was met with skepticism and criticism.
While access would be restricted to those with a permit and a four-wheel-drive vehicle, some who have driven up the road to bring supplies for the fire tower reconstruction and on other occasions raised concerns that the uninitiated could get stuck, or worse, drive off the road.
“To have Joe Blow driving up that hill, simply because his friend has a permit” is inviting disaster, said Planning Board Chairman John LaValle, echoing the concerns of others.
Rider noted the plans are just draft documents and the point of the meeting was to bring such concerns out in the open before anything is finalized.
Striking a balance between preservation, access
The Woodstock Land Conservancy played an instrumental role in the state nearly doubling the Overlook preserve, which now extends undeveloped land almost to the intersection of Meads Mountain Road, Rock City Road and Glasco Turnpike, known as the four corners. But WLC Chair Kevin Smith said part of the reason for acquiring the land was to provide public access where appropriate and feasible.
“I don’t believe we should roll up the sidewalks,” he said.
Smith noted hybrid-electric bicycles are an emerging technology and suggested that might be a way to make the trail more accessible to the masses. An entrepreneur could open an electric bike rental concession, he said.
The DEC proposal is available at https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/72985.html.
Public comments still welcome. The DEC is accepting written comments until December 15. The contact is: Jeff Rider, DEC Supervising Forester
21 South Putt Corners Road, New Paltz, NY 12561. Phone: (845) 256-3004. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org