The passing of a nine-month moratorium on development in the gateway area near the Thruway was a hard-won victory for its proponents, who have argued since January 2016 that a pause was needed in order to create rules for taking into consideration the visual aesthetics and traffic bottleneck issues for that part of town, among other concerns. Opponents on and off the town council believe the intent has always been to thwart the building of a CVS at Putt Corners, which historically was the town’s entertainment district. Council members Jeff Logan and Marty Irwin have reasoned that otherwise, projects currently before the planning board would have been allowed to proceed, as the Zero Place project was when a moratorium was imposed on the 32 corridor in the village. Both men point to the Wildberry Lodge application as being caught in the crossfire.
Proposed for what might be the most fought-over parcel of land throughout New Paltz, Wildberry Lodge is a far cry from other projects planned for the 50-plus acres bordering the Thruway and Paradies Lane. A decade ago the Crossroads project — a mix of expensive housing and retail shops, employees of which likely couldn’t afford to live in the development where they worked — spurred massive outrage until it was quashed by a contracting economy. In the 1990s, opposition to Walmart provided local name recognition to activists such as David Porter and Susan Zimet, before being denied a critical hookup to the village water supply. First proposed as a hotel and water park, Wildberry Lodge as presently conceived by landowners Steve and Shelley Turk would be a “Napa-style destination resort” and butterfly conservatory. Over several years of application review, the project has received far less negative feedback than either of the previous two ideas floated for that land.
The transition from a water park to a butterfly conservatory was largely driven by the specter of this moratorium, according to the Turks; potential investors in the water park dried up, as it were, once that uncertainty was introduced. There’s no question that “the moratorium affected good relations with investors,” said Steve Turk, they pulled out, “and rightly so,” because it was not clear how much longer it would take the get that money returned. “That’s why we reimagined what it could be.”
“It’s not as dependent on outside investment,” agreed Shelley, his wife and partner.
While siting a water park on top of an aquifer and next to an interstate highway may not have had deleterious impacts for the community, Steve frames the butterfly conservatory as even better, calling it a “real Cinderella’s slipper, a perfect fit” for New Paltz. Pointing to the footprint of Wildberry Lodge in comparison to earlier proposals for this land, Shelley calls this a “boutique destination” that is scaled to community sensibilities. Unlike many developers, the Turks said they are in favor of the idea of there being some form of architectural review in New Paltz, believing that’s part of what makes areas like the Napa Valley special.
The two were out of town the night the moratorium was finally passed, but their friend and colleague, architect Rick Alfandre, read their comments and added his own. He likened passing the moratorium without exempting current projects to “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” and the Turks didn’t disagree.
“We were disappointed” that their project would not be exempted, Shelley recalled, but added, “We have dug in and will persevere, but we’re not getting any younger.” According to her husband, the draft environmental impact statement, or DEIS, should be submitted this summer, and they will work toward finalizing that document and obtaining everything short of approval from planning board members while the moratorium is in effect. They hope to “hit the ground running” once it’s lifted, breaking ground as soon as possible.
The idea that moratoria can sometimes be extended is enough to drain some blood from Steve’s face. “Please, no,” is all he’d say to that.
If and when that approval is granted, construction should take no more than two years, and in phases. The conservatory — which would operate year-round — would be among the first things built.
The Turks have visited such butterfly zoos around the country and as far away as Costa Rica, and they both believe it will be a big hit for locals and tourists alike. Inside that space would be not only a “biological destination” with the plant diversity to support a wide variety of butterflies, but a place to feature the work of local sculptors; Shelley called it a “mini-Storm King” Art Center, while Steve compared it to Opus 40. Both the science and the art would resonate with the offerings at SUNY New Paltz, although they stopped short of saying that it would be eligible for Start-Up NY tax exemptions. That state program, under which business owners partner with state colleges, has proven to be challenging, and may well require an even more perfect fit than the Turks envision.
“I want to spend the rest of my days tending to the gardens,” said Steve, emphasizing his commitment to the project despite the setback represented by the development freeze. That the zoning for this land will be changing is a fact about which he is painfully aware, but he holds out hope that it won’t derail the vision. “Being an optimist, I hope the vision we shared with the [town and planning] boards” will be remembered during the rezoning process, resulting in rules that fit the Wildberry Lodge project as well as that proverbial glass slipper.