A gathering of stones near the Testimonial Gatehouse in New Paltz is an early visual hint that the so-called foothills project is indeed afoot. Those boulders which were at first piled somewhat haphazardly and will eventually be landscaped into the Mohonk Preserve entrance are, in fact, but a minor piece of the whole, but much work has been done laying groundwork since the project received a conditional go-ahead in July of last year.
Depending on who one asks, this project is either the culmination of a widely-expressed community desire, or the first step toward the “Disneyfication” of New Paltz. Supporters seemed to outnumber detractors during the months-long public hearing before the planning board, but neighbors wishing to see the project scaled back had an edge in staying power, testifying again and again during the process. One issue that arose during those hearings, that the speed limit might be too high on that stretch of Route 299, awaits word from state transportation officials about whether anything will be done about it.
It was in 2011 that representatives of Mohonk Preserve were pitched on acquiring 856 acres of iconic landscape east of that which is preserved along the ridge itself. As Preserve president Glenn Hoagland recalls, it wasn’t until 2014 that they reached a decision, which was to buy only 100 acres, leaving two farms in the hands of Open Space Institute, which got the land from the Smiley family which owns Mohonk Mountain House. “We just didn’t have the bandwidth” to buy it all, Hoagland explained, and intended on leaving those 534 acres on the table.
That raised new concerns about subdividing the farms, potentially fragmenting habitat. It was a serious question deserving a serious answer. A capital campaign in 2013 raised $2.1 million, and Preserve leaders opted to borrow short-term to come up with the sale price of $3.9475 million, which Hoagland says was a “generous discount.”
Plans to incorporate the foothills into the Preserve focused on more legal, off-road parking, as well as stabilization of the gatehouse itself, which isn’t habitable, but still standing. An 80-car lot hidden by trees near the gatehouse is the solution to people parking along the roads in that part of town. Up by Humpo Marsh will be a 20-car lot also suitable for horse trailers, together with a plank walk into the marsh and a “rustic education cabin” which will also provide shelter during storms.
Since the approval was granted, obtaining permits has occupied most of the intervening months. They require wetlands, health and storm water runoff approvals. Runoff is a big deal; Hoagland said that that plan alone is costing much of the $1.9 million project price tag.
The boulders, vestiges of replacing the Trapps bridge on the preserve, will become part of the landscaping that makes roadside parking all but impossible. Building the adjacent lot and informational kiosk will be the first work done, followed by the work at Humpo Marsh. The gatehouse stabilization is expected to cost over half a million, but to repurpose the building would be far more. All told, Hoagland hopes to raise $7.6 million, which would include a boost to the endowment to help maintain the new facilities.
Construction is expected to start in spring, 2018.