On Monday, January 22 at 7 p.m., Gardiner’s Town Hall will host an informational meeting for residents who might be interested in serving on the town’s Open Space Commission (OSC). Created by local law in 2006, that body has been moribund for several years now, and its members’ terms have all expired. But one of the commission’s founders, Warren Wiegand, has just been reelected to the Town Board after a one-term hiatus, and getting the OSC up and running again is one of his top priorities.
In its heyday, the OSC scored two major successes with the permanent protection of two major tracts of Gardiner agricultural land: the Kiernan Farm, on Bruynswick Road, and the Hess Farm, on Sand Hill Road, where agreements for the purchase of development rights with the help of the Open Space Institute were finalized in 2010 and 2014 respectively. But the group “seemed to lose momentum after the Hess Farm was protected,” Wiegand recalls. “We’ve been trying to get the Open Space Commission back on track since 2014. It seems like the perfect time right now. With the Heartwood, Shaft Road and Green 2008 developments under consideration, there are a lot of people interested.”
About ten Gardinerites have recently expressed interest in serving on a revived OSC, Wiegand says, and he’s looking to identify more who have appropriate backgrounds and enough engagement in land preservation issues to stick with the project beyond the resolution of the large development proposals that are currently sparking controversy. As constituted by law, the OSC is supposed to meet at least quarterly, and Wiegand would like to see it convene on a monthly basis. Any town resident who would like to know more about the responsibilities involved is invited to attend the January 22 meeting.
The inspiration for the creation of the OSC came from a study of open space in Gardiner conducted in 2003/04 by the consulting firm Behan & Associates. Its findings informed the creation of the town’s original Open Space Plan, adopted in 2006. Wiegand was involved in the process from the beginning, working with then-councilwoman Nadine Lemmon to draft the law that established the OSC, based on templates successfully used by other Hudson Valley communities.
Beginning in 2006 with a list of large undeveloped parcels in the town (provided by the assessor), the OSC worked up a rating system, prioritizing those that seemed most critical to scenic viewsheds and other local resources that were also in the gravest danger of being carved up for development. According to Wiegand, commission members initially determined that saving the Hess Farm was of paramount importance on account of its proximity to the Gardiner hamlet. But when it came time to seek funding partners to purchase development rights, it turned out that the Open Space Institute (OSI) was much keener on saving the Kiernan Farm. “OSI loves it, the closer you are to the Ridge,” Wiegand observes. The Town Board agreed that the Shawangunk viewshed should be the highest priority; in response, Wiegand resigned from his chairmanship of the OSC.
The process continued, largely under the leadership of Marc Moran, but Wiegand remained deeply involved. He worked with Ray Smith to advocate for the creation of an Open Space Bond that would have set substantial funding aside for the purchase of conservation easements by the town as needed, and a referendum was held. “It passed by one vote,” Wiegand recounts. “But that happened at the same time as the Great Recession. I was on the Town Board at the time, and we didn’t think it was right to use taxpayer money when so many people were hurting. The bond expired three years later; it was never used.”
In 2008, the Town Board adopted a new subsection to the Gardiner Zoning Law that provides special incentives to land developers who set aside open space for permanent protection via conservation easements. This option is being invoked in several of the large projects currently before the Planning Board, and Wiegand sees the Shaft Road subdivision, however controversial, as potentially a great success for the zoning reform, especially considering that it is contiguous to the already-protected Kiernan Farm: “There are 55 of 85 acres set aside that can never be developed again,” he notes.
Going forward, a newly reconstituted OSC will have no obvious low-hanging fruit like Hess and Kiernan to pluck, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of work left to be done. “There are prospects,” Wiegand says. He is quick to point out that open space preservation doesn’t mean taking away rights from landowners, but rather finding ways to help working farms stay in business. While the OSC is largely seen as being “in the business of protecting farms in danger of development,” he calls that too narrow a definition of its duties. “I’d like it to be broader. We can work with farmers and large landowners, so they’re not even tempted,” Wiegand says.
Noting that local farmers are notoriously independent people who see themselves as the front line of land stewardship, Wiegand is hoping that part of the mission of a revived OSC will be to reach out to them and establish ongoing communication, mutually seeking ways to “help them be successful,” such as by promoting agritourism, regional branding and collective marketing. “There are a lot of things that can be done, short of a conservation easement,” he says. “There are ways we can cut deals with people that can protect open space.”
Wiegand has his fingers crossed that some of the curious who turn up at the January 22 meeting will be thinking farther ahead than merely stopping the latest unwelcome development in their own backyard. “We need people who are entrepreneurial,” he says. “Let’s get five good people and go from there.”
To learn more about Gardiner’s Open Space Plan, the mandate of the Open Space Commission and the portions of the Zoning Code dedicated to Open Space Developments, visit www.townofgardiner.org/laws_minutes_etc.cfm. ++