Opposition gears up to fight plan to drain Gardiner’s Tillson Lake

Spearheading the effort to save Tillson Lake in Gardiner (L-R): Morey Gottesman, Sandi Gottesman Annie O’Neill, Monica Manalo and Andy Hague. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

The Town of Gardiner never seems to run out of environmental crises: As soon as one is resolved, another one rears its head. A veteran of many grassroots campaigns, Mountain Road resident Annie O’Neill has learned by now not to throw out her old yard signs, but to assume that someday they will need to be repurposed. “I dug out my ‘Save the Ridge’ sign, crossed out ‘the Ridge’ and painted in ‘Tillson Lake,’” she said this time around.

“Save Tillson Lake” is the name of a new ad hoc advocacy group of citizens alarmed over the Palisades Interstate Park Commission’s plan to “dewater” Tillson Lake, a 23-acre reservoir near the foot of the Shawangunk Ridge that is fed by the Palmaghatt Kill. One of very few lakes in the Town of Gardiner, the scenic site became part of the Minnewaska State Park Preserve in 2006 as part of the settlement of the Awosting Reserve (“Save the Ridge”) development dispute. Today Tillson Lake is open to the public, and has been a popular fishing, boating and birding spot for many decades.


For adjacent homeowners, whose deeds guarantee them lake access, this prized community amenity has been in jeopardy several times previously. Former owner Joseph Unanue, Sr., drained the lake without warning in 1983 — ostensibly for safety reasons, although the local homeowners’ association alleged that the act was in retaliation for its opposition to Unanue’s proposal to build a large trailer park along much of the shore. It took 12 years to resolve the dispute and get the lake refilled.

Then, in 2003, Awosting Reserve owner John Bradley encountered local opposition to his plan to construct golf courses around Tillson Lake as part of his massive development proposal. He responded by having a contractor bulldoze a four-foot-high wall of earth, tree stumps and debris around the lake, blocking neighboring homeowners’ access. Then the state stepped in, with the Palisades Interstate Park Commission (PIPC) acquiring the property along with the other ecologically sensitive Awosting Reserve lands in order to protect them from development.

The Tillson Lake homeowners breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that they were safe. They weren’t; and this time, it’s the state who’s playing the villain role.

On March 28, 2018, neighbors of Tillson Lake received a form letter from PIPC executive director James F. Hall, citing “safety concerns about Tillson Lake dam” and “intended as a courtesy.” “Based upon engineering assessments and reviews by the Department of Environmental Conservation’s dam safety unit, the dam has several issues that require corrective action to ensure the long-term stability and safety of the structure, most particularly under significant rain events…. Given the dam’s current design and condition, it no longer meets the dam safety requirements that have been established for Class C dams…. The Commission has been unable to secure funding for the required renovation that would bring the dam into compliance.” Hall estimated the cost of remediating the dam’s safety issues at seven to nine million dollars.

The letter went on to say that “the Commission is taking steps to design and seek approval for the removal of the dam and restoration of the lake back to a natural stream corridor,” beginning with “revising the Minnewaska State Park Preserve Master Plan as it pertains to Tillson Lake and proceeding with the permit process for the dam removal so that we can ensure the long-term safety of those properties and improvements that would be impacted in the event the dam is compromised.”

Lake neighbors, many of whom are seasoned veterans of local land-use battles, were quick to organize, sending copies of the letter to municipal, county and state officials and seeking their assistance. They held their first general meeting on Saturday, April 14 at the Gardiner Town Hall and led a field trip for press representatives to the dam site immediately afterwards. Joe Theall, a clerk on the staff of assemblyman Kevin Cahill, attended the meeting and urged local activists to keep his offices apprised of new developments.

Morey Gottesman, who led the homeowners’ association in previous battles to preserve the lake, brought the crowd up to date on Save Tillson Lake’s actions in the first two weeks following the arrival of the PIPC letter. These included submitting a Freedom of Information Law request to PIPC for more details on the engineering assessment; establishing a website, www.savetillsonlake.org, and a Facebook page; and retaining environmental attorney Dave Gordon to represent the group. O’Neill then introduced chair of the Saw Kill Watershed Community Karen Schneller-McDonald, the author of Connecting the Drops: A Citizens’ Guide to Protecting Water Resources (Cornell University Press, 2015). Noting that environmentalists often support the decommissioning of dams in order to restore fish migration routes, Schneller-McDonald said, “Every dam is an individual case. It’s not always a good idea to remove them.”

The water resources expert showed slides depicting cross-sections typical of the two different ecosystems formed by the shallower and deeper parts of Tillson Lake. She argued that the water body, in existence since the dam was built in 1929, had been around long enough to “develop into its own system” and establish “a really important corridor for wildlife.” Moreover, she suggested, restoration of the lakebed could be a much costlier proposition than the estimated pricetag of remediating the seepage problems and eroded spillway at the dam. “Grass fields are not going to be a sufficient restoration,” Schneller-McDonald said. “It’s a large area of disturbance” that would be susceptible to being overrun by invasive species.

The floor was opened up to comments from residents, many of whom vouched for the recreation opportunities offered by Tillson Lake, especially for fishing. One neighbor said that she had seen “a red-faced cormorant, which is very rare in this area,” while others mentioned watching bald eagles at the lake. Julie Jacobs, who lives in the house closest to the dam on the downstream side, said that she had never received any indication from the state that her home might be in danger. “That dam has stood up to every storm,” she observed.

Town assessor Maureen Gallagher, saying that she lives nearby the lake, called the proposal a “total Gardiner problem. If our property values go down, the tax burden goes on everyone else.” Longtime neighbor Manuela Hoelterhoff recalled the devastation caused by the previous draining of the lake, saying, “I remember the smell of it… We’re really dealing with bureaucratic bullies who have no imagination.”

Glenn Gidaly urged the group to lobby for funding of the dam repairs from state coffers. “If it’s really a hazard, we have to convince people in the Senate and the Assembly that it’s a priority…the $9 million has to be crowbarred out of some other budget.” Attorney Gordon agreed: “I would view the path as budgetary. If we go to a hearing on this, everybody loses…. We have to convince the state that this is worth investing in.”

O’Neill characterized the PIPC letter as “a shot across our bow,” speculating that it may have been gauged to test the intensity of community opposition to the “dewatering” proposal. “The dam is not in imminent danger of failing,” she said. “I think the park wants to offload this property. It’s a nuisance to them.” If the tenor of Save Tillson Lake’s first public organizing meeting was any indication, underestimating the will of Gardiner residents to fight an unwanted proposal impacting natural amenities is never a safe bet.

There are 17 comments

  1. Dottie K

    Several recent cases exactly like this in PA, VA, and other states have been resolved with the following:
    Legal Action resulting in shared cost to rehabilitate dams involving Home Owners who claim ‘rights’ contributing several hundred thousands of dollars + State, Federal, and Local Town resources.

    This is a fight worth fighting…but it may end up costing homeowners who ultimately enjoy the most benefits.
    Just be warned.

  2. common sense fact-based solutions

    Moreover, she suggested, restoration of the lakebed could be a much costlier proposition than the estimated pricetag of remediating the seepage problems and eroded spillway at the dam. “Grass fields are not going to be a sufficient restoration,” Schneller-McDonald said. “It’s a large area of disturbance” that would be susceptible to being overrun by invasive species.

    Sorry, no dice. You don’t have to do anything when a lake is drained. Nature is perfectly capable of sorting it out.

  3. RestoreTheEarth

    “removal of the dam and restoration of the lake back to a natural stream corridor” sounds like a proposal worth entertaining. This is not an “environmental crisis”. Seems to me restoration of a natural system may make more economic and environmental sense and outweigh residents desire to maintain their recreational opportunities.

  4. Gioia Shebar

    Ridiculous to say, “ Restore the lake to its natural state…” what natural state??!! Pleistocene?
    This a simple matter with all the bureaucrats and politicos playing a dangerous political games with a community resource.
    This is NOT a private lake. It is not the responsibility of the people living nearby.
    Like Lake Minnewaska it is part of the state park in trust for the people of the state and beyond.
    The state agency wants someone else to pay for maintenance and doesn’t care how destabilizing its assault on the community and the environment is.
    Our elected officials need to get off their fundaments and get the money to fix whatever needs fixing. PERIOD!
    If this were a gated largely tax exempted religious community the money would be sent post haste. If it were a corporation with its hand out the hand would’ve been covered in silver long since. The numbers to back up these statements are readily available.
    Stop this nonsense. Fix this Lake.
    And don’t tell the community to keep you apprised of events , Albany. Nonsense. You keep us apprised of how you intend to do your job.

    1. bronosaur romp

      Why is it up to New York State’s taxpayers to fund Gardiner’s man-made pleasure lake? You demand it simply be done but provide no reasons.

      Actual lakes don’t need maintenance.

  5. Don't be blind

    If the dam is in need of repair then those close to it need to consider that. The Schoharie County dam was in need of repair back in 2011. It didn’t get repaired in time and Hurricane Irene practically destroyed the towns around it. The families that lived even 20 miles from the dam lost their homes and livelihoods and the towns are still in need of repair. It’s not something to mess with or guess at.

  6. John B.

    Leave The Lake Alone, Fix The Dam if Necessary, Are You insane and Want To Drain a Nice Lake?


  7. John B.

    Truthfully any Persons or Person involved with any part of Draining this Lake Should Be Collectively Sued in Court.
    We will seek to get a petition going and personally bring to court and sue any persons involved in any way shape or form with destroying this beautiful Lake.
    This Natural Body of Water Remains Critical To The Local Eco System and Must not be Disturbed but Protected Under NY Water, Rivers, Lakes Laws.
    This is a Protected Environmental Area. Maybe Humans Should Totally Stay Away if Lake is Some Problem.

    1. bronosaur romp

      This is a man-made lake, not a natural body of water. Your argument is invalid.

      Although it would be nice if the park commission made the repairs to the dam, it may not be a prudent use of taxpayer funds.

      1. John B.

        No You Are very Wrong and Misunderstand that this lake man made or not is now part of the eco system. Once the Lake has been there 10 years or more it becomes part of the eco system.
        Draining it will produce many problems, especially the Huge Lawsuits that will be filed against those involved.

  8. William K

    Reading the history of this Lake or Big Pond their has always been some issue here. it is much smaller than most people realize and draining it is not that complex. This lake is really more of a Neighborhood Pond than Public lake.
    For safety reason it should be fully drained, properly restored and maybe refilled or stream repaired.

    1. Minnesota Mama

      Tillson Lake is an integral part of the community, a valuable resource enjoyed by many for boating, kayaking, fishing, relaxation and for its sheer beauty. Soon after it was acquired by the state and added to Minnewaska Park, the master plan provided for conducting necessary repairs to Tillson Lake dam as one of the priorities. No repairs to the dam has been undertaken to date and years of neglect may have contributed to the dam’s deterioration. Tillson Lake is the only area in Minnewaska designated for fishing, and one of two lakes where boating and kayaking is allowed. It is a fantastic addition to Minnewaska but Park management has always treated Tillson Lake as a stepchild. It is hardly mentioned in any of the promotional materials and has received scant attention for maintenance and upgrades. Most tourists from New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut who visit Minnewaska probably have never heard of Tillson Lake. Nevertheless, it is considered a treasure within the neighboring counties and by those who discover it through word of mouth.

  9. Leadbelly

    The Johnstown Flood that occurred in Pennsylvania after the man-made dam burst and the Buffalo Creek West Virgina Flood that occurred after the man-made dam burst are prime examples of what happens when the levee breaks. It’s also why there ain’t no mo’ cane on the Brazos.

  10. Tim Hunter

    Tillson Lake has been a cherished local asset for generations, and when assumed by Minnewaska, The Palisades Interstate Parks Commission’s master plan mandated that they preserve and maintain it. Imagine the catastrophic effect it will have on the property value of nearby homeowners, and the resulting tax revenue calamity for the Town of Gardiner, Ulster County & The local School Districts!
    Tillson Lake Must Be Saved!
    SaveTillsonLake.org & https://www.facebook.com/groups/193744264760195/ on facebook

    1. Pre Law Student

      How very very complex issue here. Not sure what way this could go in court. Due to Minnewaska Park it could be tied up and appealed for many years, it could easily be 10 years before resolved? Local Residents in danger of dam brake should immediately contact state for advice.
      All affected homeowners are correct to want lake drained immediately and should closely monitor dam and water levels.

    2. Chicken Littlefield

      Master plans are for babies, just like sugar teats. Read the Gardiner NY assessment roll, and in less time it takes to spit, we can discover more than 200 incorrect usages of the real property code’s classification categories. Furthermore, like New Palrtz, the real property tax bills from the town of Gardiner and the school districts it covers exclude the identifying number that goes with the description. What stinks about that is that the town tax collector/town clerk couldn’t explain why if you waited long enough for the Walkill River railroad to come back. As to property values once the enormous swale is drained and the joked cars, skeletons and trash are removed, will stay the same or go up. Right now, their homes are wet, the ground is wet, the wood is rotting, the indigenous plants overcome by purple loosestrife,etc. The Palisades Parkway has nothing to do with it.

  11. Tillson Lake Resident

    i Truly Hope they drain that dangerous lake before the Dam Burst and damages my land and home.
    This Lake must be Drained, not safe to live here. Also we get many misquotes in summer time and dont want our kids near this dangerous lake without life guards on duty.

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