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.