The specter of a busy agritourism venue on a 54-acre parcel adjacent to the site of the proposed Heartwood resort on Route 44/55 bordering the Shawangunk Kill has delayed issuance by the Gardiner Planning Board of a requested lot line revision. At the board’s October 16 meeting, chair Paul Colucci and several other members, along with town attorney Dave Brennan, expressed consternation over the vague language of the Conservation Easement for Agricultural Land presented by the applicants, Phillip and Kristin Rapoport, doing business as Shinrin Yoku, LLC.
As drafted by the Rapoports’ attorney, Mike Moriello, the easement’s language would allow for the construction of “a maximum of two single-family residential dwellings,” in addition to seasonal worker housing and “agri-tourism related structures” such as a farmstand, barn or buildings meant to house “cottage industries” such as a pie bakery. Pick-your-own operations and farm tours would also be allowable.
Once such an easement and lot line revision were approved, the town would have little jurisdiction over what might be developed on the parcel, since its uses are regulated under the New York State Agriculture and Markets Law, which supersedes the local zoning code in areas zoned for agriculture. “Agricultural practices are exempt from zoning,” warned town planning consultant Jim Freiband. “You do not have authority over them.”
This open-ended scenario came as a surprise to the board, which had been expecting that the Rapoports intended to use the agricultural part of their two adjoining parcels primarily as open space, with perhaps a neighboring farmer growing hay or bringing cattle in to graze on the land. “We were operating under the illusion that this is an agricultural piece of land that’s going to be farmed. I never understood it to be buildings,” Colucci said. “You’re talking about a potentially large commercial operation here.”
Brennan characterized potential uses under the vague wording as a “Great Escape for Agriculture,” including attractions such as a corn maze that might attract up to 300 cars per day, creating unsupportable traffic impacts upon the site’s neighbors. Board member Josh Verleun raised the possibility of the Agriculture and Markets Law allowing the establishment of a farm winery, cidery or distillery on the site as well. “The neighbors have issues with noise” generated by tasting events at the nearby Tuthilltown Spirits distillery operation already, he noted.
Phillip Rapoport downplayed the level of development intended for the site, noting, “A chicken coop is a structure, but it’s still in the spirit of the agreement.” He said that he had been trying for the past 18 months to sign an agreement with an agricultural tenant, but had found little success in obtaining a commitment before the resort had been issued all its permits. “We intentionally left it flexible because we didn’t have a tenant,” he said. “Our intent is to have the land cultivated and productive, to support a thriving business. People don’t do agriculture pro bono.” “We’re trying to allow room for someone who knows what they’re doing,” Kristin Rapoport added.
Board member Keith Libolt said that the board’s initial impression had been that the lot line revision request was going to include a conservation easement that would “layer in agricultural use,” as opposed to an agricultural easement per se. He warned that the board would be unable to issue a negative declaration on the State Environmental Quality Review for the project “if we can’t quantify the impact” on neighbors due to lack of specifics regarding agricultural applications. “Phillies Bridge Farm has limits on what they can do. Why can’t you put limits in?” John Friedle — typically the most pro-development member of the Planning Board — asked the applicants.
Clearly exasperated, Chairman Colucci urged the Rapoports to consider adapting the agricultural easement to a “conservation easement that would allow agriculture,” as Libolt had described, with much more specifics including the number and type of buildings projected. He also pointed out that the site has wet, heavy clay soils that are not considered “prime” for growing crops, and suggested that the owners consult local farmers about whether such uses would even be viable.
By the meeting’s end, the Rapoports and Moriello had been sent back to the drawing board to reframe the easement document before the board would call for a vote on the lot line revision. “I’m pretty shocked by what we heard tonight about the agricultural use on this project,” Colucci said afterwards. “They should have disclosed it sooner.”