The Wallkill Valley Rail Trail (WVRT) is a 22-mile stretch of abandoned railbed that was reclaimed by the Town and Village of New Paltz in 1991, and eventually the Towns of Gardiner, Rosendale and Esopus, with an easement held by the not-for-profit WVRT association. What does the community want to see in regard to its linear park? To determine that, the Ulster County Transportation Council (UCTC) has hired trail and park planning firm Weintraub/Diaz to lead the beginning of a plan that will focus on the “future use and design” of the WVRT in the heart of the Village of New Paltz. The plan will examine the WVRT from Plains Road north to Huguenot Street, approximately 1.5 miles, with a focus on the area from Plains Road to Mulberry Street.
After hosting an informational meeting at the New Paltz Community Center last Thursday, various members of the town and village governments, UCTC, WVRT, Historic Huguenot Street, neighboring property- and business-owners as well as rail trail enthusiasts turned out for a trail walk this past Sunday morning at Sojourner Truth Park to discuss the current state of the trail and what they might want or not want to see in the future for their linear nature path.
Craig Chapman, owner of New Paltz Kayak Tours, was quick to point out that, from his vantage point, along the Wallkill River by the boat launch at Sojourner Truth Park, “It would be great to see one access point on and off the rail trail so that we can rebuild and add to what’s here, as it’s pretty torn up,” he said pointing to near-dead ash trees, low-lying scrub and floodplain debris. “There are so many informal access points off the trail to the river, and even the stairs that are there are eroding.” He would like to see more trees planted to help stabilize the riverbank, and signage that encourages people to use one pathway from the WVRT to the Sojourner Truth Park and riverbank. “We could even have a river path that guides people to a nice viewshed by the river,” he said, but that leaves the ability for existing and hopefully new shrubs and trees to grow and establish themselves without human interference. Another idea Chapman contributed was to consider the possibility of a small foot and animal bridge that would cross the Sawmill Brook that feeds into the Wallkill.
On a sunny, cloudless day, the parking lot at the riverside Sojourner Truth Park was packed, the constant parade of kayakers, joggers, dog-walkers, strollers, cyclists and neighborhood foot traffic creating a hubbub of outdoor activity and recreation. As the walkers were asked to introduce themselves by Dennis Doyle of the Ulster County Planning Department and have some snacks before hitting the trail, Brian Slack, principal transportation planner of the UCTC, explained to the New Paltz Times that “This is an effort to see how the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail can be best-suited to the community. We have the Empire State Trail (EST) now” — a pedestrian/cycling trail that extends from Manhattan through Ulster County and will eventually run the length of the entire state to Albany, Buffalo and into Canada — “as well as over two million [dollars in state grant funding] that was given to the town for improvements along Henry W. DuBois Drive that includes bike paths and some sidewalks. We have Historic Huguenot Street and Zero Place, and we want to see how the community would like the rail trail to develop with these projects.”
Slack explained that Village mayor Tim Rogers applied for this planning study. “There were no capital funds used for this study; it’s something we do at the county level,” he said. “But if the Town and Village of New Paltz want to be competitive for any grant opportunities for trail improvements, they have to create a public consensus, which legitimizes and records that the planning included community input.” Some of the topics outlined in the study and in the survey include “safety, intersections, drainage, trail surfaces, signage, views, cultural/historical landmarks, businesses and parking/access.”
Two owners of properties that border the rail trail off North Front Street expressed their desire to see some traffic-calming measures at the intersections of the WVRT and roadways. “Motorists use North Front Street as a shortcut to avoid the intersection on Main Street, and they go flying down the road,” said Terry Van Etten. “There is senior housing right there and the karate studio that both create a lot of foot traffic, along with the use of the rail trail, and it’s dangerous.” There did seem to be a desire for uniformity in terms of access on and off the rail trail, as well as how intersections were handled in terms of safety and traffic-calming measures and general improvements to drainage.
Mary Etta Schneider, president of Historic Huguenot Street’s Board of Trustees, said that she would love for rail trail users to have access points and viewsheds that encouraged them to visit “old New Paltz. We have some national treasures just off the rail trail, and I think some bumpouts and benches of signage could really help showcase what is right here, and have more people explore these historic resources and gems.”
The question of surfaces came up several times, and Chris White, the Deputy Director of Planning for Ulster County, said that the trail would have to become Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant if “you use public monies.” The planners suggested that the trail needed “a more solid base that was safe and shaped and sloped properly,” and that “standard trail width is ten to 12 feet,” where the existing rail trail is anywhere from eight feet or less as it moves further out from the center of the village.
While White said that there was the possibility of utilizing “crushed stone” for resurfacing, the topic of paving the trail with asphalt came up several times, to some strong opposition among the non-planners present. “I would be heartbroken if they paved the rail trail,” said Emily Fox, both a property-owner and a business-owner in the village. “I run and walk my dog and commute to work every day on this trail, and love it the way it is.” In her estimation, paving the trail would only encourage cyclists to go faster and those who were running, walking, elderly or with children to feel less safe. It would also create an impervious surface, which Fox did not believe would be beneficial for stormwater runoff, which is already problematic in the village.
Kitty Brown, who was one of several residents who were instrumental in convincing the Town and Village of New Paltz to purchase the abandoned railbeds from Conrail in the early 1990s despite heavy public opposition, concurred. “The concern I hear most about from elderly walkers or those with children is that they like a slower quality of trail, not a commuter lane.” Brown is also a former WVRT president as well as a retired veteran town councilperson.
When members of the Westraub/Diaz group said to Brown that they wanted to be mindful of creating a similar standard for all of the trails that linked with the Empire State Trail, she was taken aback. “This was intended to be a park – a place where residents and visitors could stroll and exercise and rest on a bench in the shade – not a transportation corridor.”
She went on to say that “It’s great that our little local rail trail is a link in the Empire State Trail, but I hope its rural character won’t change too much. Maybe the EST map can say that visitors should expect a narrow, much more leisurely paced linear park along this section than they experience on Route 299. One of the original visions for this trail, after all, was a way to bring more visitors to our local businesses and to provide a parklike setting where people could stroll and chat and enjoy the abundance of nature all around them…And on a hot summer day, everyone will appreciate the shady tree canopy between the 299 and the River-to-Ridge sections. So, yes, let’s fix what needs to be fixed, but let’s not lose our local character.”
The rail trail was certainly not suffering from human neglect this past Sunday as cyclists, families, couples, runners, groups and lone walkers strolled along the shady corridor.
The entire project is scheduled to be completed within eleven months.
To learn more, participate, fill out surveys, ask questions or make comments, go to the upcoming meeting that will take place on Tuesday, June 18 from 4 to 6 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. at the New Paltz Community Center., or visit the website at www.ulstercountyny.gov/transportation-council/active-studies/wallkill-valley-rail. Slack can also be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (845) 334-5590.