A narrow marshy finger of land jutting out from Port Ewen between the Rondout Creek and Hudson River is an oasis of wildlife amid post-industrial ruins and densely packed single-family homes. It’s this wildlife that attracts sportsmen to “The Spit,” mainly fisherman and duck-hunters, and the heavy use of this 79-acre town park is a perennial source of conflict between those who have used the area for recreation for decades and neighbors concerned over noise and firearms being discharged near their homes.
In recent months there have been reports of deer-jacking (shooting deer at night using spotlights), a deer carcass left by the bus stop at the top of the hill near 9W, someone cutting the wires to the security cameras, removal of “no deer hunting” signs, and a duck-hunter firing toward a home and hitting a tree near a resident. The latest round of incidents prompted the Esopus Town Board to call for public comment from neighbors and sportsmen at its January 19 meeting with an eye toward developing solutions both could agree on.
Resident Chris Marta said the incidents are causing neighbors to fear leaving their homes, lest a pet or family member be hit by a stray bullet. “To have residents fearful of walking out their homes is completely unacceptable,” he said.
Resident Steve Lewis told the board he was outside one day in late December when a blast from a duck-hunter’s shotgun hit a tree next to him. “I’m not against hunting, but there is a lot of unsafe behavior,” he said.
Tricia Lewis said the board should consider what would have happened if a child had been outside playing in the yard. “If one of those kids got hit in the eye, in the arm, we would all be outraged,” she said. “It would be a criminal scene. We wouldn’t be talking about deer or permits or any of that.”
Sportsmen who spoke pointed out that duck hunting on the Hudson is regulated by the DEC, and that hunting near the shore within 500 feet of a residence is permitted, so long as shots are only taken toward the river. If someone violates these guidelines, they say, a complaint should be made to the DEC, which will investigate and issue fines and potentially revoke hunting licenses. This is the way to deal with offenders rather than limiting or eliminating hunter access through the park.
One issue is that hunters and fisherman access the area from a number of different boat launches in the area, not just the one in Sleightsburgh Park. In the case of the hunters who allegedly shot at Lewis, DEC officers tracked them down and found they launched at the George H. Freer Memorial Beach, another town park about a half-mile to the south. Lewis said the DEC didn’t cite them for the incident because there were no witnesses.
Regarding some of the other incidents, sportsman Andy Vanderpool said there was no evidence hunters had anything to do with any of them. “It seems like there are a lot of allegations being made against the sportsmen that are totally unfounded. OK, there’s a deer there. Who put it there? Not me… So to say the sportsmen are responsible, that’s not how it works in this country, you have to have evidence.”
Vanderpool also said duck-hunting would not cause bullets to fly through residential areas with deadly force because duck-hunters use shotguns that fire large numbers of very small BBs that don’t travel more than 200 yards, while their effective range is only about 35 yards. “After that it’s not dangerous at all,” he said. “The threat of bullets whizzing through the air, it’s not like the old west, it’s not a warzone.”
Lewis was not convinced.
“I’m not really willing to say I want to find out if getting shot with birdshot from the river is dangerous or not,” he said. “I mean, I’m sure you could lose an eye. Would it kill you? I don’t know.”
Although the meeting involved quite a bit of impassioned crosstalk between residents, in the end there was much they agreed on. The sportsmen, who consider themselves good stewards of the land whose reputation is being besmirched by a few bad apples and many non-hunters using the property for other reasons, offered no opposition to more stringent controls over who is given access to the keys to the gate, as well as potential loss of access to anyone with any hunting-related citations, installation of more security cameras, and more signage alerting hunters to regulations against deer hunting on the property or firing weapons in the direction of residents. Residents who spoke all said they had no issue with hunting in principle and only wanted the town to take a more active role managing the park, which the town board was open to doing. The idea was also suggested to let residents and park visitors know that they may hear or see hunters during waterfowl season, which runs from mid-October to late-December for most birds.
The town had already planned to install a new gate that uses key cards and automatically closes, which should make it easier to control who has access and prevent the gate from being left open. Town Supervisor Shannon Harris said she’d put together some of the suggestions and come back to the board with a plan that can be implemented, hopefully by striper season (May 15).
Sleightsburgh Park was a Scenic Hudson property until the late ’90s when the town took it over. At that time, the vehicle access was improved and a boat launch was installed using a federal grant for water access and labor from town employees and interested residents, particularly the late Warren Spinnenweber. A gate prevents vehicles from accessing the park from dawn to dusk, though the town allows numerous residents keys so they can enter before and after regular hours because hunting conditions are usually best at first and last light.
“Excellent fishing and breathtaking views abound at this park, conserved by Scenic Hudson and owned by the Town of Esopus,” reads a description on the Scenic Hudson site. “Short trails parallel Rondout Creek, leading through a wooded peninsula to a spit of land extending far out into the river — proving you don’t need a boat to get the full Hudson experience.”
The park is regularly used by residents looking for a short scenic walk, especially for pets and children. This time of year, when the gate is closed to vehicle traffic, visitors park at the entrance. Tall reeds frame a gently winding stone driveway that spills into a small parking area by the boat launch, which also has a few picnic tables on a concrete pad with a railing. Further on, there’s one main trail 1/3-mile trail through the peninsula, with more reeds on the Hudson side and a narrow strip of hardwood forest on the Rondout side. Smaller trails run along the Rondout shore and crisscross the peninsula. At the far end the path turns sandy as the Rondout meets the Hudson, separating the main part of the park and creating a small wooded island containing the remains of an old lighthouse. A sign warns against trying to walk or swim over the narrow channel, which was the site of the drowning of two children in 2001.
Large parts of the park are prone to flooding and the trail is often muddy. Harris says within the next 50-100 years, the entire thing will likely be submerged marshland. Until then, she’s expecting she’ll still get regular calls at all hours from residents anxious to inform her of the latest infraction by a hunter, fisherman, or reveler.