Progress of long anticipated Williams Lake project grinds on

Williams Lake with dock made of South American hardwood retrieved from Coney Island. (Photos by Susan Farkas)

If you were lucky enough to belong to the Williams Lake beach club in the 1990s and early 2000s, you probably lingered by the water on many a warm summer day. Your kids may have learned to swim or row a boat there. As a club member, you’d come early, bring lunch and finally head for home as the lake’s still waters mirrored the lowering sun. 

Then in 2007, the halcyon days of Williams Lake Hotel and beach club were over. Anita Williams Peck, whose family had owned the 779-acre property just outside Rosendale since her grandfather Gus Williams bought it in 1929, was tiring of managing the resort. She decided to sell it to Hudson River Valley Resorts for $8 million and a stake in the property’s potential for development. 

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With three lakes and miles of trails — ideal for summer hiking and biking as well as cross-country skiing — HRVR saw a magnet for monied New Yorkers, less than two hours from Manhattan. The company would tear down the shabby, 1950s-era lodgings, put up a grand new hotel and spa and surround them with townhouses and private homes. Unfortunately for locals, a beach club was not in their plans — at least not for the foreseeable future. 

“Save Our Lakes” signs sprouted like mushrooms in Rosendale. There was outrage that anyone would consider planting a “gated community” so close to the “People’s Republic of Rosendale,” a town that prided itself on its activism. Over the next few years, at a few raucous Planning Board meetings, there were loud complaints about water usage, the large size of the project and noisy trucks. But for many, the real issue was access: when would the public be able to dip its toes into that gorgeous lake again? 

Brian Cafferty, longtime outreach coordinator for the Williams Lake project, is proud of the number and variety of community events that have continued at the property. Triathletes often practice their long-distance wet-suited swimming and hold triathlons. The annual Halloween festival was held each year until COVID-19 hit. One summer, while the Rosendale pool was being repaired, the company even hired life guards and the summer swim program was briefly revived. The county sheriff’s department runs water rescue and dive training in the lake.

Meanwhile, HRVR methodically carried out its detailed state-mandated environmental review. Finally, in 2015, the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) done at last, the hotel and adjacent motel were demolished. Townspeople could buy the contents of an entire motel room at an auction. For a mere $40 and the promise to cart everything away, Rosendale barber and town historian Bill Brooks bought everything from the door into the room to the door to the patio and everything in-between, including wiring, a large exhaust fan and mirrors. His prize was a pair of orange cushioned chairs. 

Wallkill Valley Rail Trail adjoins Williams Lake Property, with view of historic limestone kilns.

230-acre footprint

The Williams Lake Project will consist of 154 homes, a combination of townhouses, lofts and single-family homes, including 12 affordable workforce housing units. The project’s development footprint is 230 acres. They’ve added the rest of the acreage to the land Anita Peck had already contributed to the Rosendale-Esopus Conservancy. 

The project is also making its portion of the Empire State rail trail accessible to the public. Last year, the Williams Lake property granted the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail a permanent easement of a 1.4-mile section that connects the 22-mile trail from Gardiner to Kingston and includes historic cement kilns.

Although the Williams Lake website still states “construction will start in 2016,” there has been no building yet. Project Manager Jason Meyer says they are planning a state of the art membrane and UV water treatment system and they are awaiting final sign off from the New York State Department of Health before they can break ground.  

Cafferty says HRVR’s concept for the Williams Lake project has always been a focus on health, wellness and outdoor recreation — with sustainability and care for the environment an important value. There is no inground septic and all wastewater will be treated. The project has ongoing partnerships with universities to study the land’s geology and a commitment to conserve natural resources, including the endangered Indiana bats that hibernate in the abandoned industrial cement mines on site.

In the meantime, Meyer shows off all the preparation they’ve done in the last few years: housing clusters have been planned; roads have been routed; sewer and water pipes have been laid underground; a historic building that will be an interpretative center has been relocated and will adjoin the rail trail. Limestone walls have been built and 1000 square feet of Coney Island boardwalk made of South American wood, recovered after hurricane Sandy, have been assembled into a dock. 

Limestone-sided hiking trail on Williams Lake property

Once the water treatment plan is approved, the Rosendale Planning Board will need to review water hydrants and standpipes for firefighting. If Meyer gets his approval soon, he hopes to build a model home to show potential buyers by next summer. In about three years, when the other housing is finished, he’ll add a 130-room hotel and luxury spa and wellness center. 

Over the past 15 years, the private investors who own the Williams Lake property have spent tens of millions while seeing no return on their investment. Tim Weidemann, director of Economic Development for Ulster County, says it’s not unusual for projects of this size and complexity to take this long in New York State. And Cafferty points out that the process must be done sequentially — first environmental review, then engineering, then more reviews, then architectural plans, more reviews, then — finally — construction can start. 

One thing investors have going for them: The huge demand for housing in this area. (Weidemann considers the additional housing the project’s big plus for Ulster County, which is experiencing a severe housing shortage at every price level.) Cafferty, who works in real estate, says that while prices may level off in the next few years, they’ll stay high. So while investors have had to wait for some time for sales to start, when they do, prices they can charge for the houses they’ll build could be considerably higher than they would have been before the pandemic drove demand sky high. 

For those priced out, the question still remains: will the public be able to buy day or season passes to swim in Williams Lake? Meyer says yes, after the construction is done. Whenever that may be.