Two years have now passed since the construction of decks, domes and outhouses on former primitive campsites along the Palmaghatt Kill on Camp Awosting property came to the attention of town government in Gardiner.
Accusations have been flying and tempers rising. Local environmentalists question why so much time has elapsed without compliance with the town’s development permitting process. Some are suggesting that owner Camilla Bradley has received lenient treatment.
The town board continues to confine its discussion of legal remedies to executive sessions, with no actions announced to the public.
Now Bradley herself has made her case publicly, explicitly claiming “there has been no noncompliance.” Her essay, “Preserving our natural resources,” has been a Point of View column. (https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2022/03/16/preserving-our-natural-resources).
The essay summarizes the history of her father, John Atwater Bradley’s relationship with the outdoor recreation opportunities afforded by the Shawangunk Ridge, beginning in the 1950s. His daughter paints a vivid picture of her father as a committed steward of wilderness and a proponent of environmental education. He acquired more than 3000 acres in the Gunks over the course of his lifetime.
In 1955, John Bradley leased (and later bought) the property surrounding Lake Haseco, now known as Mud Pond. In the 1960s, he leased a cabin (later a ranger station) alongside Lake Awosting from the Phillips family, then owners of what is now the Minnewaska State Park Preserve. When New York State acquired the Lake Awosting parcel in the early 1970s, Bradley turned his attention to acreage flanking the Palmaghatt Kill that had been home to a Girl Scout camp called Camp Ridge-Ho. He improved the site and invited friends to become members of his Awosting Club, so they could come to visit.
“It was a perfect solution,” Camilla writes. “My father was able to stay in the area he loved so much, and the Girl Scouts loved and used the many camps and buildings. He maintained and improved dozens of tent platforms, cabins, outdoor kitchens, wash stations and other camp-related buildings and started the Awosting Reserve junior ranger program.” Also on the site was Okawega Lodge, built as a hunting lodge in the 1890s.
The former Camp Ridge-Ho, situated at the end of Camp Ridge Road, near Gardiner’s border with Shawangunk, was retained by the Bradley family following the 2006 acquisition by the Open Space Institute and the Trust for Public Land of the adjoining state park lands now known as the Awosting Reserve. Partnering with a consortium of real-estate developers, Bradley had tried to develop the Awosting Reserve property for luxury housing, sparking a firestorm of local protest known as the Save the Ridge campaign. The business partnership dissolved due to internal conflict, lawsuits flew, and the courts ended up settling the disputes by allowing New York State to acquire the land to expand Minnewaska State Park.
For Camilla, it’s ironic and sad that her father is mainly remembered by locals as that guy who wanted to cover the sensitive talus slopes of the Gunks in Gardiner’s environmentally fragile SP-2 and SP-3 zones with fancy homes and condominiums.
“How does someone who has not only helped preserve and protect the Shawangunk Ridge for over 70 years, but who has also created outdoor educational programs for children and adults alike, and partnered with conservation groups, while sharing his knowledge and land, get such a bad rap? One major bad decision,” she writes. “What was initially proposed for the property was in no way the community my father had envisioned for Awosting. It was awful. He misjudged the character of those he partnered with, and it was a life-changing mistake. He paid for that mistake…Though he would never admit it, he was partly relieved that the proposed project never got passed.”
A new brouhaha
The former Girl Scout property that the Bradleys held onto, now known as Camp Awosting, became the focal point of the most recent brouhaha in 2020, when local environmentalists got wind of construction in progress on the long-neglected tent sites, some of which are visible from the Awosting Reserve access trail on the opposite side of the Palmaghatt Kill. New platforms were being built, and now support five luxurious geodomes. Equipped with electricity, heat, air conditioning, decks overlooking the stream, outhouses with showers and many other amenities, these new “glamping” facilities rent for between $300 and $325 per night. The lodge can also be rented by members.
In June 2020, Andy Lewis, then Gardiner’s building inspector and code enforcement officer, made a site visit to Camp Awosting. He told Camilla Bradley that she’d need to submit both a site-plan application for the already completed construction and an application for a campground license, according to a time line prepared for the town board by Environmental Conservation Commission (ECC) chair Michael Hartner. No such applications were forthcoming; Bradley notes that the licensing law was new in 2020, and that it was her understanding that the town was going to send her the application form once it was finalized.
Nearly a year later, in March 2021, John Hayes, president of the environmental advocacy group Friends of the Shawangunks, contacted the ECC, town board and planning board alleging that “unpermitted construction has occurred.”
It was around this same time, according to Hartner, that the Awosting Club inaugurated a new website (www.awostingclub.com) and changed its business model from access for a limited membership to a commercial venture open to anyone willing to pay a trial membership fee. The ECC chair argues that this structural change, along with the scale of the campsite renovations, weighs heavily against the Bradley family’s stance that the improvements to a preexisting campground ought to be “grandfathered.” Camilla has admitted that “our new camping domes are a big improvement from our older tents.”
In April 2021, Lewis sent the Bradleys an official letter reiterating that they were required to submit both a site-plan application and a campground license application, this time specifying a 30-day deadline. Bradley explained why she did not respond within the time limit. “Every letter I received from the town I responded to diligently,” she said. “I had several questions about the application, as many of the requests did not pertain to the Awosting Club. That took time. As did creating a site plan,”
When no forms were received by mid-June, Hartner took photos of the site from the Awosting Reserve trail, including some that he says documented “a very large commercial excavator sitting on the bank of the Palmaghatt within feet of the water’s edge, and a nearby section of bank that was devoid of vegetation and appeared to have been excavated.”
According to Bradley, “The excavator was helping to clear large fallen trees and not within the buffer zone of the protected watercourse, nor in any way interfering with the banks of the stream or the stream itself. The DEC [New York State Department of Environmental Conservation] made two site visits responding to two separate calls, and confirmed there was no issue.” She adds that Lewis made another site visit around this time and was satisfied with her explanation about the presence of the heavy equipment.
Where’s the site plan?
Hayes continued to press the issue with town officials, and in June 2021, Town supervisor Marybeth Majestic confirmed to him that Lewis had “made a determination that the property owner must obtain site-plan approval and obtain a campground license under Chapters 200 and 220 of the Town Code. A letter was sent to the property owner notifying her that site plan approval is required before an existing campground can add or remove structures, or expand to add up to ten spaces that are consistent with the current campground regulations.”
In late July, Lewis sent the Bradleys a notice of violation focusing on the campground license, and threatened an appearance ticket if they did not comply within 30 days. But by then, Camilla was sick with Covid, and town officials agreed to give her more time to submit the required paperwork.
In August, Hartner asked councilwoman Laura Walls why the site-plan application deficiency had not been addressed. By September, according to Walls, the town attorney had been consulted, and in November yet another letter was sent to Camilla Bradley, requesting that the “situation be rectified within 15 days.”
“As for 30-day deadlines, I am at the mercy of the availability of the experts hired to complete the new requests for the application,” Bradley said when asked why she had ignored several dated requests to file the paperwork. “The additional requests sent in the November 2021 letter have been addressed, and after hiring these experts on their timeline, I am relieved to report that we will be filing additional materials soon; but again, this depends on others…. There has been no noncompliance. That is simply not true. I have received requests and respected and responded to those authorizing the requests, and furthermore have made an application as requested, with another on the way.”
At a meeting of the town board in February 2022, Majestic responded to a question from Patty Parmalee of Friends of the Shawangunks about an executive session that had been called to discuss Camp Awosting. The supervisor confirmed that the board had given the attorney a direction as to whether or not what was done was considered a preexisting nonconforming use, or what others might call grandfathered in.
Subsequent inquiries as to the status of the attorney’s determinations or enforcement decisions made in executive session by the town board have yielded no newer information.
In February, alleging “betrayal of the public trust,” Hayes sent a scathing letter to the town alleging that supervisor Marybeth Majestic “had personally opted to suspend the rules for one property owner, Camilla Bradley” and extended an “inexplicable special status” to the Awosting Club, offering the public “intentionally misleading answers.” Hayes claimed that “excavators brought in by the developer are fully in action” and went on to list unaddressed environmental concerns, including possible intrusions into the highly protected Palmaghatt stream buffer; septic and stormwater runoff provisions; the safety of active firepits and a large recently installed generator; erosion from improvements to the road system; and light pollution, concluding with a request for a stop-work order.”
At the March 8 town-board meeting, Majestic heatedly denounced Hayes’ personal accusations against her as “sheer madness,” saying, “I do not have any relationship at all with Camilla Bradley. I have not allowed any regulations to be waived.”
For her part, Bradley continues to assert that she has “been completely transparent about the property” and is “working with the town to allay any concerns” as Camp Awosting’s “new steward” since the death of her father in February 2021. “We are allies, not enemies, and the change starts there.”