It was eight o’clock in the morning, and noisy applause spilled out from the 7000-square-foot conference room at the Diamond Mills conference center. Inside, 250 enthusiastic members of the business community were seated at round tables with glasses for water and mugs for coffee set before them on white tablecloths. Having arrived early enough for the buffet-style breakfast, they waited for Regional Chamber of Commerce head Ward Todd to officiate the meeting. Todd’s confident radio voice boomed from the P.A. system, delivering asides and working the room, introducing various civic players.
State senator Michelle Hinchey was in attendance. So was Saugerties Police Chief Joseph Sinagra. The early-morning gathering had the sunny energy of a daytime gala. Outside the glassed-in window frames, the Esopus Creek spilled over the old paper-factory dam.
“Celebrating Saugerties” was the title of the affair, a showcase for the 800-acre parcel of land within Saugerties town limits known as Winston Farm.
Chamber of Commerce business mixers are equal parts pep rally and advertising platform. Business mixers provide a captive audience to keep the attendees up-to-date on the Chamber’s current message.
In his capacity as public-relations attaché for the Winston Farm developers, Focus Media president Josh Sommers offered no new specifics on the eventual shape the project could take. He expressed wildly divergent possibilities. A tech hub. A boutique hotel. An auditorium. Apartment housing. Nature trails. Even an indoor water park.
It sounded like echoes from presentations past.
In September 2021, Jess Sudol was the face of the development plan. A representative of Passero Associates, a Rochester architecture and engineering firm, Sudol presented the Town board a plan which disclosed specifically located elements. A multi-family rental-housing component, job incubators, an amphitheater, camping spaces, a boutique hospitality space converted from a mansion. The proposal included an indoor waterpark resort.
Newspaper reports latched on to the descriptor “amusement park.” Sudol is now out of the limelight. Sommers has taken the helm. The emphasis has shifted away from practical disclosure and community engagement to economic cheerleading.
“I’m was very involved with important projects — Woodbury Commons expansion, Resortsworld Catskills Casino, Kartrite Waterpark Hotel,” said Sommers. “It sounds like you guys are kind of happy about Monticello getting that, possibly … Now these are transformative projects that have created thousands of jobs.”
In fact, Sommers did spell out a newer strategy for the developers. They now intend to pursue the rezoning without tying themselves down with specifics. They intend to “let the market weigh in on what [Winston Farm] should be” after the new zoning designation is accomplished.
“We’re engaging the community,” said Sommers. “We’re not saying, here’s what we’re doing. This is a conversation, there’s great collaboration that could happen. Once the zoning is potentially approved, the market will determine the type of interest.”
Eighty acres are available for certain types of commercial development, and the rest of the property is set up for housing, explained Sommers. “I know most people don’t want to see an Amazon Warehouse here …”
Sommers is an agent for the three construction professionals who are taking great pains to emphasize their local bonafides.
Randy Richers, owner and president of Richers Electric, moved to Saugerties when he was ten years old.
John Mullen who contracts his own Saugerties-based construction company, beat Richers by a year, moving to Saugerties at age nine. His company, John Mullen and Sons did site and foundation work for the hotel in which this presentation was given.
The third man, Tony Montano, runs a heavy equipment rental company, A. Montano Co., Inc. All three men remember their childhoods in this town, but only Tony Montano was born in Saugerties.
The trio teamed up to purchase Winston Farm in July 2020. According to public information, the associated parcels were bought for $2.75 million, three-quarters of a million above the present value of the town’s official land assessment.
The land is bounded at its west by foothills and a strip of wooded hinterland. New York State Route 32, defines its eastern edge, alongside the Route I-87.
Signs which prohibit hunting, fishing or general trespassing are posted along the trees which grow at the boundaries of the property. To the north and south are pockets of homes, comfortable in their grassy distance from one another.
Beneath the land is a natural aquifer. While the Village of Saugerties water system is currently supplied by the Blue Mountain Reservoir, there are plans to utilize the remaining funds in a $3-million grant received after hurricanes Irene and Sandy to create a new water system to augment that water stock. A parcel of land has been carved out where water department officials hope to construct a pump house.
Sommers speculated about the possibility of a modular wastewater treatment plant, similar in engineering to a system utilized in Hyde Park to provide new sewers for portions of Saugerties as well as for the Winston Farm.
The single largest property in the town, the land is situated across the southbound exit from the New York Thruway. That’s a major natural advantage for any business inclined to operate there. A feasibility study conducted in 2009 identified a 500-foot portion of the Winston Farms adjacent to Route 32 as a revitalization opportunity zone.
The zoning issue gets handled first. Standing in front of the microphone, town supervisor Fred Costello was supportive.
“We would actually develop an alternative zoning type specific for the acreage that has been described,” explained Costello. “We could allow densities that are not necessarily what we would want in the rest of Saugerties.”
Costello said he was very excited that the project was being developed by local people.
“It would be an exciting addition to our part of the Hudson Valley, with implications beyond Saugerties through recreational opportunities and jobs,” said Costello. “We’re looking forward to the opportunity to develop this land and create economic benefits, environmental benefits and open-space features.”
The town supervisor wove a compelling history of the Winston Farm property, a sort of manifest destiny of the land, starting with the glaciers that carved out the Hudson Valley and ending with the natural progression of how the resources of the property were historically exploited. It provided a spoken blueprint for the common-sense extraction of resources that every businessperson in the room understood lay just beneath the soil.
Of course, not everyone in Saugerties is on board with the possibilities of development. The Winston Farm was a possible site for an incinerator and county landfill. Local residents still celebrate the fight waged successfully against that idea. The location also has been considered as a possible site for a casino.
“A number of opportunities came and went,“ reminisced Costello. “It’s clear that Winston Farm would have been abused were it the site of the landfill, and the casino there would not have been successful as people thought …. I think we got lucky in a sense that Jack Abramoff, the individual who was a lobbyist for the plan, got into trouble just in time to not have that project come to Saugerties …. This community loves that property …. We all share almost a fabled understanding of it. It is an amazing piece of land.”
Two opposition groups, Catskill Mountainkeeper and Beautiful Saugerties, have chimed in. Chief among their concerns are deforestation on the property to make way for development, along with worries about increased traffic in the vicinity. Catskill Mountainkeeper has expressed concern that the development would “transform pristine farm fields, forests, and a local sledding hill into a disconnected patchwork of industrial and commercial facilities, houses, and apartment buildings.” The group has also cited concerns over the project’s effect on the aquifer, the wetlands and wildlife.
Sommers has had his hands full disputing the characterizations of the newspapers and opposition groups.
Speaking at the Saugerties Chamber of Commerce January meeting, the owners indicated their plan to keep half the 800-acre property as green space. Sommers reiterated that pledge during a media briefing in March, as well as to the gathered crowd at Diamond Mills.
“Here at Winston Farm you can create an economic engine that can create hundreds of jobs and hundreds of millions but we’re looking to preserve 50 percent [400 acres] public parks, wetlands, trails for community enjoyment,” he said. “I know there’s a sledding hill that’s really important .… I’ve heard that’s going to be totally preserved. So that’s really great news, right?”
There was applause from the audience.