A new chapter has opened in the ongoing battles in the Town of Gardiner about developments along the foot of the Shawangunk cliffs. This time, it’s not Wireless Edge’s planned cell tower that’s arousing the suspicion of neighbors, but a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enjoying some of the Town’s scenic resources: the Gunks Climbers’ Coalition.
At the May 24 Gardiner Planning Board meeting, the Coalition unveiled a site plan for a proposed 300-foot driveway and parking area at 655/657 South Mountain Road. If approved, the parking lot would accommodate eight cars and provide access to a 1.5-mile access trail to a little-known rock-climbing area on Millbrook Mountain known as Antlion Crag. According to the Coalition, the area offers 70 to 100 climbing routes ranging in difficulty from 5.5 to 5.13 – which is to say, pretty much something for everybody, from rank beginners to weekend warriors to elite climbers.
The story behind the plan to open a new climbing area goes back to 2018, when the Coalition became aware of a landowner who wanted to sell 86 acres of cliff that included Antlion and much of its approach. The group quickly partnered with the Access Fund to attempt to acquire it and preserve its use for climbing only. The Access Fund agreed to front up $109,000 for the purchase through its Climbing Conservation Loan Program, and the Coalition bought the parcel. A crowdfunding appeal with a total goal of $133,000 has already brought in enough to cover the purchase price, and the Conservation Alliance kicked in a $20,000 grant in 2021.
While the capital campaign was going on, Coalition members have been hard at work delineating and improving the access trail, including a stairway, putting in “close to 2,000 volunteer hours,” according to the group’s spokesperson at the Planning Board meeting, Kieran Pierce of Medenbach and Eggers Civil Engineering and Land Surveying, PC. A visit to the Coalition’s Facebook page discloses gatherings of volunteers at the site to log sightings of the invasive hemlock wooly adelgid as well.
Complicating matters here is the fact that road access was not included in the purchased acreage. So, the Coalition negotiated with two adjoining landowners, Robert O’Brien and Kevin Abberton, to become partners in the purchase in exchange for easements for ingress and egress over their land at 655 and 657 South Mountain Road. So, the land where the parking lot and driveway are to be built do not technically belong to the Gunks Climbers’ Coalition, the applicant. This wrinkle prevented the Planning Board from taking any immediate action to review the site plan, other than referring to the Town attorney the questions of whether or not a Special Use Permit or any variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals will be needed.
But Planning Board chair Paul Colucci did use the opportunity to air concerns expressed by some neighbors about the potential increase in traffic and trespassing over nearby properties as Antlion becomes a more popular climbing destination. He recalled the heavy increase in trail use by weekenders from outside the area during the pandemic, noting, “Mohonk was overrun. They had State Police up there to control the access.”
Pierce responded that the entrance, parking area and access trail were intended for use by Coalition members only, alleging that very few besides hardcore climbers even know about Antlion. “It’s a beautiful place to go on a Saturday when there’s nobody there,” he said.
Colucci expressed skepticism, saying that anyone and everyone would know about it “when you put it on the World Wide Web. All people have to do is Google ‘access to the cliffs.’” He said that he had even received a phone call from the vice president/general counsel of the Open Space Institute, who had asked him, “How are they going to control access?” Restricting it to members, he added, was a possible solution, but one that “has to be documented on a [site] plan.”
Colucci suggested that one solution might be installing a gate operable only by inserting a membership card with an electronic chip. “You really have to think about your neighbors and control the access.”
But neighbors are also worried that eager visitors might find ways around that by parking on the road and cutting across their properties. North Mountain Road resident Annie O’Neill sent a letter of protest to the Planning Board, calling the proposal the creation of an “attractive nuisance.” “People do not always stick to trails,” she wrote, noting the many unofficial “herd trails” that were created at the Minnewaska State Park Preserve during the pandemic.
“During COVID, people were parking all over since other lots were full and they thought there would be access to Millbrook. It was not good!” O’Neill continued. “As word gets out about a climbing area, and more specifically a parking area, there will be an influx of people not only to climb, but to hike, to party and possibly to use as a quiet sleeping area. If there are eight spots, there could be 32 people on any given day tromping in a formerly unused natural area. They might venture north or south below Millbrook to explore and to climb and to disturb a more or less pristine area.”
In addition to installing an electronic gate, Colucci recommended to the applicants that they add landscaping details to the site plan that would make the entryway less visually obvious, such as dense plantings of evergreens.