Supporters and opponents were evenly divided at the first session of a public hearing on the application by the Gunks Climbers’ Coalition for a Special Use Permit to construct a driveway and parking lot at 655/657 South Mountain Road in Gardiner. The hearing was part of the September 27 meeting of the Gardiner Planning Board and will be continued at its next meeting on October 25.
The proposal by the group is to create an automobile entryway, closed off by a steel gate set 20 feet back from the roadhead, with a 300-foot driveway leading around a curve and up a slope to an eight-car parking lot that would not be visible from the road. At the parking area would be a kiosk explaining regulations for the use of the area. From a trailhead there, Coalition members could hike in about a mile-and-a-half, with a 1,000-foot elevation gain, to access a relatively unknown rock-climbing area known as Ant Lion Crag, comprising about 1,000 feet of the cliff face of Millbrook Mountain. According to the Coalition, the area offers 70 to 100 climbing routes ranging in difficulty from 5.5 to 5.13.
The 86-acre cliff parcel was acquired by the Coalition in 2020, with help from a $109,000 loan from the Access Fund’s Climbing Conservation Loan Program, a crowdfunding appeal and a $20,000 grant from the Conservation Alliance. However, the two parcels fronting North Mountain Road are not the property of the Gunks Climbers’ Coalition, but of neighboring landowners Robert O’Brien and Kevin Abberton, who agreed to form a three-way partnership to facilitate the land purchase and to provide easements for ingress and egress.
Most of the controversy that has arisen so far around the proposal has been sparked by fears that when the lot fills up, overflow parking will spill onto nearby roadsides. A number of meeting attendees cited negative experiences with parking along local roads by out-of-town users of the Minnewaska State Park Preserve and the Mohonk Preserve when trail usage was heaviest during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Others who live on South Mountain Road expressed worries about trespassers taking shortcuts across their land. Planning Board chair Paul Colucci questioned whether having a parking lot at all would “invite more users,” adding, “The temperature of this Board is that we’re uncomfortable at this juncture with this application.”
Surprisingly, some of the most vocal supporters of the proposal who turned up at the meeting were near neighbors of the entry site. “I live directly across the street from the parcel, and I support the project,” said Michael Bridge. “Most of the neighbors approve of the trail.” Several other South Mountain Road residents expressed similar support, some identifying themselves as climbers.
Coalition representatives pointed out that entry through the gate to the parking lot would be allowed only to members of the organization, who number less than 200, according to Coalition chair Peter Cody. “It’s not like walking into the Mohonk Preserve,” he said. “It’s a thousand-foot elevation gain to get up there. This is not going to be something that I drive up from Brooklyn and do.”
This position won support from Tal Ilany Seweryn, a former Board member of the Mill Brook Preserve in New Paltz, who identified herself as a Gunks Climbers’ Coalition member. “This is not really comparable to other cliffs all over the Shawangunk Ridge. There’s a very long hike to get access,” she said. Seweryn compared the climbing area to Lost City (a/k/a Dickie Barre), which is accessible only from the Mohonk Preserve’s Coxing Picnic Area (a/k/a Split Rock) parking lot. “When Split Rock fills up, there’s no place else to park.” This limitation serves to reduce pressures of potential overuse on the Lost City climbing routes, she said.
Responding to concerns about how a ban on on-street parking nearby might be enforced, Cody said that he would discuss posting signage with the Town Highway Department and Country Department of Transportation. After Gardiner Town supervisor Marybeth Majestic, speaking in a private capacity as a North Mountain Road property-owner, suggested that the Coalition “retain a tow truck company as a solution to overflow parking,” Cody replied, “I fully endorse having a towaway.”
Another contentious issue is what to do about disposal of human waste along the access trail. Gesturing to the Planning Board, Colucci said, “I don’t think anybody here is trying to endorse a porta-potty – unless it’s a composting toilet.” Several Coalition members and supporters recommended the use of compostable BioBags as an alternative, which come in sizes appropriate for human waste as well as for complying with pooper-scooper laws for dogs. “BioBags are a real thing,” said one outdoorsy neighbor. “They use them in Moab, and they’re compatible with Leave No Trace policies.”
To learn more about the Gunks Climbers’ Coalition proposal, including copies of all pertinent application documents, click on the Coalition’s Dropbox link on the Planning Board agenda page at www.townofgardiner.org/planning-board-agenda. Comments on the application can be submitted via e-mail throughout the public hearing period to firstname.lastname@example.org.