April 16, 2009: Shawangunk Journal:Proposal for a 1,000 Acre Farmland Preserve and Catskill-Shawangunk Greenway in Wawarsing, NY

Opinion: Views & commentary from around the community
Proposal for a 1,000 Acre Farmland Preserve and Catskill-Shawangunk Greenway in Wawarsing, NY
link is here: http://www.shawangunkjournal.com/2009/04/16/news/0904168.html

In the late 1980s, the Rondout (Esopus) Land Conservancy (RELC) proposed the creation of a farmland preservation area centered around the former Davenport Farm in Wawarsing, NY. The conservancy hoped to find farmers to buy individual parcels that would have been protected with agricultural conservation easements. When New York State bought much of the land to expand its prison farm at Eastern Correctional Facility, the plan to protect the lands was not implemented.

Since 1995, I have sought to convince NYS to protect its prison farmland with easements as planned. In 2000-2001, myself and the other farmers who purchased the Davenport parcels applied for purchase of development rights (PDR) grant money through the NYS Farmland Protection Program. Since NYS considers 1,000 acres to be an "important threshold" for protected farmland areas, I am proposing to create a 1,000 acre farmland preserve in the Town of Wawarsing by preserving the state land with easements and making PDR available to the private farms on a voluntary basis.

The area is now recognized in the Wawarsing Comprehensive Plan as an "Agricultural Development Area," or core farmland area. It is in Ulster County Agricultural District #3 and the Ulster County Planning Board recommends limiting allowable uses in the area.

The State of New York has announced that it is closing down the prison's farming operations by June 2009 and plans to lease the land to farmers for the next five years.

Eastern and Ulster Correctional Facilities will continue to house and "process" new inmates (respectively), and employ local residents. But the area has been hard-hit by the closing of factories and the demise of the Catskills' traditional "Borscht Belt" economy.

The Town of Wawarsing, and the hamlets of Napanoch and Kerhonkson in particular, could benefit from revitalization through agricultural and recreational tourism, with the commercial centers being in the hamlets and downtown Ellenville. The Wawarsing Comprehensive Plan seeks to avoid sprawling development along Route 209 by recommending the encouragement of commercial centers. The Napanoch Valley Mall is being redeveloped into a Super Walmart to replace the former discount department store and supermarket on the site.

New York State, together with the Open Space Institute, has created tens of thousands of acres of parkland in Wawarsing, but much of it is designated "preserves" that limit the availability of amenities for tourists and travelers. The farmland preservation area is entirely compatible with and complements the creation of a Catskill-Shawangunk Greenway that would link the two mountain ranges as well as Minnewaska State Park and the Catskill Park.

With Minnewaska's parking lot filling up and closing by mid-morning on weekends in the summer, and overuse of the trails in the Shawangunks being a concern, the greenway could provide hiking and biking to alleviate the pressure on "the Gunks." The Long Path is already planned to be re-routed through this greenway, and the town will build the D&H (O&W rail) Trail through the area from Kerhonkson's downtown parking area to Eastern Correctional's recreation hall parking lot next year. The town will choose a trail designer in 2009 and seek public input for the design. This will make the greenway an intersection of major hiking trails.

The 1999 Sullivan/Wawarsing Rural Economic Area Partnership Strategic Plan for redevelopment of the former Borscht Belt called for both a farmland preservation area and the development of a linear park along the D&H Trail with museums, historic sites, and picnic lodges.

The D&H Heritage Corridor Handbook for Action plan called for protection of the farmland along the canal and trail corridor, perhaps by the RELC, as the viewshed for the trail. It called for loops and spur trails off the main rail trail to make it more interesting. More recently, the Kerhonkson to Napanoch D&H Master Plan and the Ulster County Non-Motorized Transportation Plan called for a trail spur on Port Ben Road between the prison cornfields.

At the margins of the farm fields, especially along the creek, trails could lead to a Rondout Creek Park such as the one envisioned by the 1969 Wawarsing Master Plan. The current Wawarsing Comprehensive Plan also suggests public access to the creek north of Port Ben. The farm lane at Colony Farm could be an alternate off-road hiking and biking route to Ver Nooy Kill State Forest. An agricultural development park at the former dairy buildings at Colony Farm and/or agri-tourism activities would be compatible with the greenway/farm preserve concept.

The NYS Draft Open Space Plan, the state's land acquisition and preservation plan states that agricultural lands that provide linkages "including a Catskill/Shawangunk connection in Wawarsing" should be considered as priorities for protection. These farms serve as corridors for wildlife between the parks (despite the best efforts of the farmers!).

Planners are predicting that there will be an exodus of baby boomer-aged retirees for the next 20 years from large cities to small towns at the fringes of the metropolitan areas. The top three amenities demanded by this demographic group are trails, parkland, and open space, according to the National Association of Realtors. Wawarsing could have all three. If Napanoch, Kerhonkson, and Wawarsing can attract some of these well-heeled people, who do not have children in school but pay school property taxes, it would help to subsidize the local Rondout Valley and Ellenville School Districts. Trails add thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars to the value of a home.

When employers look for new locations for their businesses, they are attracted to places that offer a good quality of life, recreational opportunities, and amenities that they don't have to pay for, such as parks and trails. Recreation helps to keep employees healthy, content, and productive.

The Shawangunk Mountains Scenic Byway Plan encourages the redistribution of recreational tourists around the byway region, both to alleviate overcrowding and to spread the wealth to low-income towns like Wawarsing. With Minnewaska State Park overused, there is an opportunity to attract tourists down into our valley to spend money on food, lodging and entertainment. A bicycle route along existing low traffic volume back roads would be part of the mix. Other successful tourist towns have used their rail trail as the backbone of a series of connected hiking, biking and cross-country skiing circuits. A greenway/farm preserve protects the viewsheds from the Shawangunk Mountains Scenic Byway, the D&H Trail, the Long Path and Minnewaska State Park.

A large prolific aquifer underlies the area, and protecting it from development protects drinking water and is in the best interest of everyone.

A Catskill-Shawangunk Greenway and Farmland Preserve in Wawarsing would bring outside money into the town through tourism, and would bring recreation to our townspeople to help fight childhood obesity and diabetes. It would provide safe routes for children between the town park, the hamlets, and the Walmart store. It would protect scarce and important agricultural soils and farmland, help bring customers to local farm stands, and provide croplands and pasture for the use of farmers. It is smart tax policy, since farmland does not use many public services. ("Cows don't go to school.") It protects the environment and our drinking water and fights the sprawl that slows down transportation on Route 209. It preserves our heritage and turns it into a unique marketable asset.

There is simply no reason not to turn the end of the prison farm into the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the Town of Wawarsing, which capitalizes on our proud heritage of Catskill hospitality. Now, when people ride down Route 209 and see the prison farmland they say, "There's the maximum security prison," or "There's the maxie." Imagine the improvement in Wawarsing's "brand" or image if they said, "There's the Catskill Shawangunk Greenway." And it would be the same land, doing the same job of growing Rondout Valley corn!

To leave the farms unprotected and vulnerable to short-term profiteering by developers would spoil them forever. It would be a continuation of the failed policies of the past, not "change." Retail development leads to the need for more services, bigger government, and higher taxes. Tourism and agriculture are Ulster County and New York State's biggest industries and not a thing of the past. Wawarsing needs to regain its lost identity. Its greatest asset is that it is located where the Catskills meet the Shawangunks. They say, "If you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are." Wawarsing's children should grow up proud of who they are.

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