Land preservation, acres at a time

| 28 Sep 2011 | 03:00

WARWICK-Seymour Gordon looked out of the window of a school bus last Friday as it rattled down Route 17M from Chester toward Monroe. He pointed out the clusters of McMansions lining the route, naming the farms they replaced. Gordon, a member of the Orange County Land Trust board, knows well the farms that once supported Orange County’s economy. He was an owner of Gor-Dun’s agricultural equipment company in Goshen. As the bus passed some of the larger developments, he shook his head sadly, recalling the farms and their owners. The open land that’s disappearing is not only farms. Forested land, waterways and ridgelines are giving way to housing developments across the county. The Orange County Land Trust identifies the most important sites and uses a variety of means to keep them open and relatively untouched. Last Friday, members of the Orange County Land Trust Board rode a school bus past some of the properties the organization is preserving in Monroe, Tuxedo and Warwick. The trust already has bought or arranged for the purchase of 2,500 acres in 19 municipalities in Orange County. Much of that land also has been preserved through conservation easements between the owner and the Land Trust that the land will only be used for certain purposes. The first stop, the former Monroe Race Track, illustrates two of the methods the trust uses to preserve land, said Executive Director John Gebhards. The owner, Georgina Dupcak, donated the land to the trust, which in turn sold the 24-acre property to the Village of Monroe to be turned into a park. Under the agreements the village can add some amenities over the foundation of the track’s former grandstand such amenities as rest rooms, but not major projects like maintenance buildings, ball fields and the like. Georgina Dupcak said the Maple Avenue property had been a half-mile race track between 1908 and 1928. As longer tracks were built, the Monroe track declined. Now, it may be a site for future Monroe Cheese Festivals, she said. Next stop: Arrow Park The bus cruised along Old Orange Turnpike past the Mansion Ridge development to Arrow Park, more than 200 acres. The Land Trust purchased 144 acres on one side of Old Orange Turnpike and turned it over to Sterling Forest State Park. A conservation easement protects 80 acres on the other side of the road. The purchase and easement also protect the culture of a property that at one time was a Russian resort; it still contains a poets’ garden and a “healing” totem pole. The property also contains a 9/11 Memorial Forest in which 150 trees have so far been planted. The Land Trust has an option to buy 300 acres surrounding a lake on the property, which Gebhards said Mansion Ridge developers would like to add to the development. The Land Trust is working to raise $6 million to $7 million in federal, state and private funding; on Saturday the Palisades Interstate Park Commission presented the Land Trust with a check for $25,000 toward the purchase price. Onto Warwick The bus made its way up Route 17A and then through Greenwood Lake to Warwick, passing the Cox Farm which was recently sold to the Trust for Public Land. “We got it to the point where everybody was willing to do a deal, but we didn’t have the money,” Gebhards said. “So the Trust for Public Land bought it, and will sell it to Sterling Forest State Park.” The group made a desert stop at the top of Mount Peter, at the Bellvale Farms Creamery. Behind the ice-cream store, the Warwick Valley spread below the mountain. Gordon pointed out the Wisner Buckbee and the Mabee farms, which are being preserved as agricultural land through the town’s purchase of development rights program. All told, the Land Trust and the Town of Warwick will preserve 600 acres over the second-largest aquifer in the town. Orange County’s government is also preserving open space through grants raised through a land preservation bond act. The bus cruised past the Brady Farm, which recently sold the development rights to the Town of Warwick with help from the county fund. The 200-acre Brady Farm adjoins the 250-acre Fuller Mountain Preserve, which includes 250 acres that was donated to the Orange County Land Trust. Nearby, the Weiss Farm, with 47 acres in New York and 72 in New Jersey is on the list for possible purchase of development rights, Gordon said. Along Big Island Road, the bus passed the Sweetman, Sayre and Baird farms, all protected through purchase of development rights by the Town of Warwick. Gebhards said he has organized board visits to parcels the Orange County Land Trust has preserved, but this is the first bus tour of many properties.