Conservation Easement Proposal on Hold

Decision awaits arrival of new Garrison School Board members

By Pamela Doan

The plan for addressing the proposal to the Garrison school district from the Hudson Highlands Land Trust for the school forest to be preserved through a conservation easement is basically that there is no plan at the moment. At the Board of Education meeting on Wednesday (June 17) a discussion among board members produced no action items.

Diana Swinburne, vice president, who was chairing the meeting in Raymond O’Rourke’s absence, said, “I’m uncomfortable having this conversation without our board president and without our two new members.” David Gelber and James Hoch are the new trustees who will join the board in July when Christine Foertsch’s and Theresa Orlandi’s terms expire.

A group of Garrison students enjoy School Forest Day several years ago. (Photo by Alison Rooney) 

A group of Garrison students enjoy School Forest Day several years ago. (Photo by Alison Rooney)

At the urging of Foertsch, who has been vocal in her support of a conservation easement on the property and of accepting the 70 acres that could be attached to the forest, the HHLT proposal was on the agenda for the meeting. But board members were reticent when the topic came up. Foertsch said, “I’ve been asking to have this item on the agenda for months and haven’t been able to get it on because of all the different things that were put on ahead of it.”

Foertsch encouraged board members to speak out about their opinions and questions and to have a transparent discussion about the issue. She compared the use of the school forest as an asset and resource to the construction of the middle school.

Trustee James Cannon said: “There are two threshold questions. One is if the board wants to do anything at all. It has to be done within the constructs of the rules of the State Education Department and if we do want to do anything we have to follow all the regulations.” Swinburne stressed that the board was not out looking for proposals for the school forest and that the HHLT came to them.

Possible next steps that were raised during the discussion included getting an independent appraisal of the land to determine its value, needing advice from legal counsel about the board’s responsibilities, and the fact that the 70 acres that are attached to the conservation easement proposal as a donation could be donated without an easement if the owner chose to do it. The HHLT’s proposal had two options, both involving the purchase of a conservation easement by the HHLT.

A conservation easement essentially prevents the 185-acre school forest from certain types of development in perpetuity. GUFS would still be the landowner and the HHLT would be a partner in helping maintain and manage the land. HHLT Board Chairman Chris Davis has offered a 70-acre parcel that would add to the school forest and give the school new access points that could make it easier to use. The full proposal that the board was presented is available on the HHLT website and more details, including a map of the site, are in an article in the May 29 issue of The Paper.

Cannon pointed out that the board has reviewed previous proposals from the HHLT for the school forest and that they need to find out from legal counsel what their options and responsibilities are at this time. With only two board meetings scheduled before the start of the next school year, it is unlikely that any action will be taken before the fall. Three parents spoke about their support of the HHLT proposal during the public comment session of the meeting, including MJ Martin, HHLT director of Education and Outreach.

One thought on “Conservation Easement Proposal on Hold

  1. As someone who’s been very closely involved with the education initiatives taking place in the school forest over the last 8 or 9 years, I fully support the idea of accepting this extremely generous offer from Chris Davis to add acreage and access points to the existing school property. Because the current access points to the school forest are challenging for buses, and limited even for cars, I believe the new paradigm would offer a much greater opportunity for the school to utilize this unique asset. And in this day and age of “nature-deficit disorder,” with children spending more and more time inside, it behooves us to find ways to help them develop a sense of place and a connection to the natural world. Let’s keep moving forward on this wonderful opportunity!