Proposed Development Gets Pushback

What belongs in a ‘conservation’ subdivision?

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

Plans for an upscale development for weekenders in North Highlands drew a barrage of questions and concerns from residents, environmentalists, firefighters, and the state park system at a public hearing on Jan. 18.

The planned 210-acre complex, called Hudson Highlands Reserve, would include 25 homes, each about 2,500 square feet and each on a 1-acre lot, along with a stable, indoor and outdoor arenas and paddocks for 40 horses.

In the past, the developer has said the homes would sell for $1 million to $3 million. It’s the first project to seek Philipstown Planning Board approval as a “conservation subdivision” under the town’s 2011 zoning code, enacted to safeguard natural resources and rural and historic attributes.

At the hearing, held at the Old VFW Building in Cold Spring, critics argued that the property does not qualify as a conservation subdivision despite the developers’ assertions and its designation of at least 154 acres as open space.

An early conceptual drawing of the equestrian center at the development by architect Anthony Sunga (File photo)

Given the issues raised, the Planning Board kept the hearing open and said it would hold a workshop for board discussion before reconvening the public hearing. No date was set for the workshop.

After four years of on-and-off Planning Board review, developers Horton Road LLC seek preliminary approval of the plans. The site is zoned rural residential, and in part, industrial-manufacturing, with soil mining, aquifer and open-space conservation (OSO) overlay districts. Zoning law demands that at least 60 percent of land in a conservation subdivision be retained as open space, an amount that increases to 80 percent in OSO districts.

Located below East Mountain and bordered by Route 9, Horton Road, East Mountain Road North and East Mountain Road South, the property includes 6-acre Ulmar Pond, woods, a historic road and barn, and wetlands. Clove Creek bisects it and neighbors include Fahnestock State Park and a parcel owned by the City of Beacon.

Conservation subdivisions typically cluster buildings near each other on a small part of the property and preserve most of the land, containing the best natural features, as open space. In return, developers can get certain breaks, such as leeway to develop more densely than otherwise allowed.

An early conceptual drawing by architect Anthony Sunga of the interior of a home at the development (File photo)

According to the Philipstown zoning code, the dwellings in a conservation subdivision “shall not result in fragmentation of the open space.” Michelle Smith of the Hudson Highlands Land Trust, which had considered managing the project’s conserved lands, said it would not do so given the project’s design, which she said had “houses sprawling right across the property,” including eight “wrapped around the pond.”

Smith said HHLT is also concerned about the developer’s plan to use pesticides and the project’s effect on the pond, Clove Creek, and Clove Creek Aquifer.

Ironically, because of zoning restrictions on rural land and open space, if the project were developed as a typical suburban subdivision, it would only have eight or nine houses. “You’d have a better conservation outcome if you had a conventional subdivision on this property,” Smith said.

Noting that other developers, inspired by this project, have similar proposals in the pipeline, Smith warned Planning Board members against setting a bad precedent.

Evan Thompson, manager of Fahnestock and Hudson Highlands State Parks, said the park service is worried about the project’s effect on Clove Creek and wildlife such as the endangered Indiana bat, as well as the view from trails.

Joe Hyatt of the North Highlands Fire Department (left) reviews the planned Hudson Highlands Reserve with Glann Watson, who represents the developer. Hyatt questioned aspects of the plan related to firefighting. (Photo by L.S. Armstrong)

Joe Hyatt, assistant chief of the North Highlands Fire Department, questioned whether the development’s roads could bear the weight of fire trucks and where water for firefighting would come from if Ulmar Pond becomes too shallow. The water level of nearby Quarry Pond dropped about 5 feet after construction of the Glassbury Court housing there, he said.

If Ulmar Pond runs out of water for fighting a fire at Hudson Highlands Reserve, “we’re out of luck,” he said.

Horton Road resident Richard Nairn urged the board to evaluate “the magnitude of this project and stormwater run-off,” as well as the developers’ belief that stormwater will “infiltrate” into the ground. He recalled that Ulmar Pond flooded Horton Road during Hurricane Irene. “You have no idea of the amount of water that comes off that mountain,” he said.

Toshi Yano, another Horton Road resident, is horticultural manager of an 80-acre estate with a house, zoo with “mostly birds,” and gardens in Westchester County. He asked about the disposal of horse manure, since even at his employer’s small-animal zoo, animal waste must be trucked away “every couple days.” He urged the Planning Board to exercise “extreme caution.”

Richard Butensky wondered if the developers can claim conservation subdivision status for apparently setting aside steep slopes and wetlands, because “you don’t necessarily get credit for preserving land that is undevelopable.”

“That is a question, isn’t it?” said Planning Board Member Kim Conner.

Acknowledging his fiduciary interest in the development, Sam Isaly of New York City argued that Hudson Highlands Reserve “will bring major benefits,” including jobs and the equestrian center. “This is going to be a fantastic project,” he said, urging approval.

Ulises Liceaga, who with his wife, Christina Isaly Liceaga, and five children has a weekend home near the site, designed the project with his firm, the Fractal Group, which shares a New York City address with the developer, Horton Road LLC, which in turn is owned by the David Isaly 2008 Trust.

Saying that his family loves the Highlands, Liceaga emphasized the importance of the open space. “No one will ever do anything” to the conserved land, which he said actually covers about 175 acres. Addressing fears of pollution in Ulmar Pond, he said that elsewhere in the area, homes, a tennis court, roads and structures ring similar ponds, which nonetheless “are perfectly healthy.”

2 thoughts on “Proposed Development Gets Pushback

  1. Another developer who plans to overdevelop and exploit land. Twenty-five “fancy” houses. The design is in my view unattractive. Perhaps because I sense that allowing this development to progress to reality has the feel of being ominous and a huge mistake. Haven’t we seen enough with the plan to overdevelop the Butterfield property? Must it be all about money? Meanwhile, the homes developed on one acre of tainted land along the river have been flooded and were in my view overdeveloped. Too many houses and a complete lack of privacy, no gardens and much too close.

  2. I am the environmental consultant working for Horton Road LLC. Most of my work in recent years has involved opposing bad projects. I worked successfully against the casino projects proposed in Sterling Forest State Park and adjacent to Harriman State Park in Woodbury, as well as an IKEA that was proposed in New Rochelle, and a residential/golf course project, also within Sterling Forest State Park. Recently, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) used my arguments to deny permitting for the proposed 124-mile Constitution Pipeline, which had been previously approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But I’m not anti-development, and it’s a pleasure to work for a client that wants to do things right.

    This project was specifically designed to preserve the most environmentally and culturally valuable features of the property, and to place development on those areas most suitable for development. The project is proposed to preserve approximately 74 percent of the 210-acre property, which will include all of the wetlands, streams, Ulmar Pond, primary wildlife corridors, unfragmented forest, an early 19th century barn, and an historic stone wall-lined road. The developed portion of the project will utilize areas that have been previously disturbed and which contain invasive non-native plant species, and which are already considered to be fragmented forest due to their proximity to Route 9 and existing residential and commercial development. A natural, 140-foot undisturbed buffer will be preserved around Ulmar pond as part of the conservation easement that will be placed on all the preserved lands. The pond itself, which currently suffers from algal blooms, will be cleaned up and restored, which will include the planting of additional native plant material to replace non-native species.

    The Clove Creek, streams, and wetlands will be left completely untouched, with preserved buffers exceeding 300 feet. The original historic road through the property, which probably served as a major north-south thoroughfare prior to the existing Route 9 alignment, will be preserved as a linear park behind the proposed homes. The unfragmented forest to be preserved includes a 50-acre parcel that was purchased solely for the purpose of preserving it, and will bolster the functioning of the unfragmented forest contained in the nearby Fahnestock State Park.

    Partnerships with private developers who are willing to set aside large portions of their land are an important mechanism to preserve land that would otherwise be too expensive or simply unavailable to purchase. That was indeed the purpose of creating the option for a conservation subdivision in the Town Code. In order to work, however, the developer must be able to realize a sufficient return on their investment in order to support the donation of the remaining land for open space. It has to be a win-win for all sides. This same property had been previously approved for a soil mine. (Note: not just proposed; it was APPROVED to be a soil mine.) The project now proposed instead can serve as a textbook example of environmentally responsible development, and if Michelle Smith is correct that this proposal is inspiring other similar developments in the area, this would be a very positive trend indeed.

    Gross is the owner of Hudson Highlands Environmental Consulting and from 1988 to 1997 worked for Tim Miller Associates in Cold Spring.