Planning Board Ends Hearing on HVSF Project

Critics voice concerns about water use, size, trails  

After two hours of ardent public testimony, the Philipstown Planning Board last week closed a multi-month hearing on the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s plans for a new home at the old Garrison golf course.

Despite the conclusion of the hearing, which lasted seven hours over three sessions that began in January, scrutiny of the project continues and the board’s tentative agenda for April includes a discussion with HVSF of the public comments.

The listening process was part of the Planning Board’s state-mandated oversight of the environmental implications of HVSF’s proposal to transform 98 acres into a cultural-theater campus with an outdoor tent; indoor theater; actors’ housing; a visitor center and box office; outdoor pavilion; backstage structure; 20-room inn; paths; picnic lawns; a landscape with meadows, woods, parkland and wildflower gardens; parking; and reconfigured access to Snake Hill Road and Route 9, with a possible traffic light at their intersection. It also would retain The Garrison’s restaurant and banquet hall.

All that sounds like too much, said residents (including avowed HVSF fans) at the final hearing session, held on March 17 at Town Hall and remotely via Zoom. Several asked the Planning Board to issue a “positive declaration” that the plans would have a significant environmental impact.

HVSF estimates that completing its vision will take more than a decade; the first phase, through 2024, will entail installation of a permanent outdoor tent, the box office, paths, lighting and landscaping. 

For more than 30 years, before philanthropist Chris Davis donated the golf course land, HVSF rented the lawn at Boscobel in Garrison for its summer productions. While Planning Board deliberations continue, HVSF has asked Philipstown Supervisor John Van Tassel for authorization to install its seasonal tent from Boscobel for the 2022 season. 

Van Tassel said Wednesday (March 23) that he received letters from the Garrison fire protection and ambulance services, as well as the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department, confirming that they could respond to emergencies at the site; he had requested the verification to issue the permit.

However, he said, because the Sheriff’s Department advised HVSF to hire “an independent flagging service” for traffic control, he would issue the permit after seeing a copy of the festival’s contract with the traffic-control firm. 

Some attendees at the hearing called for tests to determine the effect of the HVSF campus on the aquifer that supplies homes in the area. Already in Philipstown, such resources “seem to be at risk from climate change, etc.,” said Betty Stafford of Travis Corners Road. “Additional usage will tax the aquifer. We must be good stewards. An adequate water supply is foundational to our life here.” 

Suzie Gilbert, an environmental and wildlife advocate, said that she was “appalled at the size” of the HVSF proposal. “It is one of the biggest potential developments Garrison has ever seen. Shakespeare has suddenly become a big developer.” She asked the Planning Board “to issue a ‘positive declaration,’ not to stop this project but to shrink it.” 

“The approach taken to this is very much the same as a massive development,” said Alex Clifton, a former HVSF volunteer. “The Shakespeare Festival is near and dear to my heart,” he said, but its proposal “is just way too big.”

Gradie Oakes questioned HVSF’s plan to put its tent on a hillside with expansive views of the Hudson and the mountains that line the river. “This town has advocated this is a viewshed that’s important. This is a special place,” he said. “It’s embarrassing” to think of allowing anyone to alter it. “It’s disappointing to me that it’s something we would consider. Protect the ridge.”

Robert Cutler concurred. “The tent could be anywhere. It doesn’t have to be up there,” he said. “Putting a tent up there is not preserving natural beauty,” while protecting ridges is a tenet of environmental law, he observed. Cutler also said that about 75 percent of the wildlife is nocturnal: owls, skunks, opossums, porcupines, bats, foxes, coyotes, raccoons. “They have a much stronger claim on that hillside” than actors and audiences, he said. “Leave the hillside alone.”

Along with the 98 acres he gave HVSF, Davis is donating 74 acres to the Hudson Highlands Land Trust. At the March 17 hearing, some cautioned that if HHLT maintains trails there while paths also exist on the HVSF campus, more walkers could appear and spill over onto other sites. Randi Davis, of Philipsebrook Road, noted that trails that would be built on the former golf course could connect to trails that extend into the Garrison School Forest, which might suffer from overuse. “It must remain a safe, protected resource for our schoolchildren and our community,” she said.

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