Philipstown Gives Initial Approval to North Highlands Subdivision

Town Board could hold conservation easement

Nearly 10 years after it first came before the Philipstown Planning Board, the Hudson Highlands Reserve subdivision last week received preliminary approval.

Several steps remain for the developers before construction can begin on the upscale mini-village, which would consist of 24 homes on a 210-acre property bounded by Horton Road, East Mountain Road North and Route 9, in North Highlands near the Dutchess County line.

In a 4-2 vote on Sept. 21 (one member was absent) at Town Hall, the Planning Board adopted a resolution declaring that the project can move ahead, allowing the developer, Horton Road LLC, to pursue further approvals from the Town Board, county and state.

Horton Road LLC proposed its project as a “conservation subdivision,” a designation that permits a developer, in return for protecting natural features, to enjoy certain benefits, such as building more structures than would usually be allowed. In addition, some land on the site must be permanently protected through a legal agreement known as a conservation easement.

2022 map

On this 2022 map of the proposed Hudson Highlands Reserve development, the black dots represent homes and the dark green is land that won’t be developed.

Over the summer, Horton Road’s search for a nonprofit agency to hold and enforce that easement prompted questions from a resident, Susan Anspach, because the developer’s candidate, the North American Land Trust, based in Pennsylvania, was sued last year in federal court in South Carolina over its stewardship of an easement there.

Anspach noted in a letter to the Planning Board that NALT is not accredited and that, according to The Washington Post, the IRS challenged the value given the land for tax purposes in at least eight of the easements it holds. NALT was also involved with  a Westchester County property owned by former President Donald Trump, whose $32,000 donation to the trust was later ruled to be “a misuse of charitable funds,” The Post reported.

NALT’s president, Steven Carter, replied through attorneys representing the developer that the trust is not involved in valuing the easements and that it had “purposely chosen not to pursue accreditation” because “certain requirements present unresolvable conflicts with law and responsible nonprofit governance.

“Of course, the conservation easement may be granted to whatever charity will hold it, but there is nothing presented to suggest that NALT should not be the conservation-easement holder,” he wrote.

At the Planning Board’s Sept. 21 meeting, Deputy Supervisor Robert Flaherty noted that Horton Road LLC had suggested that the Town Board could be the easement holder. Judson Siebert, a project lawyer, confirmed Horton Road’s interest.

Likewise, Flaherty said, Town Board members “have been getting a lot of favorable emails, from a bunch of people in the community, thinking it’s a good idea that the town hold the easement.” On the Town Board itself, “I think we’ll be in favor of taking that on,” assisted by an independent, outside agency, he said.

Neal Zuckerman, who chairs the Planning Board, explained that “as I understand the theory, the town would hold the easement and a third party would administer it on behalf of the town.”

Typically, conservation subdivisions cluster houses and other buildings closely together, as in a traditional village, to minimize threats to meadows, forests and other natural areas and to limit road construction. The town zoning code encourages conservation subdivisions “in which units are clustered,” but it does not mandate close “clustering.” In April 2022, the town attorney, Stephen Gaba, told the Planning Board that “the project meets town code. There’s no question about that.”

To receive the final OK from the Planning Board, Horton Road LLC must obtain approval from the Town Board for the conservation easement and homeowner regulations that would, among other rules, restrict tree removal (with a ban on backyard clear-cutting), control the application of chemical pesticides-herbicides and forbid the installation of swimming pools. It also needs approvals from the Putnam County Health Department and state Departments of Environmental Conservation and Transportation for various aspects of the project.

In other business on Sept. 21, the Planning Board continued its discussion of plans by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival to redevelop the former Garrison Golf Course and concerns by some neighbors about noise from amplified theatrical productions and potential depletion of the underground water supply.

Zuckerman suggested HVSF present a revised environmental impact report to the board at its Oct. 19 meeting.

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