Classic Confrontation Afoot In Upstate New York

Yet another land-use confrontation is underway in the U.S. The battle pits a man who considers himself an environmentalist versus local residents who want to preserve what they consider a one-of-a-kind geological landmark. Like many other battles involving the development of a golf course and related facilities, this one in Ulster County, N.Y., may ultimately be resolved in the courts. If that indeed comes true, both sides are prepared to state what each believes is a strong case.

John Atwater Bradley, who made his fortune as a consultant to foreign governments on economic issues, has been acquiring chunks of the Shawangunks over the past two decades. Located 80 miles northwest of New York City, the primary feature of this vast wilderness area is Shawangunk Ridge, considered the backbone of the mid-Hudson region. The ridge is a popular spot for rock climbing, hiking and biking, and is home to ice caves and sky lakes, endangered species and much natural beauty.

The 50-mile-long ridge was formed 300 million to 400 million years ago to define the southeastern edge of the Catskill region. The Shawangunk (pronounced locally as SHON-gum) region encompasses 85,000 acres, nearly half of which have been turned into state parkland or nature preserves, including the 12,000-acre Minnewaska State Park.

The exposed bedrock is an amalgam of quartz, with shale and limestone underneath. Among the ridge’s features are pearl-colored cliffs, waterfalls, ice caves and rare pitch pines. Golden eagles and bald eagles dwell here, as do Cooper’s hawks, red-shouldered hawks, peregine falcon, timber rattlesnakes, several species of bats and many rare plants.

Bradley, now 70, has spent $3 million accruing 2,700 acres, making him one of the largest landowners in Ulster County. About 2,300 acres lie in Gardiner, with the remaining property in the towns of Shawangunk and Wawarsing. Preservationists have tried repeatedly to buy Bradley’s property next to Minnewaska State Park, but he’s refused to sell it.

Since 1988, when the Friends of the Shawangunks – a local grass-roots organization – released a study of the area, environmentalists have feared what Bradley would eventually do with his property. Some warned that Bradley was the “soft underbelly” of the park because of his potential to develop his land. “I’ve always been afraid of what he would do,” Keith LaBudde, the group’s president, told New York Times reporter, Winnie Hu, on December 7, 2002.

Now it looks those fears may be realized. In October 2002, Bradley announced he wants to develop his property selectively, saying he believes it would be better protected as a retreat for affluent, conservation-minded people like himself than as an annex of the neighboring state park.

Bradley is partnering with Chaffin/Light Associates, a South Carolina-based company known for its eco-friendly projects. The two plan to develop Adirondack-style homes within a gated community around Tillson Lake. The neighborhood would also contain a spa, dining club and an 18-hole golf course. The backers have declined to identify the number of homes, other than to say “in the three figures.” Lots would be a half-acre to 2 acres and larger, with house prices ranging from $250,000 to $7 million.

Bradley envisions a “green community” where the houses would be constructed of natural materials and set back from the lake and the environmentally sensitive Shawangunk Ridge. He would establish a nature center and nonprofit land trust to manage the remaining wilderness. Bradley and Chaffin/Light hope to finalize their master plan and submit it to Ulster County planning officials in early 2003.

Over the years Bradley has tried to spare his property from overuse. He built a rustic log house on his property in an area called Awosting Reserve. On several occasions he’s summoned state troopers to remove trespassers who’ve damaged his property. In 2000, he closed his land to hikers on the Long Path, a trail that stretches from the George Washington Bridge to Albany, because he found deep ruts in the ground.

But Bradley has also alienated many of the local people for his imperial demeanor, often sparring with town officials and residents. Former Gardiner Supervisor Marlon Kells describes him as having a “lord of the manor” attitude toward townspeople. On the other hand, Bradley is described as “someone who really loves his land and is very supportive of the ridge’s biodiversity,” according to Glenn Hoagland, executive director of the nearby Mohonk Preserve.

Among the issues Bradley and his development partner face during the permit process will be the environmental impact to the ridge, water access, groundwater preservation, and the unnamed project’s visual impact. The proposed community is required to have its own sewage treatment plant. The environmental review would analyze everything from the site’s hydrogeology, wildlife, vegetation, biology, and archeology.

While officials will assuredly put a microscope on Bradley’s project, some residents are sounding as if they’re already conceding defeat. George Maury’s family has owned property bordering Tillson Lake since the late 1940s. In October 2002, he told the Times Herald Record (Middletown, N.Y.), “It’s going to change drastically around here. I don’t think (Bradley’s project) is appropriate for the ridge.”