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.
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.
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, 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.”