Debating Sprawl on the Ridge
By Winnie Hu
New York Times, December 7, 2002
GARDINER, N.Y., Dec. 6 - As a young man in the mid-1950's, John Atwater
Bradley was so taken by the Shawangunk Ridge that he skipped the last
day of a conference to hike into the wilderness. He returned 14 hours
later, he said, after trekking more than 40 miles.
"I didn't expect to be gone that long, but every time I saw something
or found something, I just kept going," said Mr. Bradley, now 70,
who tells the story of his marathon hike to friends and fellow members
of the Explorers Club in Manhattan. "It is a wonderland."
Mr. Bradley has bought up much of the Shawangunks (locals say SHON-gums),
a vast wilderness area sprinkled with pearl-colored cliffs, waterfalls
and thick forests about 80 miles northwest of New York City. By his count,
he has spent more than $3 million to piece together 2,700 acres, becoming
one of the largest landowners in Ulster County.
Now he plans to develop this land selectively, saying that it will be
better protected as a private retreat for affluent, conservation-minded
people like himself than as a state park. Last month, he announced a partnership
with Chaffin/Light Associates, a developer known for its eco-friendly
projects, to build hundreds of Adirondack-style homes, along with a fitness
center, dining club and 18-hole golf course.
This plan reflects a growing effort across the country to carve out a
middle ground between traditional land conservation and the kind of urban
sprawl embodied by McMansions and strip malls. During the past decade,
architects and developers have begun to cluster houses in smaller areas
with more trees and nature areas.
"It's an antidote to sprawl," said William Hudnut, a senior
fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a Washington-based research and education
group. "The emphasis is not on more cookie-cutter suburbs moving
farther out, but on quality development that means careful design and
conservation of green spaces."
Mr. Hudnut and others say that such projects supply housing for an expanding
population and increase the local tax base. (Mr. Bradley, who made his
money as a consultant to foreign governments on economic issues, paid
more than $120,000 last year in taxes on the Shawangunk land.) At the
same time, supporters say, this type of development offers conservation
that does not strain the limited resources of state park services.
But opponents say that even the most carefully planned development can
harm fragile ecosystems and fragment the landscape.
This larger debate over whether development and conservation can work
together is now playing out in the Shawangunks, where "Save the Ridge"
signs have begun popping up in windows and yards. Many residents say that
a subdivision would block their views, jam their narrow roads with traffic
and infringe upon the simple pleasures of country living.
"It's the most beautiful place I know," said Kerry Clair, who
started a Web site, www.savethegunks .com, to oppose the development.
"I can't imagine looking over the ridge and seeing rooftops and people
with their little golf shoes and caddies. It would break my heart."
While not as famous as the Adirondacks or the Catskills, the Shawangunks
have drawn rock climbers, hikers and patrons of the Mohonk Mountain House,
an 1869 Victorian castle that is the most famous landmark here. More recently,
its charms have been discovered by scores of weekend homeowners and celebrities,
as varied as the actor Robert De Niro, Jim Fowler (the host of "Wild
Kingdom") and the architect David Rockwell.
The Shawangunks, more commonly called the Gunks, are a series of ancient
stone ridges that have fractured into steep cliffs and shelter several
dozen rare plant and animal species, including one of the best known dwarf
pine barrens along the ridge top.
Nearly half of the 85,000 acres here have been turned into state parkland
or private nature preserves, including the 12,000-acre Minnewaska State
Conservation groups say they have repeatedly tried to buy Mr. Bradley's
sprawling property, which adjoins the Minnewaska Park, but he has refused
to sell. "It's on everybody's list," said Joseph J. Martens,
president of the Open Space Institute.
In a 1988 study, the Friends of the Shawangunks, a grass-roots organization,
warned that Mr. Bradley's property was the "soft underbelly"
of the Minnewaska Park because of the potential for development.
"I've always been afraid of what he would do," said Keith LaBudde,
the group's president. "People have been trying to protect that land
for years, and he has resisted for his own reasons."
Mr. Bradley, who shuttles between a Manhattan apartment and a rambling
chestnut log house here, said that he always intended to conserve the
land in some way when he acquired it.
But, he said, neither the state park service nor the conservation groups
had the resources to protect it from careless people riding mountain bikes
and all-terrain vehicles.
"This land is too fragile," he said. "It will not take
Mr. Bradley said that he had had to summon state troopers to remove trespassers
who were damaging his property. Two years ago, he said 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. (State park
officials are trying to relocate that part of the trail to Minnewaska.)
So instead of parkland, Mr. Bradley and his partners envision using the
land to create a "green community." Houses would have to be
constructed with natural materials, like wood and stone, and set back
from the ridge line, they said. A nature center and nonprofit land trust
would be set up to manage the remaining wilderness.
They expect to submit their proposal to local planning officials in the
next few months. Jack Hayes, the Gardiner town supervisor, said that much
of the property has already been approved for residential and recreational
use. "It's private property and it qualifies for development,"
But many residents are preparing to fight the development, in part because
they have clashed with Mr. Bradley in the past. They say that he has refused
to allow them access to his property and gone so far as to press charges
or sue them in court over petty disputes. They have sued him, too.
"He's always posed as the world's greatest conservationist, a walking
Sierra Club if you will, and now he has stepped into the light as a developer,"
said Manuela Hoelterhoff, a former culture critic for The Wall Street
Mr. Bradley said that he had invited people onto his land, when they
called ahead for permission. "I thought I had been a good neighbor,"
he said. "I've allowed hunting and fishing, but I'm careful about
how it's done."
Not long ago, Mr. Bradley, in a wide-brimmed hat and hiking boots, set
out into the private wilderness that he has named the Awosting Reserve
- after an Indian word, he said, for pure water. His purpose was to cull
fresh berries from a cranberry bog, but he was soon stopping every few
feet to explore an interesting creek or ledge.
As the light faded and the winds gusted around him, Mr. Bradley turned
back empty-handed but content. "I think it's in my blood," he
said. "I need to get up here to clear my lungs."