Mary Etta Schneider, the president of the HHS Board, explained to the Town Board at their last regular December meeting that the organization was attempting to “shrink our scope” and keep their focus on Historic Huguenot Street, the buildings and educational programs that they have.
To that end, she said that they’ve been attempting to divest other properties, including Locust Lawn and the Terwilliger House (off of Route 32 South) and “another sanctuary in Gardiner that we were able to transfer to Locust Grove in Pougkeepsie who will continue to take excellent care of it.”
The Harcourt Sanctuary is one of those parcels that Schneider said “requires a lot of time and energy and resources for HHS to care for, and we’d like to see it placed in public hands so that it can remain accessible to the public and be well-cared for.”
This process began several years ago when HHS partnered with the Wallkill Valley Land Trust to put the sanctuary under a conservation easement and then worked with the town to try and receive grant money to purchase the property for $130,000.
According to town Supervisor Toni Hokanson, that funding never came through. Since then, HHS reached out to the Open Space Institute (OSI) who, according to Schneider, voted unanimously to purchase the Harcourt Sanctuary for $110,000 with the requirement that the town purchase it from OSI for $55,000.
“They’re willing to pay for half of it if the town can commit to paying for the other half and they said that they can give the town three years to help generate the funds,” said the HHS president.
She noted that HHS would much rather see it sold to the town, to guarantee public access rather than have it purchased by someone privately. “We don’t want to go down that road, but might be forced to financially,” she said.
Councilwoman Kitty Brown asked whether or not the Wallkill Valley Land Trust still held the easement on the sanctuary.
“Yes,” said the HHS president.
“Is it for the entire property?” Brown said.
Schneider said that it was.
“So then it is not at risk to be developed?” Brown added.
“No, what’s at risk is if a private individual purchases the property for their own recreation and posts it, limiting public access,” she said.
Schneider went on to say that she received a commitment from the Wallkill Valley Land Trust to help fundraise for the $55,000 the town would need to purchase the property from OSI and was going to reach out to the New Paltz Community Foundation, who had offered to help fundraise when the town considered purchasing it with help from grant money several years ago.
She noted that the matter was time sensitive, because OSI needed to utilize funds by the end of December, but were willing to create a “bridge until January,” if the town would commit to partnering with them.
Hokanson, Deputy Supervisor Jane Ann Williams and Councilman David Lewis showed strong support for partnering with OSI and working to fundraise to ensure that the property remains in public hands.
“This is one of the great treasures of the town and village,” Lewis said. “It is something that our residents should have and is certainly a parcel that should be protected.”
Asked whether it was a parcel in keeping with the town’s open space plan and $2 million voter-approved open space acquisition bond, Lewis said “most definitely.”
“I think it is even a greater priority than some of the land we’ve already been able to preserve because of its location, its environmental sensitivity and its history,” the councilman said.
The Harcourt Sanctuary and Huguenot Path have long been a cherished part of the community and is ideal for parkland.
“This is a property that is already used extensively by both town (and village) residents, plus persons outside the town who are bird watchers, or who simply want a nice walk or run,” Williams said. “To me, this falls under the basic charge to elected officials to act for the public good even more than the recent purchase of the Millbrook property, which, while undeniably for the public good, could also be looked at as a bailout of relatively wealthy landowners.”
Williams, Lewis and Hokanson all concurred that fundraising for the town’s share of the $55,000 would be the best route to take. “I think we can do it through fundraising,” the deputy supervisor said.
“That’s what we intend to do,” added Hokanson.
While Councilman Jeff Logan agreed that the land should be protected and available to the public, he said he was not “interested in using taxpayer money to purchase this land.”
“If you read the town’s open space statement, the bonding statement and the statement of the CWOSP (Clean Water and Open Space Protection Commission) it is to protect lands in danger of being developed or taken from its natural state. This land is in zero danger of being developed or sold to private landowner and if purchased privately 98 percent of it is floodplain and cannot be changed … it therefore does not fall under the purview of the town to purchase it.”
That said, as the liaison to CWOSP, Logan said that this proposal would be discussed at their January meeting.
Before the Town Board can act on Historic Huguenot Street and OSI’s proposal, they must first hold a public hearing.