Plans are in the works to bring a boutique campground to the town of Gardiner in Ulster County, but neighbors are robustly resisting the planned development, going as far to form a citizen’s group and retaining an attorney to resist the project.
“Heartwood” would consist of 70 cabins with bathrooms, electricity and heating; a working farm and an event space; and buildings housing a restaurant, a lobby, and a spa/pool. The project is being developed by Phillip and Kristen Rapoport, with architecture to be designed by California-based firm Electric Bowery.
The site sits in the shadow of the Shawangunk Ridge, and the developers hope it would serve as a jumping-off point for climbers, hikers, and other nature-philes visiting the region.
The project is currently in front of the Gardiner Town Planning Board, which must decide whether to grant a special permit to allow the development to go forward. The 141 acres the project would sit on is zoned as Rural-Agricultural, and a special permit must be issued for development to go forward.
Much of the resistance to the project comes from neighbors of Heartwood, who have formed the group Friends of Gardiner and retained environmental attorney David Gordon in February.
The group refers to the project as a “glamping” (glamour-camping) site — though this is not a term the developers use — and complain about the potential for noise and light pollution, the impact on the natural environment, the inability of current town zoning laws to address what is essentially a hybrid between a campground and a lodging facility, and the impact of having upwards of 100 visitors a few hundred feet from their backyards.
For their part, the Rapoports have tried to mollify residents by releasing information about the project and holding a Q-and-A session July 9.
Heartwood has retained Barry Medenback as an engineer, who worked on the nearby Mohonk Preserve and Sam’s Point Visitors centers. Heartwood is designed to use minimal heavy machinery, its lighting will be “dark sky” compliant, and the developers are looking to make it a “net zero” energy project, according to a fact sheet released by the developers.
Heartwood would only develop 4 percent of the area and lead to a net increase in trees on the land, according to the fact sheet.
Much of the resistance has to do with the position of the cabins in the development. The 141 acres, a former tree farm, consists mostly of meadows, but includes a forested area around the Shawangunk Kill River where the cabins would be placed, according to plans submitted to the Gardiner Planning Board. On the other side of the river sits the backyards of homes along the residential McKinstry Road.
One of these houses is inhabited by Carol O’Biso and Richard Smith. The development would severely impact their quality of life, as well as the pristine Shawangunk Kill, according to the couple.
“[There’s] a lot of concern about noise pollution, light pollution, environmental pollution, density issues, privacy,” Smith said. “It really will change the character of this section of Gardiner — neighbors are talking about ‘will we be able to continue to live here,’ — it will drastically change the environment, the lifestyle here, there’s no doubt about that.”
The Shawangunk Kill would be inundated with campers, Smith said.
“The only thing separating us (from Heartwood) is the Shawangunk Kill, which is about maybe 30 yards across, and campers will come down to enjoy the river — that’s what I would do if I was there — they’ll be in the river, they’ll cross the river, chances are real good that they’ll be on our property, because that’s just what campers do…the idea of having 80 people down in the river corridor really changes things,” he added.
A 150-foot buffer must exist between the cabins and existing properties on the other side of the Shawangunk Kill, according to town zoning law, but the Friends of Gardiner take issue with what they see as a paltry barrier.
This February, the town had to designate the development as either a campground or a lodging facility. Town Assessor Henry Vance III decided to designate it a lodging facility, which the Friends of Gardiner oppose, preferring it be designated as the latter.
Lodging facilities must have a 150-foot buffer, whereas campgrounds must have a 250-foot buffer. Campgrounds are also only permitted to be open 10 months a year, according to town zoning law
Friends of Gardiner, through their attorney, David Gordon, opposed this designation in front of the Gardiner Zoning Board, but ultimately failed.
The appeal to the zoning board took months to resolve and was close, Gordon said.
The five-member zoning board was split 2-2 on appealing the designation, with one board member recusing himself because he had a nearby business, Gordon said.
“It was close in a number of ways,” Gordon said. “I mean they thought very, very hard about it, they looked [at] it in a great deal of detail and ultimately is was split down the middle…I mean, arguably you need rules for glamping. It’s a glamping facility, either classification would’ve been incomplete in terms of its ability to regulate this activity, but in our view, lodging was worse. We would have gotten more useful regulations from camping, but neither one is really adequate to handle the issue.”
O’Biso explained her opposition to the designation.
“From our point of view, what we tried to argue, is, sure, they’ve got a big lobby structure, and they’ve got a restaurant and they’ve got an events spot and all of that, but the [cabins] …if you need tick spray to get to your bedroom, that’s a campground,” she said.
Ideally, a whole new set of zoning regulations were needed for this type of facility, instead of decisions about the development being “dropped” on the planning board, Gordon said.
The restaurant, which will be open to the public, would introduce even more visitors to the site, Smith said.
Both Smith and O’Biso complained about additional traffic and noise pollution from Tuthilltown Spirits, the distillery, restaurant and tasting room located near both their property and the proposed development, saying they felt Heartwood would bring more of the same.
The Friends of Gardiner were prepared to hire their own experts to challenge impact reviews of Heartwood by its developer, Gordon said, such as a hydrologist to review a study the developers must undertake to see if drilling wells for the site would adversely impact nearby residential wells, a major concern in a town that has seen wells run dry in recent years.
As it now stands, much has to be accomplished before the planning board makes a decision about whether to issue a special permit. This includes deciding whether the site will have a significant environmental impact on the land and residents around it, which would result in Heartwood having to go through a much lengthier review process.
Gardiner Town Planning Board Vice-Chair Paul Colucci said the timetable for the project was dependent on when the developer submitted various information about the project and the state and local reviews of this information. He pointed out some projects take years to get the go-ahead — another development in Gardiner, Ohioville Acres, has been trying to get approval for about a decade, he said.
One of the agencies weighing in on the process is the Ulster County Planning Board. The board released a series of 10 recommendations for the project in early June, which includes demands for further specifications about how light and noise pollution would be mitigated.
Though they are called recommendations, Gordon said, the suggestions have teeth.
To give the project approval without the recommendations, the Gardiner Planning Board must vote 5-2, instead of a simple majority, according to state municipal code.
Friends of Gardiner would like the development to accept all ten of the Ulster County Planning Board’s recommendations, Gordon said.
“We look at this as…what the county, the planning experts, are saying in terms of a regional perspective, and we don’t think the Town of Gardiner Planning Board should be violating those,” he said. “We would like to have those recommendations taken to heart as what’s needed to protect the public from the impacts of the project,” he said.
“If the county is saying this is what you need to do, then the town planning board should not be blowing it off,” he added.
Not everyone in Gardiner opposes the project, however.
Justin Miller, director of business and brand development for nearby Tuthilltown Spirits and Hudson Whiskey, said the proposed development would have a positive impact on the distillery and the broader community.
“My understanding is…they’re going to be environmentally responsible, they’re going to provide a wonderful service for the broader community and people in the surrounding areas that come visit the Hudson Valley,” he said.
Miller has not had direct discussions with the developer, but other people at Tuthilltown had, he said.
“I anticipate it would have a positive impact on Tuthilltown since we’re neighbors, and we take a lot of pride in terms of what we’re doing and we’re always happy to share the craft distillery experience [with] anyone who’s interested in visiting,” he said.
A positive for the development, as for any development, is increased property tax revenues for the town. Since Heartwood would not actually be adding residents and their children to the town, the additional revenue would not be spent where much of the town revenue is spent — the schools.
Gardiner Town Supervisor Marybeth Majestic refused comment for this article.
Elissa Cimino also lives near the proposed development. However, she sees it as an acceptable use for the land.
“To be honest with you — and I hope I’m not wrong — I would rather see this come in then the alternative,” she said.
Cimino, who has degrees in horticulture, said she was sad to lose another property to development, but she would rather see Heartwood be built than more homes, which she said would have a worse impact on the natural environment.
A Rural-Agricultural district in Gardiner can have houses built on five-acre parcels, according to town zoning code, meaning 28 homes could be built on the land, though the number would probably be lower, due to additional zoning regulations concerning such things as the spacing of houses along roads.
“You know they’re going to be very large homes because the view is unbelievable,” Cimino said. “So, they’re going to be million-dollar homes, and every person is going to have their own lighting system, every person will have their own driveway, every person can have their own cars…” she said.
Heartwood’s plans show a single, looping road on the property. Shuttles would be provided to transport visitors to sites on the Shawangunk Ridge, according to the developers.
The Rapoports have been very communicative about the project, Cimino said.
Rapoport held a Q-and-A session with residents in July to try to address concerns and open lines of communication, which Cimino attended.
It would be better for residents to try to communicate and guide the developers rather than being so adversarial, Cimino said.
“[Rapoport is] not going to have driveways to each cabin, he’s not going to have grilling and everything outside of each one — they’re going to have diffused lighting, they’re going to try to [reuse] rainwater and do composting,” Cimino said. “That’s why [the developers] need to be educated as much as possible — if people would stop fighting them and start trying to help them, I think they’re willing to listen within reason.”
Janet Kern is a former Gardiner Town Board member and current member of the town Environmental Conservation Committee, but said her comments reflect only her position as a resident and not as an official.
The forested section of the property where the cabins are planned is the most environmentally vulnerable section of the property, Kern said.
“I think…this particular development speaks of being focused on ecological concerns and making eco-cabins and what the footprints are going to be like and all of that stuff, but they also acknowledge the mere presence of a human population in the density intended, which is significant, will have an impact on habitat — it’s unavoidable,” she said.
There were inherent conflicts between the protection of habitat and property rights, Kern said — the rights of people who have spent money on the land vs. the existing environment.
Another conflict exists, Kern said, one that is especially relevant to a development that would cater to those wanting to experience the outdoors — the conflict between nature-lovers trying to enjoy the land and the land being as natural as possible.
“You want as many people as possible to love a terrain and area so that they will feel a personal attachment to it and therefore an impulse to love it and therefore protect it,” Kern said. “However, if you bring in too many people, you can love it to death.”
“The residents of Gardiner are both blessed and burdened, in my opinion, in living in the midst of so many natural resources and spectacular assets,” Kern continued. “But then you are faced with being both a taxpayer and a caretaker, and this is an inherent conflict…to the thoughtful member of the boards and commissions that are charged by law to address those circumstances — It requires a great output of mind and heart to arrive at something that you think is either fair or absolutely necessary.”
A public hearing on the development has been scheduled for Aug. 15.