by Kristen Warfield
With a history dating back to before the land’s original purchase by French Huguenot settlers from the Lenape Indians in the 17th century, the Phillies Bridge Farm in New Paltz has seen its fair share of human interaction. But despite its bustling nature from now being a working Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, this 65-acre property is not slated to change anytime soon.
This farmland, and thousands of more miles throughout Ulster and Dutchess counties, are flowering with rural character, charm and beautiful viewsheds – and select locals have been working for decades to keep them that way.
These parcels of land, due to a unique legal agreement, will remain generally untouched and away from the hands of overdevelopment forever. Conservation easement is the technical term for the practice, which has a main goal of protecting the biological integrity of the land. Depending on the property, easements can limit dimensions of any future building construction, how the land is used and which types of activity can be permitted on it. Throughout the state, over 30 organizations exist to protect these open spaces, natural resources, scenic views and treasured wildlife habitats.
“Once you change the land, it is really hard to change it back,” says Christie DeBoer, executive director of the Wallkill Valley Land Trust (WVLT), which has worked to preserve over 2,500 acres of land in Ulster County. “One day, our great-grandchildren will come here and it will look similarly to the way it did to previous generations…easements protect what we have now, and preserve the rich history that came before it.”
Easements are not just for community-recognized areas of land or those with historical significance–private landowners with eligible property can get their land protected as well, which can be tax deductible. Owners can ensure that their open land will not become a housing development once they are no longer around to look after it, for example.
Prior to the 1980s, however, land trusts in the area ceased to exist. With the economic boom that development can bring, the rapid development from open space to buildings and roadways loomed on until people noticed that some land would be better off untouched.
“Our organization was formed in 1985 based on the fact there were some development proposals in areas that were very rural and people understood that these projects would totally change the character of this area and zoning would not protect what was most important,” says Becky Thornton, president of the Dutchess Land Conservancy (DLC), which has saved more than 39,000 acres since its inception.
In Dutchess County, one notable property protected by the DLC is the historic Dover Stone Church, a popular hiking destination where Pequot Indian Chief Sassacus once hid in refuge to avoid capture. Later in history, tourists would ride there from New York City via stagecoach to explore this culturally significant cavern, which is given its name due to its high, church-like stone peaks.
Across the river, the picturesque Rosendale Trestle and the Wallkill-Valley Rail Trail are Ulster landmarks owned by the WVLT. The trail and trestle were once railways from 1866 to 1977, serving as a connector between Kingston, Rosendale, New Paltz, Gardiner, Walden and surrounding towns. Phillies Bridge Farm’s easement, enacted in 2003 by the WVLT, allows it to still be active farmland, but restricts the amount of construction that can be done on the property and disallows invasive activities like riding ATVs or other motorized vehicles through its 45 acres of forests and wetlands.
These limitations and more, DeBoer says, are necessary to preserve not only natural resources and viewshed, but also the habitat of those that can’t do so for themselves: the wildlife. “Animals are using this land whether you see them or not,” DeBoer says, noting of one conserved property in Gardiner with a flock of over 90 box turtles. “They’re everywhere, and this is their home – so we do what we can to make sure it is there for them.”
For more information or to inquire about a conservation easement for your own land, contact the Dutchess Land Conservancy at 845-677-3002 for land in Dutchess County or the Wallkill Valley Land Trust at 845-255-2761 for Ulster County properties.