||[Return to Home Page] [Subscriptions] [Newsstands] [Contact Us] [Archives]
Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 10, 2006
High Point for preservation
Spectacular Helderberg land to become part of Thacher Park
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
Delight and joy have been expressed by local leaders and residents over last Thursdays announcement from the governors office that 188 acres on the Helderberg escarpment including High Point will be added to John Boyd Thacher State Park.
The state is purchasing the land from the Open Space Institute for $874,000. The institute, a not-for-profit conservation organization that works with the state to preserve open space in the Hudson Valley, bought the land from Jeff Thomas for $2.35 million.
Thomas, the founder of WeatherGuard Roofing who has plans to develop several senior housing complexes locally, bought the bulk of the property in 1995 from Robert Whipple for about $300,000.
The land, which is located in the town of Knox overlooking the village of Altamont below, stretches over a mile along the most visible edge of the escarpment. Two-and-a-half years ago, the institute, in the midst of negotiations with Thomas over the purchase, said the land was the final available piece of the escarpment and would be the last link in a chain of acquisitions it has made over the last decade.
The purchase will bring the size of Thacher Park to 2,155 acres.
"I’m always delighted to see the preservation of land, particularly those connected to park land," James Gaughan, the mayor of Altamont, told The Enterprise. "So I applaud the outcome."
He went on, "I see ourselves as the gateway to the Hilltowns. This is good for all residents and will draw people here and help Altamont business-wise."
"I’m delighted it’s now going to be forever wild, which is what it should be," said Robert Price, who chairs the Knox Planning Board.
Asked if the land could have been developed, Price said, "Only with great difficulty."
He went on, "There’s very little soil up there. It’s good for growing hay. It’s not good for private waste systems. You have to drill hundreds of feet for water. There are a great deal of karst features.
"The planning board in Knox wouldn’t have allowed houses at the edge; that would have made the village of Altamont a backyard. We said no to Bob Whipple and no to Mr. Thomas and pretty much stuck to it."
In 2004, Thomas told The Enterprise he was considering dividing the land into "large estate parcels."
Minutes from the Knox Planning Board meeting on Thomas’s plan state, "Basically, the idea was to have several long lots that went up to the edge of the escarpment, an idea that has been rejected by the board in the past."
A dozen years before, the previous owner of the property, Robert Whipple, created plans to develop the parcel. Whipple, a farmer, had known the land since his childhood.
He was assisted by Randall Arendt, a nationally recognized planner and proponent of cluster development, who came up with a plan for clustering 21 homes on the property.
The plan called for each home to be built on a five-acre plot. A path would have traced the undeveloped escarpment edge, and Whipple pledged to farm a field on the land until his death.
Whipple abandoned his plans after failing to get approval from the Knox Planning Board and Albany County. A chief concern was the difficulty of filtering sewage in an area with little soil and rock filled with fissures. The karst geology of the property would allow water and waste to quickly travel through the rock below, leaving little time for natural filtration.
Whipple said that, when he sold the property, he was certain it could not be developed. Whipple was never approached by an organization interested in purchasing and preserving the land, he told The Enterprise earlier.
In 1995, Whipple sold 178 acres to Thomas for about $300,000 or $1,700 an acre. Thomas also later purchased an adjacent parcel. Thomas sold the land to the Open Space Institute for $12,500 an acre.
Thomas says the land could have been developed.
"It has soil-rich fields," he told The Enterprise this week. "With 20-acre parcels, it was extremely developable."
Thomas also said, "As Tech Valley started . . . we started getting phone calls from people wanting to buy it."
Asked who, Thomas said there was a religious group from California that wanted it for a retreat and there were estate developers.
"I got a call from a prominent individual in the state who wanted to put a family compound up there," said Thomas.
He went on, "Our development research showed we could have sold 10 to 13 estate parcels of 15 to 22 acres each for $500,000 to $750,000 a piece."
Besides its park-like setting, Thomas said, the land was valuable to developers because it is in the Guilderland School District and is close to Crossgates Mall.
Asked if he was happy with the $2.34 million he got, Thomas said, "Yeah, I’m pleased with the price I got. How do you put a price on a national-park setting""
"It was a very long, difficult negotiation," said Joe Martens, president of the Open Space Institute. The negotiations stretched over several years he said. "The sticking point all along was the price," said Martens.
"He had a certain expectation," Martens said of Thomas. "He went down and we went up."
The state paid the institute just $874,000, Martens said, because "that’s what they think it is worth."
Wendy Gibson, a spokes-person for the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which is handling the transaction, said, "The purchase price was based on our appraisals."
Gibson said the state had two appraisals done and based its $874,000 purchase price on a combination of the two.
She described the Open Space Institute as "partners of ours" and said, "A lot of times, they serve as intermediaries."
Gibson called the High Point land "a rich natural resource" and concluded of the Helderberg parkland, "Clearly the land is important to protect and the governor has been very supportive in investing in open space up there"
"Since we’re talking taxpayers’ dollars," said Gibson, "we base it on appraisals."
"Appraisals are not a science," said Martens. "We had appraisals closer to what we paid."
With Governor George Pataki leaving office at the end of the year, the institute decided it should move ahead now to complete "the last piece of the puzzle," said Martens.
"We bought 500 acres south; we bought an easement to connect Thacher State Park with Thompsons Lake State Park," he said, describing some of the other puzzle pieces.
"We believe Jeff had legitimate offers," said Martens. Asked who they were from, Martens said, "He shared them with us in confidence, so I need to keep them confidential"Will we ever know if they were 100-percent bona fide" We’ll never know." Martens added, "I have no reason to disbelieve Jeff."
He went on to say about the potential for developing the property, "There’s no question in my mind, a certain number of homes would have been allowed up there. There are other houses on Carrick Road, going right up to the property, including Jeff’s house."
Asked how losing the $1.5 million will affect the institute, Martens said, "We make choices all the time. We have a sizable endowment from the founders of Reader’s Digest." Lila Acheson and DeWitt Wallace, he said, gave the institute $160 million, which allows it to spend roughly $7 million a year on saving open space.
"It obviously means we don’t have that money to spend on other projects," said Martens. "This was the last piece of the puzzle. Jeff was going to sell it one way or the other. Exclusion of the public would be not only a disappointment, but just wrong."
Martens concluded, "Ultimately, the Open Space Institute will lose money on the deal but we’ve saved the largest and most spectacular remaining piece of the escarpment. In the end, that’s what people will remember, not how much money we spent. It’s a spectacular piece of land that ought to be part of the park."
Lure of the land
Thomas spoke with enthusiasm about the land, not far from his home in Knox, as he described for The Enterprise some of the scenes he had photographed.
His favorite place, he said, is Indian Nose or Indian Face. "It’s unbelievable. It looks like Walt Disney made it," Thomas said of the rock formation.
He went on, "The top of the head is the top of the escarpment. The property has a secondary ledge, down the escarpment, similar to Indian Ladder," he said of the well-known trail at Thacher Park.
"This is one of the richest fossil areas in the world," he said.
Thomas said he purchased the land in 1995 with the idea of developing it. "I took a cursory walk on the property and I saw the beauty of it and I bought it," he said. "As I spent time on it, I realized it was majestic and fell in love with it."
Later, he said, the Open Space Institute "reached out" to him about buying the land. He and the institute would talk maybe every six months, he said.
"Their interest peaked in the last couple of years," said Thomas.
During the time he owned the land, Thomas said, he heard from a number of different people about its interesting history. A local historian told him that there had been an indoor horse-racing track on one of the open fields before the turn of the last century.
He also heard that the La Salette Seminary used to hold mass on the land on Easter morning.
The Long Path, which begins at the George Washington Bridge and will one day reach the Adirondacks, "ends at the edge" of his property, said Thomas. "It will make a perfect continuation to the Schoharie Valley," he said.
Thomas also learned, in an unusual way, that he had caves on his property. The Albany County Sheriffs Department asked if they could look at the caves on his property.
"I said, ‘I don’t have any caves,’" recalled Thomas. "They said, ‘Yes, you do.’"
Someone who was depressed had gone into one of the caves overnight, but got out safely, Thomas said.
Most recently, he learned that the property had a 150-year-old easement "down the entire escarpment to allow you to use your horse and oxen," said Thomas. "Today, that could be interpreted as for cars and other vehicles," he said. The easement allows 24-hour access for the landowner and his family, said Thomas.
Anne Linendoll is among the Altamont residents pleased that High Point and nearby Flat Rock will now be public land.
"We think it’s wonderful and it’s too bad it took so long," she said.
She named one Altamont resident, Porter Bidleman, whom she said had climbed to High Point every single day.
Linendoll, who is 59, started hiking to High Point after she moved to Altamont in the 1970s.
"We’ve been hiking and cross-country skiing there ever since," she said of herself and her husband, Stewart. "When we were younger, we used to go up Leesome Lane, now we use Old Stage Road."
She also said, "We continued to hike, even after the land was posted...We took our kids up there when they were little and now we take our grandchildren."
The Linendolls’ daughter, Heather, got married at Camp Lovejoy and the wedding party then hiked to High Point. Linendoll called it "the best wedding ever."
The Linendolls can see High Point from the front porch of their Park Street home and the view from High Point looking down is wonderful, said Linendoll.
She recalled how, when Kenneth Runion first became mayor of Altamont and she learned he had never been to High Point, she led the new mayor, his wife, and two children to the top.
"When you look at Altamont from there, it looks like a painting," she said.
John Wolcott, co-founder and a board member of Save the Pine Bush, who had long advocated putting High Point in the public realm, said this week, "I’m ecstatic, almost deliriously ecstatic."
He went on, "The only thing I would question is why the state paid the Open Space Institute so little compared to what they paid for it. That’s the first time they didn’t get their money back...I wish the state had paid enough to keep their acquisition fund up to par."
He said the state should take the $1.5 million difference "and buy some buffer land below the escarpment."
Wolcott, who grew up in Albany, first hiked at High Point in 1947, when he was 12 years old.
"I went with the Boy Scouts," he recalled. "A.T. Shorey was the dean of outdoorsmen; he was a forest ranger in the 1890’s."
Shorey and the city kids would board a bus and head for the Helderbergs and High Point.
"It just filled me with a sense of wonder and adventure and beauty...It was real deep woods," said Wolcott. "He would teach us all this nature lore...He pointed out the square holes in the trees, made by the pileated woodpeckers." The kids also learned about Indians, animals and snakes, caves and karst geology, said Wolcott.
Asked who owned the land then, Wolcott replied, "We had no idea. No one bothered us."
Hes been going back ever since.
"I became a Scout leader myself," he said. "I took the whole troop up and showed them the caves. We had a cookout under a ledge."
In celebration of the acquisition, Save the Pine Bush is planning a hike of celebration at High Point in September.
"You can see the Pine Bush from there and vice versa," he said. "We want people to come and share their recollections and old pictures of High Point."
[Return to Home Page]