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December 11, 2016
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Smallwood Forest Preserve unveiled; Positive ending to a long struggle

Lybolt Brook is one of two creeks that run through the newly dedicated Smallwood Forest Preserve.
TRR photos by Fritz Mayer

Hyman said, “People told us right from the beginning, ‘you can’t fight this developer; it’s a done deal; he’s so well funded; he’s got the best people working.’ We dug our heels in; we got ourselves informed; we raised some money. We hired experts when we needed them, and we became experts. That’s precisely how, over the years as we came forward with information and science, either from professionals or our own research, we were able to put forward a very good case for why the town should consider not allowing overdevelopment on that very special piece of land.”

He continued, “We got a lot of support, both in terms of public hearing testimony, encouragement and material support from the Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN), because they agreed with our assertion that the former Smallwood golf course property was part of one very vital and sensitive ecosystem.”

Hyman, a photographer, went up in a helicopter to take pictures of the property to ensure that everyone understood how unique it was both environmentally and in terms of community character.

At one point officials from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation said they agreed with PSCL’s and DRN’s assessment of the parcel and said they wanted to be informed of any development of the land.

The town board ultimately changed the zoning of the property, which would preclude the kind of PUD that the developer planned. Van Zandt sued the town over the matter, and he lost in Supreme Court and on appeal. He then stopped paying taxes on the property, and it was ultimately foreclosed on by the county.

For Hyman and PSCL, it was a long and ultimately successful struggle that culminated with the ribbon-cutting of the forever-wild preserve some seven years after members of the community gathered to take action.

Statement from Jonathan Hyman:

"The prolonged efforts by our group and others resulted in a wonderful outcome that was beyond our organization's original goals and expectations. Smallwood and surrounding communities will benefit for generations from the parkland set aside by this conservation easement of 134 acres. Preserve Smallwood Country Life is grateful for the collaboration and assistance it received over the course of seven years from the Delaware Riverkeeper, the Delaware Highlands Conservancy, Common Waters, the Open Space Institute, Sullivan County, and the Town of Bethel.

"Nonetheless, to be clear, it is incontrovertible the our group was the driving force behind the advocacy for the golf course property. We were very disappointed that PSCL's years of persistent and diligent work and leadership went completely unrecognized at the ribbon cutting. Citizen advocacy is on the one hand both encouraged and necessary, and on the other, so very difficult to advance because it requires genuine commitment and sacrifice. Surely Danny Sturm and the Town of Bethel could have done a much better job in recognizing this.

"Prior to our involvement, neither the Town nor the County was fully aware of the environmental sensitivity of the golf course land or, for instance, that it bordered on an Important Bird Area. PSCL advanced the idea that because of the scores and scores of wetlands and the large amount of water coursing through the property -- namely White Lake Brook -- the golf course property was an invaluable natural resource and part of a larger, interconnected regional ecosystem. We documented this by mapping the property and photographing it from a helicopter.

"Because we were certain the Town erred when it rezoned in the mid-2000's, we spent hundreds of hours collecting and providing science and data and prepared public hearing testimony in order to assert our contention that the property was deserving of five acre Forest Conservation status. The work we did not do ourselves we left in the hands of professionals whom we paid. When ruling against the developer who was proposing an enormous high density townhouse project, Judge Sackett cited the work we did with the Delaware Riverkeeper as part of his rationale for leaving in place the re-zoning of the golf course property to Forest Conservation land."