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January 30, 2015
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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

The 200 acres were once the center of a battle between a developer and a local pressure group. Now, about 137 of those acres are called the Smallwood Forest Preserve, and will remain forever wild under a conservation easement to be overseen by the Delaware Highlands Conservancy.

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony on October 20, Bethel Supervisor Dan Sturm explained that acreage was purchased by the Bethel Local Development Corporation (BLDC) from Sullivan County for about $65,000, which was owed on the property in back taxes. The BLDC spent another $35,000 on related costs. Sturm said that money would be repaid to the town through the sale of sand on the parcel to the highway department and through grants.

The land will be open to the public, and council member Denise Frangipane asked that residents give input about what they would like to see on the acreage in terms of trails, or other amenities.

Chairman of the Sullivan County Legislature Scott Samuelson was there, and noted that the project was a cooperative effort among many parties including the county legislature, the planning department, the county treasurer and the Town of Bethel.

But certainly one of the most important people involved in this effort is Jonathan Hyman in his role as the director of Preserve Smallwood Country Life (PSCL).

Back in 2006, a developer named Robert Van Zandt came to the town with a plan to build some 200 three-story townhouses in a planned unit development (PUD) on the property known-then as the old Smallwood golf course and an adjacent parcel.

Hyman and PSCL vigorously opposed the PUD. He said in an interview after the ribbon-cutting, “We ended up asserting our opinion on a number of issues, one of which was that the property was just not fit for the clustered three-story town houses he was proposing. As far as the community of Smallwood, we’re a community of cabins and cottages, and we simply said this doesn’t comport with our community character.” Additionally, Hyman and his group argued that this is an environmentally important and sensitive property.

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."