Looking back: the Forest Reserve and development in Bethel

By LIAM MAYO
Posted 1/5/22

BETHEL, NY — In 2022, Beside Cabins’ development plans in Bethel will be an issue to watch.

As previously covered by the River Reporter, Beside wants to build a subdivision and a …

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Looking back: the Forest Reserve and development in Bethel

Posted

BETHEL, NY — In 2022, Beside Cabins’ development plans in Bethel will be an issue to watch.

As previously covered by the River Reporter, Beside wants to build a subdivision and a campground on 800 acres of land bordering the community of Smallwood, and it hopes to begin construction in 2022.  

But the issue looks backward as well as forward, with involved participants drawing comparisons between the Beside development and one proposed 15 years earlier, on land that would eventually become the Forest Reserve in Smallwood.

Development history

In 2006, developer Robert van Zandt bought the property that had been the Smallwood Golf Course and another property beside it, and came to the town with a proposal to build 200 three-story townhouses on around 200 acres of land.

The area where the project was proposed was an environmentally sensitive piece of land, one that supplied Smallwood residents with drinking water. Residents began to organize in opposition to the development, forming Preserve Smallwood Country Life in 2007.

Led in large part by Jonathan Hyman, who has also had a major hand in founding the Smallwood Aware Residents Team (SmART) to advocate against the Beside development, Preserve Smallwood Country Life hired experts and brought forth information to oppose development on the property. A statement at the time made by Smallwood homeowner Neil Lipinski claimed that “We are concerned that the project’s magnitude will put enormous stress on our already overcrowded community’s roadways and water resources.”

Bethel was also, at that time, revising its comprehensive plan, a process that became a battlefield for the fight over the van Zandt development.

In deciding on the plan, the town went back and forth between allowing single-family homes to be built on one acre, a proposal that would allow for developments like van Zandt’s, or on two acres, a more environmentally sensitive proposal.

Three out of the five board members approved a comprehensive plan that included the one-acre proposal. The other two board members, including current supervisor Daniel Sturm, pushed for the two-acre proposal for its environmental benefit.

Sturm ran for supervisor the following year and won; according to him, his opposition to the van Zandt development helped him carry the election.

The town ultimately updated its zoning to disallow one-acre developments and to set the former golf course property as 5 acre conservation zoning, a change that killed the van Zandt proposal. Van Zandt fought the change in court and lost, and ultimately lost the Smallwood Golf Course property for failure to pay taxes.

The Forest Reserve

Once the property went to the county, Bethel and its community saw an opportunity to create a community resource where development had been proposed.

The Bethel Local Development Corporation bought the former Smallwood Golf Course property in 2009 for $54,000 in back taxes and fines. The town worked with the Delaware Highlands Conservancy to place conservation easements on 134 acres of the property, permanently protecting it from development.

With the addition of walking trails and a small property north of Pine Grove Road that had been a pre-existing town park by Minnie Falls, that property became the Forest Reserve at Smallwood, and opened in 2013.

While the process of establishing the reserve is over and done with, work continues on providing it with amenities and upgrades.

The town opened a dog park within the reserve in 2018, a facility Sturm describes as state-of-the-art. It includes varied ground coverings such as dirt, grass and gravel to provide dogs with enrichment, separate areas for large and small dogs and amenities, such as doggie drinking fountains.

This year, the town installed new signs and maps marking the trails throughout the Forest Reserve, and upgraded the exercise area with a gravel path for walking and jogging.

More recently, the town bought a small property bordering the reserve by the dog park entrance for the construction of an “information and comfort station.” According to Sturm, the installation of bathrooms and septic systems is prohibited within the reserve itself for environmental reasons, so the town bought an adjourning property for that purpose.

The station will include seasonal bathrooms, a parking lot and an information kiosk describing the reserve’s trails and the area’s flora and fauna. There will be a path connecting it to the reserve by the dog park, so no one has to walk on the road going back and forth between the two.

Beside development

The modern day development proposed by Beside has some differences from the van Zandt proposal.

Beside has emphasized its commitment to development in tune with nature, looking to preserve three-quarters of its 800-acre property from development and to space out the houses it builds, so the area’s natural character may be maintained.

But SmART has similar concerns with Beside as Preserve Smallwood Country Life had with van Zandt: both cite the area’s overcrowded roads and over-taxed water supplies as marks against development.

“There is a reason why the former Smallwood Golf Course was set aside as a Forest Reserve after a large condominium development was proposed, and then defeated, on that land over 15 years ago,” says Hyman. “In the most densely populated area of town, the scale of the Beside proposal right on our doorstep is a huge red flag.”

And Bethel is, in 2022, gearing up for an update to the town’s comprehensive plan, for the first time since it was updated in 2006.

Edit: An earlier version of this article mis-stated Neil Lipinski's name as Ned Lipinski. This has been corrected as of 12 p.m., Wednesday, January 5. Additionally, the detail that the Forest Reserve was set as 5 acre conservation zoning was added to the final paragraph of the 'Development History' section.

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