BETHEL, NY — The natural beauty of Sullivan County has attracted countless residents and visitors. Recently, it has attracted the Canadian media brand Beside, which is looking to develop 800 …
BETHEL, NY — The natural beauty of Sullivan County has attracted countless residents and visitors. Recently, it has attracted the Canadian media brand Beside, which is looking to develop 800 acres of land in the Town of Bethel.
Beside describes itself as “an independent magazine and media brand that aims to bridge the gap between humans and nature.” It publishes a biannual print magazine in French and English, and publishes articles and videos focusing on the connection between the human and the natural world at https://beside.media.
The brand also operates Beside Cabins, which has developed a property in Lanaudière, Canada. The cabins sit in the middle of 900 acres of protected forest, according to https://besidehabitat.com, and are designed to reflect and to integrate with their natural surroundings.
“[The cabins’] simple lines that conceal a meticulous attention to detail suggest an experience in which architecture and nature are natural complements, and where the gaze turns naturally toward the forest,” writes Beside.
The brand is looking to bring that same experience to the woods around Bethel.
Representatives from Beside appeared before the Bethel Planning Board on May 3 and again on December 6, pitching a combined subdivision and campground.
Beside proposes to develop around 200 acres of an 800.75 acre property on the border of Bethel’s Smallwood community. It aims to preserve the other three-quarters of the site, including (according to an environmental assessment form) 155.7 acres of wetlands.
The subdivision portion of the development proposes 57 single-family residential lots, each in its own clearing in the woods, with Beside using deed restrictions and a homeowners association to ensure that the natural environment on those lots remains intact. The campground proposes 45 “pods,” each of which has cooking and heating facilities suitable for year-round camping, together with several larger buildings.
The goal of the Beside developers is to create a place to go to be with nature as it exists, said a Beside representative who spoke on December 6. “That’s their philosophy, and that’s how they carved it out.”
While the project has made plans to incorporate itself with the natural environment, local residents have raised concerns about its incorporation with the area’s built environment, a term that refers to an area’s human-constructed buildings and infrastructure.
A group of citizens from Smallwood have banded together to form the Smallwood Aware Residents Team (SmART) to advocate for local interests throughout the project’s development.
“In the most densely populated area of town, the scale of the BESIDE project right on our doorstep is a huge red flag,” reads a statement from Jonathan Hyman, president of the Smallwood Civic Association and a member of SmART’s steering committee. “Recent testing indicates that Mountain Lake is in danger. The civic association has significant cause for concern for the area’s watershed, its lake, and quality of life issues related to overdevelopment.”
“This development will permanently and adversely change the quality of life and community character of Smallwood,” reads a statement from fellow steering committee member Clay Ruede. “This is the wrong project for the wrong part of town.”
SmART began organizing in advance of the December 6 planning board meeting, and contributed to the standing-room-only crowd present on that occasion. It has also begun fundraising to hire experts to independently review the project; the group has so far hired an attorney and an environmental engineer, and is looking to hire a traffic engineer.
One of the firms retained, Willingham Engineering, reviewed plans from Beside and stated that, with those plans in their current state, the project was missing certain details and was unready to proceed to the public hearing stage.
Beside representatives appeared before the planning board on December 6 only to ask the board to declare itself lead agency; while they did not indicate when they would move forward with the project, project details from the environmental assessment form indicate that construction is planned to begin in April of 2022.
Willingham Engineering also stated that the project’s only proposed access road, Pine Grove Road, ran directly through Smallwood, and that the planning board should hire an engineer to review the traffic study submitted by Beside.
At the December 6 meeting, a Beside representative stated that the first time the company submitted a traffic study it received comments from both the Department of Transportation and the board’s engineer, leading to its revision and resubmission. In discussion at the end of the meeting, members of the board suggested the board conduct its own traffic study as well.
SmART has also expressed concerns about the threat posed to the area’s quality of life by short-term rentals.
Terresa Backner, a representative of Beside Cabins, stated in the May 3 planning board meeting that Beside anticipated owners of houses in the subdivision may choose to rent them as short-term rentals. In a letter to supervisor Daniel Sturm and the Bethel Town Board, Hyman indicated that short-term rentals were already a problem in Smallwood, with individuals buying several homes each for the sole purpose of renting them out.
Bethel currently has no regulations governing short-term rentals, something Hyman requested the town remedy. Talking with the River Reporter, Sturm said that the town is looking to start updating its comprehensive plan in 2022, updating a plan adopted in 2006, and that regulations for short-terms rentals may follow as part of that process.
“I’m very aware of the concerns of the Smallwood community,” said Sturm.
See next week’s edition of the River Reporter for coverage of the Forest Reserve at Smallwood, a previous collaboration between the Town of Bethel and the Smallwood community.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article included a statement made by Terresa Backner without identifying her as a representative of Beside Cabins; this has been clarified as of 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, December 28.
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