Mamakating Looks to Preserve Basha Kill For Eco-Tourism

Watchdog group concerned developers may damage the nature preserve
By Yvonne Marcotte, Epoch Times
August 12, 2015 Updated: August 12, 2015

MAMAKATING—The town of Mamakating recently passed zoning changes meant to help protect the Basha Kill Wildlife Management Area, but a watchdog group remains concerned about the effects on the nature preserve of proposed developments.

“If everything around the Basha Kill was developed, this would be an island, not allowing for any habitat connectivity,” said Paula Medley, president of the Basha Kill Area Association (BKAA).

An 800-member nonprofit, the association keeps a close eye on Basha Kill’s 3,000 acres, which are mostly wetlands but also include some uplands, and on the surrounding properties. Basha Kill provides a habitat for deer, grouse, wild turkey, fox, beaver, muskrat, raccoon, rabbit, skunk, mink, and opossum; for over 220 species of birds, including ospreys, eagles, and wood ducks; and for 30 species of fish.

Medley pointed out some developments that she is concerned could adversely affect the health and future of the preserve: the Wurtsboro Airport and Seven Peaks owned by Shalom Lamm, the Shawanga Lodge owned by David Flaum, and the Thompson Education Center, formerly known as China City of America.

Master Plan Zoning

Medley said that for the past 18 months Mamakating has been working to synchronize its zoning code with the town’s master plan. The town’s master plan, which was adopted in 2001, envisions a town that will draw tourists to the Basha Kill, which takes up 3,000 acres of the town. “It’s almost the whole town of Mamakating,” Medley said.

Town Supervisor Bill Hermann said the town wants to build an economy that is eco-tourist-based. “It’s low impact on the environment—you hike the canal trail, you hike around the Basha Kill, you go looking at birds, you’re on the search for a picture. That leaves a very light footprint on the environment.”

At the July 28 meeting of Mamakating’s Planning and Zoning Office, several new zoning amendments were approved. The new regulations aim to reduce density—large residential developments will not be permitted. However, large property owners can challenge the changes.

If a landowner with more than 20 percent ownership in a targeted district challenges the change, the board needs a super majority—four out of the five board members—to override the challenge. Overall, Medley’s organization was satisfied with the amendments that passed.

Problematic Development

A successful challenge came from Shalom Lamm, owner of the Wurtsboro Airport. The land around the airport is zoned light industrial, and Lamm wishes to develop Commerce Park with warehouse buildings on it. Medley said the airport has long, narrow parcels that stretch from the headwaters of the Basha Kill to the base of the Shangam Ridge.

The Medley group wanted a 500-foot buffer with reduced zoning that they call mountain greenbelt. “If you have light industrial office going all the way up to your resource, that’s always going to be a conflict,” Medley said.

The zoning amendment proposing the mountain greenbelt buffer for this property failed. “Unfortunately, I believe that there could be some politics involved here,” Hermann said.

Seven Peaks, a 650-acre luxury residential development, is planned on the northern ridges above the wetland. Hermann said he visited more than 100 residents near the development and all had the same complaint.

“People were showing us backyards being washed out and driveways demolished,” he said, with the damage appearing after the initial construction of the road and model home began. “I’ve seen it. I’ve witnessed the water coming down the mountain.”

The BKAA sees many problematic areas in the Seven Peaks development for the lower wetlands: steepness of the slopes, stormwater drainage, and emergency access.

Hermann said that homes on the ridge might be required to dig deeper wells where once a 400-foot well reached the aquifer, now an 800-foot well is needed.

The five-acre properties would have big yards that need to be watered and possibly swimming pools. “The ridge is not really an appropriate location for any of that intense development,” Medley said, citing concerns about the fragility of the aquifer on the ridge.

Katherine Beinkafner, a hydrogeologic consultant for the Basha Kill Association, said in a letter to the editor published by Shawangunk Journal that neither Commerce Park nor Seven Peaks “shows a level of sensitivity or compatibility with the natural surroundings or the ‘gorgeously scenic setting’ described by Mr. Lamm.”

Lamm has not responded to several requests by Epoch Times for comment.

Thompson Education Center

The BKAA is keeping a close eye on the Thompson Education Center in nearby Thompson. Medley said the drainage from that 560-acre site goes right into Mamakating and is part of the Basha Kill watershed. Of the Thompson Center’s 560 acres, 200 are wetlands.

We just feel that all of this water and sewage that would be generated is going to end up impacting the environment.
— Bill Hermann, town supervisor, Mamakating on the Thompson Education Center

She said their plans fly in the face of environmental preservation. “They have proposed 4.1 million square feet of buildings and other infrastructure, such as parking lots, which is basically off-the-wall when you look at the site.”

Hermann said the project is too close to the lakes and wetlands. “We just feel that all of this water and sewage that would be generated is going to end up impacting the environment. It flows downhill—the water, the sewage, and everything.”

Limited access is a big problem. “That 560 acres is off a podunk road in the town of Thompson’s most restrictive zoning area. It’s not set up for a college university environment,” Medley said.

Attorneys representing the project forwarded Epoch Times request for comment to CEO Sherry Li. As this story went to print, Li had not responded.

Shawanga Lodge is a 300-acre parcel on the ridge overlooking Wurtsboro owned by developer David Flaum.

“I am as much an environmentalist as anybody,” Flaum said. “That’s one reason we haven’t done anything there yet, and I’ve owned the property almost 20 years now.” Flaum said that with the revitalization of the Catskills there might be an opportunity to do something smart that fits the character of the community.

Flaum said that no more single-family homes will be built on the property. He also said he would not build a casino on the property, as has been widely rumored, but he would neither confirm nor deny that a hotel will be built.

The Basha Kill is an ecotourism gem.
— Paula Medley, president, Basha Kill Area Association

Hermann said the parcel has changed since its plans were approved by the town long ago. “Now there are a bunch more houses tapping into a fragile aquifer. There’s only so much water in the ground in one of the highest peaks in Mamakating. It [the water] goes down to Bloomingburg, and down into the Basha Kill.”

Ecotourism Gem

“The Basha Kill is an ecotourism gem,” Medley said and many would agree. Wildlife—birds, fish, and mammals—flourishes in the Basha Kill. Medley said that in Sullivan County’s Open Space Plan the Basha Kill has the highest rating for biodiversity.

The drive to preserve Basha Kill got off the ground in 1970 when a state law called the Environmental Quality Bond Act was passed. It authorized the state to purchase the Basha Kill and property going up the Shangam Ridge that acts as a buffer for the wetland, creating the Basha Kill Wildlife Management Area.

Mamakating’s master plan and recent amendments reflect the need to take steps to preserve the natural landscape. Medley said the town hopes ecotourism will be the cornerstone for its economic sustainability. The people who live around the state’s great natural resource want developers to treasure the Basha Kill as much as they do.

To contact this reporter, email yvonne.marcotte@epochtimes.com