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Moving Mountains 

Planet Waves

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY LIZANNE WEBB
  • illustration by Lizanne Webb
A longer version of this article appears on Eric Francis's website.

Nearly everyone in the Hudson Valley is familiar with the land preservation efforts of Mohonk Preserve. The name is synonymous with forests, trails, and rock climbing. The Preserve has the reputation of being an excellent steward of its land holdings, estimated at 8,000 acres. When lawsuits involving Mohonk Preserve occasionally make the news, their standard response is that the Preserve, a New Paltz-based nonprofit, tax-exempt 501(c)3 corporation, buys only from willing sellers and rarely engages in litigation.

In that light, it's noteworthy that in late May, State Supreme Court Judge Christopher E. Cahill issued a decision in a nine-year lawsuit that involved Mohonk claiming title to 75 acres of land that the court held actually belonged to its neighbors, Karen Pardini and Michael Fink. The land is located along Clove Valley Road in the Town of Rochester.

More noteworthy is that Mohonk and its agents have sued Pardini and Fink four times, trying to take their land, keeping them tied up in nearly nonstop litigation and appeals for 19 years. In all that time Mohonk has never once won a case; one of the smaller ones was settled. Yet as of July, Mohonk was fundraising to prosecute the most recent case further.

Pardini and Fink's 300-acre property, formerly known as Smitty's Dude Ranch, is the largest privately held, undeveloped tract on the Shawangunk Ridge not owned by Mohonk or Open Space Institute (OSI), a much larger, regional land preservation organization.

Located directly in Mohonk's viewshed and developable as a commercial property, Pardini and Fink's land is surrounded by the Preserve, which has contested nearly every boundary the two neighbors share.

Mohonk, OSI, and other organizations work closely together to acquire property along the ridge, for which they raise funds from the public. The Preserve started as the Mohonk Trust in 1963, when the Mohonk Mountain House, a for-profit resort hotel, put the majority of its land into a conservancy, thereby taking it off of the property tax rolls.

The King's Lane Lot
Land in this area of the county is divided into Lots 1-19, part of a land grant from 1770 called the Nineteen Partners Tract, which was subdivided into 19 sections or lots in 1799. In 1841, the property boundary of a farm (called the Curran Farm) was drawn following a ridgeline laterally through Lots 1 to 5 and has not changed since.

The ridgeline and boundary divides the properties of Pardini and Fink from their neighbor, Gloria Finger. She owns 26 acres at the north end of Lot 1, land known since the 1800s as the King's Lane Lot, because an historic road called the King's Lane leads into it. Pardini and Fink's land includes 75 acres at the south end of Lot 1, on the other side of the ridge, close to Clove Valley Road. In 1994, Mohonk "purchased" for $82,000 a deed for the 75 acres owned by Pardini and Fink from Finger, falsely claiming it was the King's Lane Lot.

The transaction was arranged by Robert K. Anderberg, general counsel to both the Open Space Institute and the Shawangunk Conservancy. Anderberg served on Mohonk's board of directors from 1981 to 1988.

Anderberg's plan to acquire the 75 acres on Mohonk's behalf dates back to a March 24, 1993 memo from Anderberg to Norman Van Valkenburgh, Mohonk's longtime in-house surveyor, and Glenn Hoagland, Mohonk's executive director. In that memo, Anderberg writes, "One of the landowners on Rock Hill, a Gloria Finger, is interested in selling a portion of her acreage to the Mohonk Preserve."

A survey map was prepared and certified by Van Valkenburgh, the longtime in-house surveyor for Mohonk, which claims that the 75 acres of Lot 1 at the west end of Fink and Pardini's land belongs to Mohonk. Mohonk filed the map with the county and used it to get Planning Board approval for a subdivision from the Town of Rochester in 1994. The same map was used to secure title insurance from First American Financial. Title insurance is a form of coverage that protects the buyer in case it turns out the purchased land was not actually owned by the seller. 

The Preserve then brought a lawsuit in State Supreme Court against the actual owners of the property, Pardini and Fink, attempting to get the courts to affirm what they claimed was "record title." The litigation was paid for by First American, which now must either sponsor an appeal or reimburse Mohonk for its cost of purchase.

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