On a recent spring morning, Harry Littell brewed coffee in Warwick Fire Department’s Station No. 1 on Church Street in the village. A half-dozen veteran firefighters—with between 23 and 65 years of service among them—gathered at a table to drink that coffee and chat. Nearly all of them were raised in Warwick. The town’s changed over the years, but they’d never move. “It’s home,” says Buzz Joslyn, 84, who’s a 65-year member of the department. “There used to be a lot more farms around here, but it’s still home.”
Most of them remember when Wickham Woodlands Park off Kings Highway was the “state school for boys” before becoming Mid-Orange Correctional Facility. In fact, town residents themselves named the prison, through a survey the town offered when the facility converted from the state school, says firefighter John Batz (63 years of service). That spirit of cooperation—and responding to residents’ wants and needs—is a hallmark of Warwick, a 104.9-square-mile town with 32,000 residents, a mix of native-born Warwickians and newcomers from New York City and elsewhere.
Warwick’s geographic diversity is different from most other Orange County towns. It spans the mountains near Sterling Forest to the Appalachian Trail (with a mandatory stop for a vanilla cone at Bellvale Farms Creamery), Greenwood Lake, the agricultural centers in Florida and Pine Island, and the bustling village of Warwick. Situated in a valley, far from interstate highways, it’s physically set apart. Along with that comes a sense—but not in a mean way—of a “Warwickian bubble,” where residents don’t venture far from the town’s boundaries. That’s not entirely wrong, according to people in the know.
“People have their needs met here,” says Michael Newhard, who’s been mayor of the village of Warwick for more than two decades. “There’s been a greater self-reliance within the villages and the town: Historical amenities, parks, programs, we’ve always recognized we can do it ourselves, because it serves the immediate community. Quality of life is an infrastructure we all appreciate and need.”
Building with a ConscienceResponsible development helped shape that quality of life. An aerial view of the town would reveal a patchwork of village centers—Warwick, Greenwood Lake, Florida—within a quilt of bright green and Black Dirt farmland. By the late 1990s, town officials recognized the need to preserve that farmland, and came up with the Community Preservation Project Plan and Purchase of Development Rights (PDR), where the town uses a fund to “buy” the right to prevent development of farmland. The farm owner gets a monetary boost, and the land remains farmland in perpetuity.
“In 2006, we led an effort to begin the Community Preservation Fund that’s funded by real estate transfer taxes,” says Town Supervisor Michael Sweeton. “So far, 4,400 acres have been preserved. There are 38 farms in that program, and we have eight more farms in the application process that would encompass another 750 acres.”
In 2013, the town flexed its preservation chops in acquiring the 733 acres of former Mid-Orange Correctional Facility land. Now, visitors can hike and kayak at the 400-acre Wickham Woodlands Park; more than 200 additional acres are dedicated to recreation and public use; and the rest of the property has been purchased from the town by a multitude of commercial operations, including Hudson Sports Complex; Citiva and Green Thumb cannabis industries; a CBD extraction facility and testing lab; the Drowned Lands brewery; and a whiskey maker. The 1841 Manor House on the property has been renovated into a business-incubator space run by the Orange County Industrial Development Agency.
“The taxpayers will begin to see tax revenue and jobs come out of a space where, when the prison closed, all people expected were job losses,” Sweeton says. “And the development is in harmony with the setting there.” Two years ago, the town took another step in its conservation plan and bought the 85-acre former Kutz Camp between the preserved Weiss Farm and the Orange County Land Trust’s Fuller Mountain preserve.
Those preservation efforts, though lauded by most, sometimes rub developers the wrong way. In 2019, Stephen Kitar proposed Pulpit Rock Inn on West Street, along the town/village border. Comprising a 7,000-plus-square-foot main inn and six 2,000-square-foot, eight-unit cottages, the project met resistance from neighbors and other locals.
Kitar himself ran for the village board in the 2020 election, on a platform that encouraged business growth. He lost. The inn proposal has lain dormant since.
Conversely, plans for the Village View Estates development, across the village from Pulpit Rock, is a lesson in give and take, though it took a class-action lawsuit brought by some residents against the developer and the village. The final plan is a cluster-zoned design that cut the original 42 mixed single- and multifamily homes down to 28 single-family homes and keeps 60 percent of the land as open space.
Newhard acknowledges that growth can be difficult in an area without a lot of developable space. “We’re pretty much built out,” he says. “And when infrastructure issues arise with development plans, well, [developers] are getting a lot of things, and there should be a price put on those things.”
The COVID pandemic put a premium on real estate in the villages and the town, too. “The values have risen tremendously here,” Newhard says. “Many new residents are coming from New York City, and they’re not looking for a three-acre spread. Here, everything is accessible and doable on foot.”
Old-time Charm, Modern InvestmentsThose amenities lured Damien Georges and his wife, Lisa, from the Upper West Side. Originally from Australia, Georges and his wife met in Japan. They were living in Manhattan when Lisa discovered Warwick on an apple-picking trip. By 2014, they’d purchased a home that was once owned by actor Richard Kiley, intending to use it as a weekend escape. Three years later, however, they made it their permanent home with their children Noah, now 16, and Mia, 14. “We came in kind of blind, but Warwick has great schools, a great community, and the people have just been wonderful,” Georges says.
The PDR program was a factor in encouraging the Georges family to make Warwick their full-time residence: “There’s an environmental benefit I’m in favor of here, plus an economic factor, too—because your property values aren’t going to go down because a huge development is built across the street from your house,” he says.
Georges has invested in Warwick himself, opening the Fourteen Railroad restaurant in the village on Christmas Eve 2020 and recently opening Next to 14, a ramen shop next door. He’s also invested in 10 other area properties, and he’s a member of the Monticello Motor Club, just an hour northwest of Warwick in Sullivan County.
He and his family have all found friends and activities that align with their own values, Georges says. “It’s the people we’ve met here who have surprised me,” he says. “It comes off as a small town, but it’s intellectually engaging.” Over the years, there’ve been rumblings about discord between old-timers and newcomers, but Georges said he hasn’t experienced that sentiment. “I feel like I’ve been embraced,” he says. “If that [dislike of new residents] were the case, there would be problems with permitting and other issues, and that hasn’t happened.”
The fact that new businesses can coexist with longtime village shops—Mayor Newhard and his sisters have successfully run Newhard’s, a department store/gift store, on Main Street for more than 30 years—adds to the charm of the town and its villages. And it’s encouraged other longtime businesses to revisit their offerings.
Pennings Farm operates in the south-central end of the town on 100 acres of farmland that Jacob and Johanna Pennings began as a dairy farm 80 years ago. Now, that land holds a farm market with a beer garden, grill, and pub; a barn with an ice cream parlor, a garden center, and a bakery; and a cidery and orchard that gets so busy that autumn apple-picking is reservations-only.
“We’ve evolved over time, but Warwick has always been filled with residents who appreciate farmers and all of this natural beauty,” says Tori Pennings Cosimano, Pennings Farm’s co-owner and general manager and granddaughter of the dairy farmers. “A lot of longtime Warwick residents have farming backgrounds themselves.”
Community SpiritIn 2009, Hannelore Chambers and her husband moved from New York City to Greenwood Lake, where Chambers’s husband’s family would visit during his childhood. Ten years later, Chambers became a driving force in helping raise $350,000 over two years to fund a community-built, handicap-accessible playground in Stanley-Deming Park in Warwick.
“Warwick offered the lifestyle we wanted for our children,” Chambers says. “To realize there was all of this beauty—and I guess you could call it wilderness—just 55 minutes from the George Washington Bridge, and that we were able to have all the peace and quiet here. Especially in this day and age of video games, it’s great to offer alternatives to be physically active in nature.”
There’s a vibrant cultural scene throughout the town, as well. “Our valleys are alive all year round with the sounds of music, whether it is lakeside jazz at the Cove Castle [on the lake], Broadway performers [Paul Loesel and Chuck Ragsdale and their guests] performing cabarets at Baird’s Tavern [in Warwick village] or the many local bands playing across our town’s breweries and wineries,” Chambers says.
During the pandemic, Chambers joined a group of town residents and business owners to form HelloWarwickValley.com, a clearinghouse of events, activities, and cool places throughout the town. “Our purpose was to help everyone, visitors and residents alike,” Chambers says, “from the family in the village of Florida to that person on the couch in Brooklyn, who is looking for things to do here.” The site is a compendium of the entire town, from Warwick to Greenwood Lake to the Black Dirt of Florida and Pine Island. “It’s been a well-received initiative,” she says. “I met people who’ve lived in Warwick their whole lives and never made it to this side of town [on Greenwood Lake]. People didn’t know you could rent a boat on the lake, or eat at a restaurant lakeside.”
Back at the firehouse, the firefighters sip their coffee, tease each other, and reminisce. “Our core group is getting older,” Littell concedes, as he hands over a coffee mug emblazoned with a photo of Father Reynor Santiago, chaplain of the department. “We’re taking in young people, but a lot of them move on once they go to college.” It’s hard to find volunteers, too, when the area is filling with what some of the men said were “12-hour residents” who spend a good portion of their days commuting to jobs in Manhattan and just don’t have time to join the fire department. “When I joined, you went to an alarm and your employer understood that you had to leave,” says Frank Fotino, a 63-year member. “But now, a lot of people who live here work in the city.”
“If you work here, you can’t afford to live here, and if you live here, you probably don’t work here,” agrees fellow firefighter Batz. But the native Warwickians appreciate the town’s efforts to keep the land nearly as pristine as it was when they were boys themselves. “I think the PDR is the greatest thing ever,” Fotino says. “You can go up to Bellvale Mountain, and all you see is green.”