The Open Space Institute, a northeastern conservation organization, has long been active in growing public lands in New York State. Founded in 1974 in the Hudson Valley, OSI has protected over 2.3 million acres in the United States and Canada, including over 150,000 acres in New York.
This has included adding over 13,000 acres to Minnewaska State Park and fundraising $3 million toward a visitor center that was opened in 2020, doubling the size of Fahnestock State Park since the 1990s and launching a major improvement plan in 2020, and adding over 1,200 acres to John Boyd Thacher State Park in Vorheesville.
The organization may soon have another acquisition.
According to two people with knowledge of the talks, there have been conversations between OSI and the owners of Winston Farm in Saugerties—home of a well-known and contentious development project—to purchase approximately three-quarters of the property and ultimately turn the land into a state park. According to a third person, with knowledge of the negotiations, OSI has offered to buy 600 acres for just under $10 million dollars.
Saugerties resident and land use consultant Brigid Walsh said that she has been acting as an unofficial mediator in talks, helping to facilitate conversations between OSI and the property’s owners, Saugerties residents Tony Montano, John Mullen, and Randy Richers. Andrew Cowan, a local resident involved with the conservation organization Beautiful Saugerties, also said he was aware of ongoing conversations, though neither Cowan nor Walsh could provide specifics of any potential agreement.
Eileen Larrabee, a spokesperson for OSI, declined to confirm the talks, saying that the organization would not discuss any prospective conservation projects. Josh Sommers, a representative for the property’s owners, denied that any deal is under consideration. “There’s nothing in the works with them. We are moving forward with all our plans,” he wrote in a text message.
Protecting Winston Farm
The proposed development of Winston Farm has long been controversial. The largely forested 815-acre parcel, just off exit 20 from the Thruway, is known as the “gateway to the Catskills,” and is probably most famous for hosting the Woodstock ’94 concert.
Montano, Mullen, and Richers purchased the land for about $4 million in 2020. At the time, Mullen said they did not have significant plans to develop the property, telling the Daily Freeman: “We don’t really have a plan and that’s the God’s honest truth… We’re just going to sit on it and improve it, cut some grass, I’m going to put some cows out there for now, and whatever comes up (is what) comes up. We don’t know.”
That had apparently changed by the following year, when the owners proposed a substantial project that would develop much of the property into “a premier regional mixed-use destination venue for the Hudson Valley.” The plan as currently outlined would include housing (including 272 acres of low-density residential and 74 acres of high-density residential), an indoor waterpark and hotel, an amphitheater, and a tech and business park, among other features.
Many residents have been loudly critical of the plan, including members of the group Beautiful Saugerties. The organization has questioned the ecological impact of developing the essentially wild site, which includes over 400 of nearly 1200 acres of unbroken forest, along with critical habitat for a number of grassland-breeding birds, including the endangered northern harrier.
“It certainly looks to be a great solution for that property, if this were to come together with the intent of it being really conserved as a state park. It certainly seems to be the best outcome for the property, which is so ecologically valuable and unique and undeveloped and today supports so many different varieties of wildlife.” —Andrew Cowan, Beautiful Saugerties
Alongside concern about broader climate impacts from the clear-cutting of 275 acres of hardwood forest—destroying and developing what is now essentially a carbon sink—members of Beautiful Saugerties have voiced particular alarm about possible impacts to the Beaverkill Aquifer, which sits under Winston Farm.
A 2022 hydrology report commissioned by the Town of Saugerties planning board wrote that “[it] is important to maintain the quality and integrity of water resources in the Aquifer Protection Overlay District,” which includes Winston Farm. The owners intend to tap the aquifer, and have said that the property’s development could in fact serve as a backup water supply for the town’s reservoir, writing that “[a]s part of the Winston Farm initiative, the owners would construct another wellhead, water treatment facility and distribution network on the property to provide a much-needed secondary source for the village and potable water for the Winston Farm project.”
But environmentalists argue that it will stress and potentially contaminate the town’s already strained water supply. Climate change impacts on water supplies are also a factor: the Town of Saugerties, along with many other municipalities in the Hudson Valley, declared a drought emergency in 2021, and the Beaverkill Aquifer may be essential for the town’s future water needs.
While recent reporting on Winston Farm has covered the lengthy site review the land must go through by the Town Board, the prospective talks about a land sale have thus far not been reported.
A New State Park?
Under the potential agreement with OSI, about 600 acres of the property would be sold and ultimately transformed into a state park, while a smaller development project would then proceed on the remaining approximately 200 acres.
It is not clear how the owners have responded to the purportedly offered price close to $10 million. But Cowan, the local resident involved with Beautiful Saugerties, suggested the sale price might be a sticking point in negotiations, saying he was “aware that there was a gap between what OSI has formally offered and what the developers are asking for… a gap there that’s significant that needs to be filled or narrowed in some way, to put this together.”
Asked about the conversations between the owners and OSI, Saugerties Town Supervisor Fred Costello denied involvement, but said that “preservation of open space is one of the goals we have expressed [for Winston Farm], and if that partnership does that—excellent.”
Cowan said he supported the general concept of the proposed agreement.
“It certainly looks to be a great solution for that property, if this were to come together with the intent of it being really conserved as a state park,” Cowan said. “It certainly seems to be the best outcome for the property, which is so ecologically valuable and unique and undeveloped and today supports so many different varieties of wildlife.”
He also said the agreement could be an effective way to balance conflicting goals around the property’s development.
“It could really be a win-win for everyone,” he said. “The developers get a very generous return on their investment, and the area gets to enjoy this really untouched 600-acre parcel.”