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Kingston Hamlet Offers Test Case for Conservation Amid Gentrification

Preservation of the Wilbur uplands, recently acquired by the Kingston Land Trust, illuminates the tensions between development and land conservation in the Hudson Valley.

Wilbur uplands summit
The summit above the Wilbur uplands, as seen from the quarry below.
Will Solomon
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The tiny hamlet of Wilbur sits at the mouth of the Twaalfskill Creek, where the kill meets the Rondout, about a mile and a half southwest of downtown Kingston. Though part of Kingston since 1872, Wilbur is a geographically isolated section of the city: its couple dozen homes and active industrial shipyard are framed by steep, wooded ridges, its streets only precariously walkable from downtown and midtown.

And yet Wilbur has hardly been immune to the processes of gentrification now accelerating in Kingston and throughout Ulster County, where in the last year, average home sales prices have risen nearly 50 percent. (As of this writing, at least four homes are on the market in the hamlet, among them the one-time Holy Name of Jesus Church, built in 1884-5 by Wilbur’s inhabitants. It’s now a private residence listed for $1.4 million, advertised in its listing as “Williamsburg on the Rondout.”)

One bright spot, though, and a win for Wilbur and the city of Kingston, was the recent acquisition and conservation of a six-acre piece of property abutting the hamlet by the Kingston Land Trust.

The “Wilbur uplands,” as the site has been christened, is located across Wilbur Avenue from the Twaalfskill Creek, comprising much of one of the steep hillsides that outline the hamlet. The land rises sharply to an altitude of nearly 300 feet, affording those who ascend beautiful views of Wilbur below, Rondout Creek, Esopus’s Hussey Hill, and even the Shawangunk Ridge in the far distance. As described by Lynn Woods in Hudson Valley One last fall, the land contains the former quarry and limestone kilns from Wilbur’s 19th-century industrial past, when the hamlet notably supplied bluestone to New York City.

The land now provides habitat for a rich variety of plant and animal life, including barred owls, red foxes, and turkey vultures, along with morel mushrooms, varied calcicole species, red columbine flowers, and hackberry trees. According to local environmental educator Justin Wexler, the site also hosts chinkapin oaks, which are rare in New York—“almost exclusively found on limestone bedrock”—as well as Eastern red cedars, a tree especially sacred to the Lenape people.

Wilbur quarryCredit: Will Solomon
The quarry in the Wilbur uplands.
From Development to Conservation

The land’s conservation marked a fortuitous turn of events: the six-acre site was very nearly a blemish on Kingston, another entry in the broader regional pattern of aggressive development. 

On Sunday, October 20, 2019, residents of Wilbur were met with a strange sight: the closure of Wilbur Avenue, the hamlet’s main artery to midtown and uptown Kingston, due to an upside-down excavator, toppled just outside the triangle of streets that forms the hamlet’s center. The machine (and a second that had fallen deeper in the woods) had been digging out the hillside over the preceding weeks, ostensibly preparing a future developable lot, in the process removing dozens of mature, well-established trees.

The incident was officially reported as vandalism, but details remain unclear. Heavy rains preceding that Sunday may have contributed to the excavators’ tumbling; at least one was perched precariously on a steep hillside above the road. Moreover, the owner was working illegally; the city of Kingston had issued a Stop Work Order on October 18, two days before the incident.

The upside to this minor fiasco, and broader local opposition to the development revealed in its aftermath, was that the site’s private owner chose to sell the land. After longtime Wilbur resident LK Noller notified Kevin McEvoy at the Kingston Land Trust of the property’s status, the KLT got involved and was ultimately able to purchase the land for $23,000, closing in January 2020. 

Mitigating Damage and Stewarding the Land 

The KLT’s touch in its first year or so of ownership has been light. “We’re doing a lot of basic management of the ‘successional’ or ‘pioneer’ species that are moving in now and growing, since a lot of light [was] introduced to the area,” says Greg Shaheen, conservation and stewardship manager for the Kingston Land Trust, referring to the consequences of the aborted development attempt. “Things like ailanthus, otherwise known as tree of heaven—tons of those sprouts [have] come up, so we’re coordinating volunteers to come and pull them.”

In addition to this work, Shaheen and volunteers have focused on clearing wood and other debris, including hopefully repurposing some of the downed cedars—“old…slow-growing [trees], that were just growing out of the rock”— which, Shaheen notes, the former owner chose to remove indiscriminately, with little obvious purpose.

While plans are still preliminary, future possibilities for the site include passive recreation—involving a trail system that incorporates the land’s impressive views and diverse ecology—and educational offerings, including forest farming. Shaheen mentions growing ginseng and shiitake mushrooms, and possibly tapping the sugar maples on the property. Above all, he stresses the importance of local input: “We have the ability as a smaller land trust, and the priority, to really do community conservation…and bring in [the community’s] vision…before we make any decision or plans about how the land will be used.”

logs in quarryCredit: Will Solomon
Volunteers with the Kingston Land Trust so far have focused on clearing wood and other debris.

One community member with strong ties to the land is Tyler Borchert, artisan and owner of Stonestyling, a gallery located off of Abeel Street, just around the corner from the uplands. Borchert grew up in Kingston and has known the site his entire life. He followed its process of acquisition and supports its value as a vital public setting in a highly privatized urban environment: “To preserve [the land] and use it for stuff in the city would be great, because there aren’t really that many public…areas [like this one] in the city of Kingston.”

Both Borchert and Shaheen describe the site as a plausible home for community art, potentially including Borchert’s land art creations, built from wood, stone, and other natural materials. A promising, related idea is adaptation of the land for performances. “The quarry itself—people have been describing it as a natural amphitheater,” says Shaheen. While he emphasizes that the KLT would not have chosen to remove the trees in the formerly wooded quarry—another action undertaken by the former owner—they look to make the best of its untimely clearing.

Conservation in an Overheated Market

In many ways, the Wilbur uplands serve as a microcosm for a question increasingly relevant in the broader Hudson Valley: how to responsibly protect ecologically valuable sites—often with complex, personal, and environmentally tenuous histories—in a way that does justice to the communities that know the land and who, in many cases, have lived nearby for generations? In particular, how do we navigate this process of conservation when these same lands are highly coveted by prospective developers, whose concerns may be entirely disconnected from the communities in which they seek to develop?

Similar questions have arisen with regards to the much larger Quarry Waters site, comprising 520 acres on the Hudson River in Kingston and the town of Ulster. The Quarry Waters site is currently owned by Scenic Hudson, and is in the process of being turned into a state park. Like the Wilbur uplands, the land has indigenous significance, an industrial history, and a contemporary period of re-wilding—and both have also experienced recent, failed attempts at private development. 

“I think one of the most important things we’ve learned about our urban work is we really have to [recognize that] it’s not just about that property alone,” says Seth McKee, Scenic Hudson’s land conservation director. “We really have to look at the surrounding neighborhood, what’s going on there. We have to be mindful that we’re not gentrifying by virtue of putting in new parkland.”

Of course, navigating the process of acquisition, engagement, and sustainable conservation can be tricky, and the tension between that goal and aggressive development is likely only to grow, particularly as regional rents and home prices continue to rise.

Shaheen describes some of the work that the Kingston Land Trust, as a smaller and more localized organization, has been doing to help Scenic Hudson with outreach around Quarry Waters, “specifically with the Latinx community,” he says, because that is something we do with our Comida y Tierra program.” Over the winter, local residents, along with representatives of Scenic Hudson and the KLT, snowshoed through the property to connect on-site about the future of the land—an in-person meetup supplemented by a series of Zoom-based listening sessions.

Expanding Conserved Land in Kingston

In the case of both Quarry Waters and the Wilbur uplands, neighbors have informally used the sites for years, and may feel the prospect of formal conservation is bittersweet. But McKee emphasizes the importance of this step, particularly in a rapidly appreciating real estate market.

“The reality is, most of those places that are treasured by local neighborhoods—until their future is secured in conservation, it’s not secure,” says McKee. “At any time, those properties that people know and love in their neighborhoods…could be purchased by someone for development, and then [access to] them would be cut off.”

Moreover, as the lockdowns of the last year have made abundantly clear, natural, open space—particularly accessible, urban-adjacent space—is invaluable. And as Wilbur resident and conservationist Noller emphasizes, this is doubly true for nonhumans. “[In terms of] ‘open space,’ and ‘conservation,’” she says, “one thing that’s really important to all the wildlife is for the different parcels to sort of ‘link up.’”

Noller, who manages the community garden across from the uplands, is focused on the importance of contiguous conserved land, and hopes to expand the growing wildlife habitat in and around Wilbur.

Red columbine flowers in Wilbur uplandsCredit: Will Solomon
The uplands provide habitat for a rich variety of plant and animal life.

Fortunately, there are serious possibilities for growing this conserved space. Already, an 8.2-acre parcel, contiguous with the six-acre Wilbur uplands property, is protected, having been donated in 2020 to the Northeastern Caves Conservancy by longtime Wilbur resident Valerie Connors and her late husband Dennis Connors. The KLT is currently working with the NCC on access agreements and collaboration on trails.

But that may just be a start. Julia Farr, executive director of the KLT, writes that the organization has an opportunity to expand the combined 14 acres even further: “The KLT is launching a fundraising campaign to raise $20,000 by August 31st, 2021, to purchase six [additional] acres of forested land in the uplands of the Rondout Creek in the Kingston hamlet of Wilbur…In addition to the ecological richness, this land offers a tremendous opportunity for connecting the Kingston community with nature in a way that respects the plant and animal communities that call the land their home.”

Ultimately, the future of this endeavor will depend on locals; the Kingston Land Trust encourages donations, and seeks volunteers who wish to get involved with work on the already protected lands.

Should this fundraising drive prove successful, Noller dreams of one day expanding the protected land across the Twaalfskill, where a large piece of property—roughly 50 acres, largely forested—is currently owned privately. That would effectively create a wildlife corridor that spans the creek and links the wooded ridges surrounding the hamlet, potentially extending from downtown/midtown Kingston well towards the hamlet of Eddyville. This protected, forested space—particularly in a largely urban environment—would benefit all life in the area.

“There are many residents in a neighborhood,” Noller emphasizes, “and only some of them are people.”