If you’ve ever driven on the New York State Thruway, chances are you’ve passed Winston Farm, a massive stretch of forested land situated immediately across from exit 20. The 815 acres of nearly untouched terrain provide a natural vista to the nearby mountain ranges and is known as the gateway to the Catskills. From a passing car at sunset, the sky seems to melt into the dense treeline. It’s a beloved sight for many residents of Saugerties. “It’s this gorgeous space that I see every day,” says Bari Koral, founder of the group Citizens for a Beautiful Saugerties. “You know, I drive right past the land. I had just never thought about its significance.”
More recently, however, Winston Farm has become a contested site. An enormous development project, brought forward in September by Saugerties Farm LLC, proposes a 32-acre technology park, a 211-acre boutique hotel and adventure park, a 30-acre indoor water park, multi- and single-family housing, a 42-acre amphitheater and events center, and a backup water supply for Winston Farm. It has been met with vociferous local resistance by environmental advocates, and signs of support from some in town leadership and locals concerned about rising housing and tourism demands.
“When that proposal came out, people were shocked,” Koral says. “The first reaction was just that there were so many ‘ands’…is this really what we need right now with the uncertainty of our natural elements?”
Winston Farm is ecologically significant in a unique way. The western side forms an unbroken block of 418 acres of core forest area, and is part of a larger 1,186 acres of connected forestland mapped by the New York State DEC Hudson River Estuary Program. The land supports a dizzying array of grassland-breeding birds, such as the great blue heron, golden eagle, and the endangered northern harrier, which rely on large, continuous, grassy meadows for nesting. A portion of the Beaver Kill runs through the lower section of Winston Farm. The site is also part of an aquifer protection overlay district which protects underground water, ensuring a safe and adequate water supply for present and future generations.
A 2022 hydrology report commissioned by the town of Saugerties planning board from Hydroquest, an environmental consulting firm, states that any development on Winston Farm should take into account the “risk to the valley bottom aquifer, and protection of a high-yield aquifer that might one day serve as the cornerstone for future growth in the Town of Saugerties.” As part of its development plan, Saugerties Farm proposes constructing another wellhead and a water treatment facility and distribution network on the property, alongside the residential and commercial development plans. The developer’s website states that “preliminary well tests indicate that the property could support the Village of Saugerties’ previously identified need to develop a back-up water supply.” The mandated State Environmental Quality Review process will more clearly determine if the proposal conforms to the requirements of the hydrology report.
For decades, proposals to develop the property have been presented and denied. As its name suggests, the land was used in the 20th century as cattle farming grounds for James O. Winston. In subsequent years, ownership of the farm changed hands several times, until coming under the ownership of the Schaller family. In 1987, a landfill was proposed at Winston Farm, which the people of Saugerties successfully rallied against, a fight which has been emblemized on a mural downtown. At one point, a new community college was proposed. And in 1994, the farm made national news as the site of Woodstock ‘94. For locals, Winston Farm is best known as the site of Snyder Hill, a beloved sledding slope that generations of children have flocked to.
The new owners—Saugerties Farm LLC principals Tony Montano, John Mullen, and Randy Richers—purchased the land in 2020 from the Schallers, and have promised to keep the sledding hill intact. However, the potential environmental impact of their development plans are less clearly defined, worrying some local residents. These concerns will likely come to a head as the SEQR process gets underway, and residents are given the opportunity to air their grievances.
Over the past few months, multiple environmental advocacy groups in the region have raised red flags concerning the Winston Farm development plans. Kate Hagerman, program manager for Catskill Mountainkeeper, is deeply worried. “The proposed development project at Winston Farm, or any project of its scale, would be devastating to the ecosystems, wildlife, and plants of Winston Farm and the surrounding region,” she says.
Hagerman and other experts are concerned about the fragmentation of an area deemed especially important because of its intactness. The plan, as it is laid out now, would severely reduce the capacity of the protected forest to support the numerous wildlife species that require large areas distant from human disturbance. Further, Hagerman argues, the proposal seeks to do two incompatible things: develop and use the groundwater source for a backup water supply well, while also spreading pavement and potentially polluting the aquifer.
Aquifer activists, such as Mary McNamara, a board member with the Esopus Creek Conservancy, Hudson River Watershed Alliance, and Riverkeeper, also worry that the project would damage the water quality of the Beaverkill Aquifer, affecting the drinking water supply for Saugerties residents. McNamara says that the increase of major storm events there will further impact the surface source waters of the Blue Mountain Reservoir, therefore increasing the importance of the aquifer water supply that runs under Winston Farm for Saugerties’ water supply.
More broadly, opponents of the plan argue that it contravenes local and state efforts to limit environmental impact. The Ulster County Legislature recently signed a declaration of a climate emergency that made preservation of natural space a top priority. The DEC’s Regenerate New York Program offers tools to private landowners to maintain forests through funding designed to support the regeneration of forested land, a growing priority of the state. Given that, Hagerman says, “how does this massive use of resources and clearcutting 400 acres of a forest, which we know is a carbon sink, and sucking up over 400,000 gallons of water a day, add up?”
These are not new concerns for the town, nor the current developers. A 2009 collaborative plan by the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation and the town of Saugerties envisioned a tech park with 50 percent open space. Hagerman says that plan proves that the site can be economically valuable while preserving a substantial amount of undisturbed land. While the owners of the property at the time of the study did not have the funds to execute the plan, they supported the development of the feasibility study. The master plan anticipated the creation of 2,000 to 4,000 new jobs oriented towards sustainable manufacturing.
“The highest and best use of that parcel”
But to carry out the full potential of the 2009 master plan and to execute its own proposal, Saugerties Farm LLC says a rezoning is necessary. In September, they filed a request to change the zoning from general business, moderate density residential, and hamlet residential to a planned development district, which would allow for a mix of residential and nonresidential development and redevelopment opportunities, including hospitality, entertainment, and consumer services.
In response to questions from The River, Saugerties Farm LLC provided a statement: “Winston Farm is owned by local residents who are committed to ensuring safe and environmentally-sensitive development at the site. A comprehensive environmental review process to rezone the property has commenced. The review will include many agencies to ensure that Winston Farm is reimagined responsibly and in a manner that is protective of the environment. We encourage residents to participate in the environmental review process by providing input or questions during the many public hearings that will take place.”
Saugerties Town Supervisor Fred Costello says that for the town board to approve rezoning (and for the zoning board to uphold the change), the developers will have to prove their case for “why the new zoning is a better choice than the existing zoning.” That process will play out in accordance with the State Environmental Quality Review guidelines, and will include a public hearing that allows for the input of residents, organizations, and other stakeholders. Rezoning also includes environmental and scientific review, carried out independently by Saugerties Farm LLC, and potentially also by the town board.
The property is developable under the current zoning, Costello notes. Despite this, he says that “what [the developers] believe, and the town shares this belief, is if the current zoning was developed, it’s not the highest and best use of that parcel. There are opportunities, because of its scale and its geography and its history, to do better than the current zoning,” which could mean greater economic productivity and a more strategic allocation of greenspace on the property.
There’s concern among some residents that the town board may be partial to the developers, who market themselves as “local residents and business owners” with a vested interest in the community. Marjory Greenberg-Vaughn, a 37-year resident of Saugerties who lives next to Winston Farm, says she knows one of the developers because he did work on her property years ago. “He’s a really nice human being, but he is a man who wants to make more money.” Greenberg-Vaughn has a long history of defending the Winston Farm land. She fought the developers who sought to create a dump, and later those who wanted to create a tire-burning facility. “I’m so tired of fighting this,” she says.
Affordable Housing and Smart Development
On the other side of the debate, a number of Saugerties residents believe the development is necessary to meet increasing housing and tourism demands. Throughout Ulster County, home prices have been on the rise along with the number of new permanent residents, straining affordable housing opportunities for long-term residents while boosting tourism. As towns throughout the region grapple with new and increasing housing and development pressure, residents are forced to contend with how to meet demand while retaining a sense of community.
For neighboring Woodstock, these considerations—and a huge influx of Airbnb rentals—led the town board to institute a nine-month moratorium on commercially developed housing. Woodstock Town Supervisor Bill McKenna says the moratorium is “to give us breathing room to create regulations that permit us to incentivize the type of development we need.” Access to affordable housing is important for the town moving forward. “It can’t just be, you know, putting everybody in Kingston,” McKenna says.
Tony Marmo, an officer on the Executive Committee of Ulster Strong, a partner subset of the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation, believes the Winston Farm development can economically benefit the community if executed wisely. “I think these are exciting times with opportunities for Ulster County,” Marmo says. “We can either do nothing and miss opportunities to enhance what we have, or we can look at appropriate development and smart growth. That’s what the better places do, right? A lot of folks that leave New York State go to these kinds of places.” To Marmo, the key to making Saugerties one of these places attractive to developers is to offer a balance of conveniences, amenities, and natural space.
Marmo says the mixed use of the Winston Farm proposal is an opportunity for job creation, and potentially affordable housing. Opponents argue that huge projects such as a 10,000-seat amphitheater will have noise, pollution, and traffic effects on residents, and if anything, keep newcomers away. Plus, the housing plan includes a number of “McMansions,” as Koral puts it, or “estate homes” as spelled out in the Winston Farm Planned Development District draft, which do little to attract low- to middle-income residents.
However, if the developers of Winston Farm can follow through on their promise (as stated on their website) to “address the critical ongoing need for multi-family and affordable homes in Ulster County,” housing advocates argue that there could be huge benefits to the community. Elizabeth Druback-Celaya, director of strategic initiatives for Hudson River Housing, a nonprofit dedicated to helping families secure and maintain safe and affordable housing in the Hudson Valley, says that locals “should be thinking about housing affordability as a real investment in the future of their communities.” Druback-Celaya acknowledges the need for smart, balanced development, but emphasizes that “housing is just as critical as any of the other interventions or investments that we want to make in our community.”
The Beginning of a Long Journey
For residents like Bari Koral, there is fear about how Winston Farm could change the character of Saugerties. “If we don’t start to pay more attention, if we don’t wake up, we’re just not going to recognize the communities that we live in, and the communities that we love,” she says. This urgency is what drove her to form the group Citizens for a Beautiful Saugerties, which started as a conversation among frustrated neighbors on the app Nextdoor. Over the course of a few months, members of the group began to number in the hundreds. “We wanted a voice for concerned citizens,” Koral says. “A lot of people when that proposal came out were shocked.”
Koral knows that she and the rest of Citizens for a Beautiful Saugerties are at the beginning of a long process. She hopes that the town board will be diligent as it begins the long SEQR and DEC permit processes, and consider the concerns of residents and environmental organizations. Costello, the town supervisor, emphasizes the many possibilities for collaboration at this early stage of the development process. “If we didn’t acknowledge the history, the habitat, and the natural beauty associated with that property, we would be doing a disservice,” he says. “We are motivated to try to get this right.”