By Katherine Donlevy
After years of lengthy and tedious procedures that left the applicant stating he’d “like to have to go through this process again,” the Town of Gardiner Planning Board voted to approve the Heartwood Wildflower Farms site plan at its Jan. 26 meeting.
The project, spearheaded by Kristen and Phillip Rapoport, is to erect an eco-resort development on Route 44/55. It would feature a 70-room hotel complete with a spa, farm, restaurant and goat farm, while remaining zero-net energy. It would also on occasion host seminars and lectures on topics relating to food, farming and sustainability.
At the Tuesday meeting, some members of the Planning Board found themselves unsure of the water usage for the farm. A well pump assessment had been completed to full satisfaction for the Heartwood buildings, but Mr. Rapoport said a separate assessment would not be necessary for the agricultural parcel of land because it had been completed back in 2017. He went on to say he had a transcript of the meeting as proof.
“I beg to differ,” board member Carol Richman said. “What was discussed in the narrative was a vegetable garden. Then, as you remember, towards the end of the process it was, No, it’s not a vegetable garden, it’s going to be like a farm’ … There was a gap left and the gap is because it’s being treated as two different enterprises completely where you’re saying the farm is the agricultural competent and doesn’t need a review ... but you still have this project as part of Heartwood because, for example, you’re using Heartwood parking for your agricultural area. There’s a symbiosis between the projects and you’ve created a gap.”
Richman said the issue was brought up at the previous public hearing, where community members questioned what the increased water usage would be and whether any kind of well pump test related to that increased usage amount. Board member Ralph Varano said he felt those comments questioned the validity of the pump tests that had been completed in an attempt to challenge the approval process. The Heartwood project has faced opposition from Gardiner residents in the past, such as when the Friends of Gardiner sought to overturn the entire project through an Article 78 petition, but the State of New York Supreme Court in the County of Ulster ordered the complaint to adjourned in February 2020.
Rapoport stood behind his farm, stating that it could be interchangeably changed as a vegetable garden. The plot would be 2-acres and the only animals that will be found on the land would be goats and chickens.
“This whole operation is an educational, experiential thing largely for guests staying at the hotel who would like to learn about agriculture, experience agriculture, pull a carrot out of the ground, see some chickens and get a chicken egg for breakfast,” Rapoport said. He noted that he doesn’t have any plans to expand the property in the future mainly because of the discouraging process the site plan approval had been over the past several years.
Because the project would lie adjacent to a county road, the applicant had to seek Ulster County approval, which deemed that the Heartwood farm would post no impact.
Ultimately, the Planning Board voted to approve the Heartwood Wildflower Farms site plan by a 5 to 1 vote. Richman was the only member to vote no, despite board member Marc Moran initially agreeing with her points earlier in the discussion.
“I oppose it because of this gap that was created where we don’t know everything there is to know about this application,” Richman said, maintaining her stance that the project is not two operations, but “one enterprise with an agricultural element.”
Also at the Jan. 26 meeting, the board briefly discussed its support of the Dog Kennel Moratorium that was proposed by the Town Board the week earlier. The local law, which would impose a six-month suspension on the processing and approval of permits for commercial on non-commercial dog kennels in the town, was proposed after an application to erect one on Denniston Road was brought before the Planning Board and shortly thereafter repealed in November.
Neighbors, including Planning Board member Josh Verleun, raised concern that the proposed kennel plan had numerous issues and failures, but would still have fallen within the rules of the law. Verluen asked the Town Board to consider looking into and potentially revising Gardiner’s law, which he argues was too vague and could allow misconduct to legally slip through the cracks. The councilmembers agreed to evaluate current legislation and proposed the moratorium so that no new kennels could be approved ahead of a potential regulation switch.
“My only comment would be that six months is not really a long time considering how the law has not yet been revised, we have not seen proposals and no public comment has been submitted,” Richamn said.
“I would tend to agree. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of these in any communities be get done in six months but there is some basis in law that you’re supposed to do the shortest time period because you’re suspending certain rights under the Land Use Laws,” attorney Dave Brennan offered, though saying and extension approved by Ulster County is possible if progress is being made.
The proposed local law is available on the town website and in the Town Hall for those interested in reviewing it ahead of the second portion of the public hearing, set to close Feb. 9.