Land Conservancy raising $1.2M for Bender melon farm

— From the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy
It’s prettier than a mall: A plan for a 750,000-square-foot mall to be built on the former Bender melon farm was presented to the public for the first time nearly a dozen years ago. The proposal was met with immediate and fierce backlash, causing the approval process to drag on for years until New Scotland passed a size-cap law in 2012. 

NEW SCOTLAND — The Bender melon farm, once known for its prized cantaloupes, which caught the eye of a big-box developer, which charged a citizens’ group, which led to a restructuring of town government and the development and adoption of comprehensive land-use reforms, could soon have a new owner, bringing to a close a contentious period in local political history. 

Now, the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy has acquired the option to buy the 198-acre property. The conservancy has about a year to raise $1.2 million to purchase the property at the corner of routes 85 and 85A. The vacant land continues to be listed for sale at $4 million, a price tag, it appears, that has not changed since at least 2008. At the same time, the town’s assessment rolls list its full-market value as just under $800,000.

Over a decade ago, the farm was ground zero in a pitched battle between Sphere Development LLC and town residents over the company’s plan to build a 750,000-square-foot mall on the site. The controversy ultimately led to Democrats taking command of the formerly-controlled Republican town board. 

An organized public outcry first led to a six-month moratorium on commercial buildings over 30,000-square-foot, which eventually led to the adoption a size-cap law, and finally to the adoption of not one but two land-use plans: A specific plan for the New Scotland Hamlet, which includes Bender melon farm, whose zoning recommendations were adopted as law in May 2018. And an update to the town’s comprehensive plan was adopted in September 2018; those recommendations are currently being integrated into New Scotland’s existing zoning code. 

The land is owned by 306 Maple Road, LLC and is listed on New Scotland’s assessment rolls with a full-market value of $798,587. The property is listed on the town’s assessment rolls as containing 179 acres; however, Mark King, executive director of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, told The Enterprise that a survey of the property shows the former farm covers nearly 200 acres. “We tend to use the survey number instead of the tax rolls number because the survey tends to be more accurate,” King said. 

Maura Mottolese, a co-owner of the property and often the LLC’s representative at town-board meetings, did not return a message seeking comment. In the past, Mottolese has criticized the town over the way it had introduced the hamlet plan, claiming that she had never been notified about the process and plan that affected the Bender melon farm more than any other property in the hamlet of New Scotland. 

Council members refuted Mottolese’s claim, and said that a number of open meetings had been held, later citing for The Enterprise a specific meeting of the hamlet’s large landholders that took place on Dec. 8, 2015. Additionally, there is no local law or regulation that requires the town to provide notice to property owners whose own land is subject to a proposed zoning change. 

In the late-18th and early 19th centuries, the farm had sent Charles Bender’s Golden Queen cantaloupes to 33 states and abroad to England. Plans in 2004 by the St. Andrew’s Foundation to purchase the land for its annual Scottish Games and to build a National Scottish Cultural Center there never materialized.

Raising a King’s ransom

The Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy now has to raise more money for a single project than it has at any other point in its history. 

“We’ve never raised that amount of money before,” said King of the $1.2 million his organization needs to purchase the Bender melon farm. “But we’re hopeful, and we see this as an opportunity. It’s one of these situations where we felt that the property is significant enough to the communities in the surrounding area that we should make the effort [to buy the land].”

King said that, even with its price tag, if the conservancy didn’t act on the opportunity to buy the farm, the organization would always have a sense of regret. Because, ultimately, King said, if the conservancy is successful, the  property could become an asset for the entire community.

He pointed to the amount of frontage that the farm has on Albany County Helderberg-Hudson Rail Trail, nearly half-a-mile. “We’ve spent a lot of time and effort — and continue to promote and work with Albany County — to advance the rail trail,” King said. “We really see that as one of the most successful community projects around here.”

He also added that the farm is adjacent to Hilton Park, which New Scotland is currently working to upgrade, and, taken together, the two open spaces could be a “real benefit to the quality of life in the area.”

To date, King said that the most money the conservancy has raised for a single project is somewhere between $300,000 and $400,000, and that was achieved through a combination of grants and private fundraising. 

Raising $1.2 million, King said, is an order of magnitude larger than anything the conservancy has ever done. “But I would argue that the magnitude of the impact is much larger as well,” he added. 

In addition to raising hundreds-of-thousands of dollars to preserve the Bender melon farm, the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy is also currently trying to raise enough money to purchase the development rights of Lansing Farm in Colonie. The conservancy has received a matching grant from the state for the Lansing Farm, and, so far, has raised on its own about one-third of the $150,000 needed match the grant. 

King said, “The fundraising for [Lansing Farm] is in process and going well; we’re quite confident that that will succeed.”

Late last year, the conservancy was also able to secure the option to place the 250 acres of the Heldeberg Workshop under a conservation easement, which would permanently restrict how the land could be used and developed. It is a voluntary legal agreement between the landowner and a land trust or a government agency. The conservancy now has until November to raise $100,000 to purchase the easement. 

“I won’t tell you that it’s easy to take on this much at once,” King said of raising what could be close to $800,000 for the three projects. “But these things, you either do them when the iron is hot or they don’t get done.”

For the Bender melon farm, the conservancy will be applying for an Environmental Protection Fund Grant through the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. The grant is a matching grant, meaning that, whatever amount of money the conservancy asks the state for, it has to raise that same amount on its own. 

The awards are capped at $600,000. 

Lea Montalto-Rook, the director of operations and development for the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, told The Enterprise in an email, “We may apply for the full $600K on the grant. We just need to figure out all of the moving pieces with our various funder[s] and determine how we can get to the match required by the grant.” 

The grant application is due to the state by the end of the month, King said, and by December, he should know if the conservancy has been awarded funding.

King said that he is confident his organization can obtain the grant, adding that the conservancy would not have applied for funding if it didn’t already think it had a good shot at success. But, he added, “These things always remain to be seen; [it depends] how supportive the public is. Because we’ll need to raise a lot of private funds as well.” 

If the organization is awarded the grant but comes up short in its own fundraising, King said that the conservancy is able to borrow money to pay for the land. “We can take loans based on assets and, ultimately, that may become a part of this is,” he said. “We would certainly entertain taking a loan … to give us the time to get the rest of the funds raised; the rest of the money we need to cover all the costs.”

King continued, “So, that’s certainly in the cards as a backup strategy.”

An alternate unfavorable future

If the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy were ultimately unsuccessful in its bid for Bender melon farm, King said that, at some point in the future, the land could be developed. “What that will look like,” he said, “remains to be seen.”

The area around the farm is already experiencing a great deal of development pressure, King said. The town has fewer residents today than it did nearly 40 years ago; however, in that same period, the number of housing units in New Scotland has increased by about one-fifth.

To the north of the Bender melon farm, King said, Kensington Woods will eventually contain about 170 homes; and west of the farm, Colonie Country Club Estates will be a 40-lot development. It should also be noted that both Kensington Woods and Colonie Country Club Estates are, on paper at least, cluster developments.

Clustering development, according to the town code, “enables and encourages” the “flexible design of land.” In a cluster development, the town code states, zoning requirements can be waived for “lot size, lot width, lot depth, and other various yard requirements.” In Kensington Woods, for example, rather than having a single home on each of the development’s 184 acres, the project was clustered and 82 acres of open space were preserved.

While the two prior examples are evidence of growth in town, New Scotland currently lacks the infrastructure to support development on, say, a Bethlehem-sized scale. “We don’t have public water or public sewer in most areas, so without that development pressure at the moment, we’re not in the same position Bethlehem is in,” Councilman Adam Greenberg told The Enterprise in January

To a large extent, New Scotland’s development has been in spite of the town. The public water for Country Club Estates, for example, is supplied by the village of Voorheesville while each home in the development has its own septic system

In Kensington Woods, both its water and sewer systems are private — and very expensive. Its community water-supply system is fed by a high-capacity supply well that fills a storage tank, which uses pumps to distribute the water through a series of underground service pipes.  

For the development’s hybrid sewer system, each home in Kensington Woods has a septic tank that is piped to a treatment facility. In a normal septic system, the effluent would dissipate into a leach field; in a hybrid sewer system, that effluent is sent through the underground piping to a treatment facility where it is filtered and discharged into a creek. However, the town has agreed to take over the Kensington Woods sewer system at some point in the future. 

King said that, if a developer were to come in and build on the Bender melon farm, “in many ways” it would be the “worst kind of development.” 

The farm faces significant challenges, King said; like Kensington Woods and Colonie Country Club Estates before it, there isn’t any water and sewer infrastructure to service the property. Development options become limited, King said, unless a builder is willing to foot the very, very expensive bill to install water and sewer service. 

Ultimately, the most economically feasible way to build, King said, would be “larger-lot residential, which is sort of the classic prescription for sprawl, which, in many ways, is the worst kind of development in terms of costs to communities and [in] inefficient use of land, and general impact.”  

Looking at it from the town’s perspective with the New Scotland Hamlet Plan in mind, King said that, if the conservancy were not able to purchase the land, there’s a risk that the recently-rezoned property could sit idle for so long that someone could come along and successfully lobby the town for zoning changes, curtailing the vision the town had for the farm. 

“So we see this as really the sort of last piece in play that will separate Slingerlands from Voorheesville,” King said of the Bender melon farm. “So, if it is developed, we’ll see continued sprawl between those communities, which will sort of erase a piece of history and a beautiful piece of open space.”

King is hoping that residents of Slingerlands and Voorheesville will become supporters of the project if only to oppose any development of the land. 

“One of the big concerns for Slingerlands is … much of the traffic generated [by] properties in New Scotland ... ends up driving through Slingerlands,” King said. “And traffic on [Route] 85 and in the Slingerlands vicinity is already a significant issue for people. So, we think there’ll be a lot of interest in seeing development on the Bender property reduced or eliminated.”


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