Land conservancy nears $1.2M goal to buy former Bender melon farm

— From the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy

After receiving an extension in the spring until this month on its option to buy the former Bender melon farm in New Scotland, the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy recently received an anonymous pledge of $250,000 toward its $1.2 million fund-raising target — the conservancy is now just $90,000 short of its goal.

NEW SCOTLAND — With a recent anonymous pledge of $250,000, the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy now stands about $90,000 short of its $1.2 million goal to buy the former Bender melon farm.

Conservancy Executive Director Mark King said he was “not at liberty to divulge” who made the anonymous pledge, but he added that the quarter-million-dollar promise “really started the ball rolling in a whole different way.” 

“It’s a really exciting moment, but we’ve only got till the end of October,” King said. “So, this month is going to be the make or break for us.” The conservancy received an extension in the spring until this month on its option to buy the former farm.

A $50,000 matching challenge has been put forth by the family of Matthew Bender, who served on the conservancy’s board of advisors “for many, many years” and was one its “earliest proponents,” King said. 

The sale to the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy might include, and King stresses might include — “We are not yet finalized on that,” he said — selling 20 acres (out of 198) along Route 85 across the road from Stewart’s to a potential commercial interest. 

Over a decade ago, Sphere Development proposed a 750,000 square-foot mall for the site. An organized public outcry first led to a six-month moratorium on commercial buildings over 30,000-square-feet, 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 the Bender melon farm; those zoning recommendations were adopted as law in May 2018; and

— An update to the town’s comprehensive plan, which was adopted in September 2018; those recommendations are currently being integrated into New Scotland’s existing zoning code. 

Asked if the current owners of the land are aware of the conservancy’s plans, King said, “The owners are aware; we’ve discussed that. We’ve discussed a variety of potential outcomes with the owners.”

The land is owned by 306 Maple Road, LLC. 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.

King says there are two “strong” reasons for potentially having to sell some of the land: the conservancy needs to reach its fund-raising goal, and the effort by the town of New Scotland in creating the hamlet zoning for the area.  

“Following the whole big-box argument, [the town] really put forth a vision for the intersection of [routes] 85 and 85 A, which is their primary commercial area …,” King said.


Hamlet plan

In May 2018, some 10 years after discussions first began, the New Scotland Town Board unanimously adopted the hamlet rezoning plan.

The New Scotland Hamlet is bounded by the town of Bethlehem to the east, the village of Voorheesville and railroad to the west, the Helderberg-Hudson Rail Trail to the north, and commercial and medium-density residential districts to the south of Route 85.

The plan took approximately 455 acres of land that had been zoned commercial; about 70 acres of land zoned residential agriculture; and 24 acres of land that was zoned residential hamlet, and rezoned the land to create the new hamlet zoning district, which contains three sub-districts:

— A concentrated hamlet center that will have the character of a traditional village, including a central area for greenspace — this is where the proposed 20 acres of land might be carved out and sold by the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy to a commercial interest. 

It will be mostly commercial space, but could also include multi-family housing that is incorporated into mixed-use development, which would have commercial space on the ground level. In the new law, this area covers the corner of routes 85 and 85A, extending to the former Falvo’s Meat Market to the north and extends past Stewart’s to the east;

— The hamlet expansion area that includes mixed-uses to incorporate more housing. It radiates out from the hamlet center, south of route 85 and extends west across Route 85A to the railroad tracks and north a few hundred feet past Falvo’s; and

— The development area that extends north to the rail trail and crosses over to the west of Route 85 to the proposed LeVie Farm housing development and extends east to existing, developed land. This area would include more residential space than commercial.

The plan lays out permitted uses and development standards that would be allowable in the sub-districts in order to preserve New Scotland’s small-town, rural character.

There are design standards for new residential housing as well as standards of re-use for existing buildings; circulation standards, meaning the hamlet should be designed to incorporate vehicular, pedestrian, and bicycle use; street standards; street lighting; parking; and open space.


A trade-off

The idea behind the development standard is a trade-off: Developers must preserve open space, but in exchange they are allowed to build more condensed developments, which makes for a more pedestrian-friendly arrangement. The plan sets design standards for the quality of materials used for the front facades of buildings and the amount of window space or openings on each story.

“And we try to be very clear with everyone that [it] is a possibility that the development of that property is a possibility,” King said. 

King also said that he brings up this possibility to “anybody who donates,” and still “virtually everyone” is still supportive of the idea, which is due in large part to the balanced approach to growth that the town is trying to achieve — that nearly 170 acres will still be preserved. 

King would not say how much the 20 acres could be sold for.

And, when asked if there was a developer already lined up to buy the 20 acres, he said, “We have an interested party, not a developer.”

Then there’s still the issue of the $400,00 grant received in December 2019 from the state’s Capital Region Economic Development Council, which is a reimbursement — so the conservancy still has to front the $400,000 it’s going to receive from the state to buy the land.

“That’s really one of the big challenges that we’re wrestling with here,” King said.

The organization’s “best position” is to try to bridge — or, if possible, eliminate — the gap between what the conservancy needs and what it needs from the state, he said. 

The conservancy is trying to raise every private dollar it can now, to limit the amount it needs to borrow later, he said. Asked if he needs to pursue loans to make that happen, King said, “My hope is that we do not pursue a loan, or, if we do … it’s a very manageable amount of money.”


King’s vision

“It’s really not just about getting it,” King said of the 198-acre property. “It’s about utilizing it.”

King hopes to have some bike trails north of the rail trail.

“The rail trail is really kind of the anchoring point for this whole project,” he said. The Albany County Helderberg-Hudson Rail Trail stretches nine miles from the city of Albany to the village of Voorheesville along the old Delaware & Hudson line.

The connection would allow people — for example, residents from Albany’s South End — to very easily access what the suburban and rural residents of Albany County enjoy all the time, King said, “which is the pastoral beauty of places like New Scotland.” If the conservancy can acquire the property, if it could develop some programs, and the trails, or even some kind of community agriculture, King said, “There’s really limitless possibilities of how we can engage people.”

And the other significant possibility of buying the former Bender melon farm, which King acknowledges will take time, “is to dovetail” its acquisition “with the town’s ownership of the Hilton Barn ... and the eventual restoration and development of that [project].”

When the conservancy was awarded $400,000 in December of last year, the town received a $411,000 Capital Region Economic Development Council grant to support improvements to the town’s Hilton Park including restoration of the historic Hilton Barn as well as restrooms, an amphitheater, and skating rink. Hilton Park is next to the Bender melon farm property.

The park development is to cost $1.2 million. Some money had already been raised by grants — the councilmen mentioned particularly Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy in being instrumental in securing funds and also Senator George Amedore — leaving $822,000 to be funded.

The Capital Region Economic Development Council grant is to cover exactly half of that, leaving the town to come up with a matching $411,000.

Councilman Adam Greenberg told The Enterprise in December 2019 that in-kind services, such as the town’s highway crew working on trails, will count toward the matching funds. Also, he said, developers pay into a parks fund if they haven’t set aside open space. Currently, that totals over $250,000, said Greenberg, noting, “That is not taxpayer money.”

Further, fees collected for park rentals will go toward the project.

The project will include recreational trails that connect to the rail trail, and an ice-skating rink that is to be established as a natural pond drainage area, helping to solve stormwater management issues at the barn.


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