Land conservancy set to buy Bender melon farm 

— From the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy

The Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, having nearly reached its $1.2 million fund-raising goal, has exercised its option to buy the former Bender melon farm at the corner of routes 85 and 85A in New Scotland.

NEW SCOTLAND — After nearly a year-and-a-half of fundraising, the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy on Thursday exercised its option to buy the former Bender melon farm.

“The commitments came through and the people stepped up, and so we felt like we were in a position where we can confidently go forward,” conservancy Executive Director Mark King said of his organization’s decision to move forward with its purchase of the 198-acre property at the corner of routes 85 and 85A in New Scotland, adding: “None of this would have happened without my incredible staff at the land conservancy.”

King said that the conservancy has another $28,000 to raise toward its ultimate $1.2 million fund-raising goal, but the not-for-profit organization won’t close on the property until the end of November and will use the month to try and raise the rest of the funds it needs. 

Twelve years ago, the former farm — which had produced famous melons served at New York city’s finest restaurants — was ground zero in a battle between the Syracuse-based Sphere Development and town residents over the company’s plan to build a 750,000-square-foot mall on the site. 

Residents rallied against the proposed project, leading to a six-month construction 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 — recommendations which are currently being integrated into New Scotland’s existing zoning code. 

The area around the former farm has seen some recent development: 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. Although the town has fewer residents today than it did nearly 40 years ago, its housing stock has increased by about one-fifth in that time. 

The land is owned by 306 Maple Road, LLC and is listed on New Scotland’s assessment rolls with a full-market value of $807,363. Maura Mottolese, who often represented the owners 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. 

The conservancy had never raised anything close to the $1.2 million needed to buy the property, King previously told The Enterprise; the most money the conservancy had raised for a single project was somewhere between $300,000 and $400,000, and that was achieved through a combination of grants and private fundraising. 

For the Bender melon farm, the conservancy received a $400,00 grant in December 2019 from the state’s Capital Region Economic Development Council.

 But King and the conservancy aren’t counting on that money.

“We got encouraging signs from them that they can, but we’re at a very uncertain point in the world,” he said, in particular, with state and federal financing. The conservancy felt “there’s a risky spot” in counting on the state funds — pointing to recent news reports about not-for-profits not receiving their state funding.

King said the conservancy has raised enough money to purchase the property without having to rely on the state grant, although he added the conservancy has had to borrow a “small amount of money through a private loan to cover the commercial sale piece,” he said. “Because we need to sell that piece to finish the funding.” King declined to say how much the loan was for.

The conservancy will be selling 20 acres along Route 85 across the road from Stewart’s to a potential commercial interest to help cover the purchase price of the now-198-acre property. 

Although it’s not counting on the state money, King said that the conservancy could still pursue it but, given the uncertainty of the state’s fiscal situation and some of the restrictions that come along with the state’s dollars, the conservancy has to weigh if that is its best option — and whether the funds will even be available.

Asked what he envisioned for the property a year from now, King said that the conservancy’s post-closing priorities are to clean up the land and remove some of the structures that are still in “heaps” on the property.

In the short-term, the conservancy does want to make some trail access, he said. 

And some big-picture goals King and the conservancy have are to create trails and access for activities like cross-country skiing, perhaps even mountain biking; institute agricultural programs — one thing talked about in its state grant would be community gardens often seen in city settings; and ecological restoration, for example, a restored wetland or grassland bird area.

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