Buddhists' sale to town keeps hilltop green

Enterprise file photo — Saranac Hale Spencer

A celebration at the Center for Wisdom and Compassion in June 2010 hosted the center’s inspiration, Tibentan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche, along with one of the largest crowds the property had during the past 10 years of the center’s existence.

BERNE — A swath of land that attracted a Tibetan Buddhist organization to Berne has come into the hands of locals for the same reason: its natural beauty and the rural community.

The 358 acres at the top of a steep hill has been the site of the Center for Wisdom and Compassion for the past 10 years. The Buddhist retreat, owned by the not-for-profit Tenzin Gyatso Institute, based in San Francisco, closed to move back to California, said Kevin Crosier, the town’s supervisor.

Pooling money from a mix of public and private institutions, the deal to purchase the land is for $475,000, Crosier said, and will be subject to conservation easements that limit development indefinitely. The specific terms of the easements have not been finalized, according to Mark King, director of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy that is holding the easements.

About 40 acres encompassing the buildings already on the property will have more freedom for use and development by the town, Crosier said. Recounting the history of the sale since February, Crosier said the land could be used for cross-country skiing, employing local residents, and as a source of revenue, hosting weddings, conferences, or camps. He expects the town will close on the property by the end of the year.

The Tenzin Gyatso Institute made the Berne property its headquarters, also called the Rigpa Center for Wisdom and Compassion, with plans when it was first purchased in 2004 to construct a large temple and renovate several existing buildings. Its website describes a trail on the property called the “Path for Peace and Compassion” that is open to the public. It says the center was home to a “small community of authentically trained practitioners.”

It was considered the only North American retreat center associated with Rigpa, an international Tibetan Buddhist organization with centers across the globe. Rigpa centers base their programs on The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, who visited the Berne retreat center for its inauguration in 2010.

Visitors came to stay in the center’s living quarters, which offered instruction on meditation and the philosophies of Buddhism. It also was aimed at training caregivers to help dying people.

Initially, the organization planned to construct and renovate buildings in a two-phase project, ending in 2020. The plan included a 40-tent camping area, a dining hall, and a residence hall, along with upgrades to utilities, wastewater treatment, and additional structures, like a temple. The parking lot was designed for 110 vehicles.

“It was only 20, 25, 30 people that were coming up and down the road trying to help get it going,” said Thomas O’Malley, who has lived on and beside the property on Game Farm Road for 46 years.

O’Malley said he looked after the property, previously a pheasant farm, for 38 years while its owner, Robert Milano, spent much of his time in New York City. He maintained Milano’s property and hayed his fields while living in one of the three houses on the property. Before Milano donated the property to The New School for Social Research in New York City, he subdivided a parcel for his longtime caretaker to build a home, O’Malley said.

“I’m still here. I’m still up on the farm,” said O’Malley.

“I’m glad it’s not going to be developed, to speak of,” O’Malley said of the land’s future. “What the town does with it, that’s to be seen. Maybe the road will get in better shape.”

— Mark King, Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy
Unspoiled view: A field on the Game Farm Road property in Berne provides a look south toward the Catskill Mountains.


Sale and conservation

The town board voted unanimously on Sept. 10 to authorize spending $125,000 for the property and to encumber the conservation easements. Before his vote on the expenditure, Councilman Joseph Golden said he wouldn’t typically vote in favor of something so large given so little time for board members to look over it.

“[It’s] because of the nature of this and the fact that I don’t think it’s something we should pass up that I’m willing to vote in favor of it,” said Golden.

“I’m not a fan of the process when the town doesn’t follow every step,” he said, adding that the deal was complex. Councilman Wayne Emory agreed.

Crosier said the town once had the opportunity to purchase a stretch of property on Warners Lake and didn’t pursue it.

“So this is another opportunity, 25, 30 years later, that came about,” he said. “This is probably one of the nicest properties in Albany County, without a doubt.”

The town’s total contribution, including $15,000 toward closing costs and $12,500 for the easements, is $140,000, Crosier said. The money would come from a capital project fund, from the general fund, where money is saved for large expenditures without borrowing. Crosier said the fund had $152,000 and that maintenance at the property won’t increase the town’s budget.

The property was first listed for $750,000 and offered to the town. When the Tenzin Gyatso Institute failed to secure a sale to another Buddhist organization, it returned to negotiations with Berne, Crosier said, with its final sale price at $475,000, half of which will come from the Open Space Institute and another $125,000 will come from the Albany County Capital Resource Corporation, a public authority.

At the Sept. 10 town board meeting, Crosier assured Roger Chrysler, who has hayed the fields on the land, that he would be allowed to continue farming on the property.

“We want to make sure it’s adaptable enough that it meets the needs of the town but also that it meets the goals of the Open Space Institute that it always remain open space,” said King. The easements would become part of the property’s deed and distinguish between different areas of the land. Waterfalls and a stream on the property, King said, would likely fall under more restrictive terms than the section with buildings used by the town.

Each year, the conservancy will monitor the property, making sure the terms of the easements are carried out.

The land is near the state-owned Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area and adjacent to Cole Hill State Forest, an 876-acre area that includes four miles of a trail known as the Long Path that starts in New Jersey at the George Washington Bridge to Manhattan and extends north to Altamont. With the town’s purchase, a portion of the Long Path might be rerouted, King said, from a public road to a forested trail.

Joining lands: The map, from the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, shows the hilltop property, formerly owned by Buddhists, is situated between Cole Hill State Forest and County Route 1.


The different species of plants and animals haven’t been fully surveyed yet, but one of the conservancy’s aims, of preserving and connecting large tracts of land across the escarpment, King explained, is beneficial for the habitats of animals, like some woodland birds, and overall ecological health. Invasive species have less success in areas where lands are undisturbed, King said, and rare species are more likely to survive within intact forestland.

“This is the time to do this,” King said. “If you look at towns beneath the escarpment…if you can go back in time and look at the pattern of land use and development, there are many cases the towns have missed great opportunities to preserve something because, if you wait until you’re developed out, like the town of Colonie, these things are prohibitive.”

Corrected on Feb. 12, 2015: In the original version of this story, one of three sources of funding for the purchase was misidentified. The Albany County Capital Resource Corporation — a branch of the Albany County Industrial Development Agency, a public authority, that shares the same board members but is legally distinct — is funding the purchase, along with the town and the not-for-profit Open Space Institute.

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