BETHLEHEM — Although the Town Board voted unanimously in late March to approve the purchase of two adjacent land parcels totaling 21 acres to expand Henry Hudson Park, the COVID-19 pandemic is preventing town staff from holding a ribbon-cutting and closing on the transaction.
“The land acquisition would’ve gone into effect a lot sooner if not for the pandemic,” said Karen Shaw, the town’s open space coordinator. “Hopefully, once the pandemic lifts and we’re able to meet again is when we can finally close on the lands.”
One of the two parcels takes up 11 acres along Lyons Road and was owned by resident Howard Vagele; the other is 10 acres out of a 17-acre parcel owned by resident Steven Downs along Dinmore Road. Besides the landowners and Shaw, the town also worked with Scenic Hudson, a non-profit environmental organization, and the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy (MHLC) for two years on the land purchases.
According to town documents, the town used $80,000 from its Parkland Set-Aside Funds to purchase the Vagele property; Scenic Hudson gifted $80,000 to the town by entering into a contract with Downs for his property and assigning it to the town. The land purchases came at no cost to taxpayers and the town would own both lands to help expand Henry Hudson Park.
The unanimous vote took place during a virtual Zoom meeting. “It’s very strange to have such an important vote to take place in this way but I do want to thank everyone for their hard work,” Town Supervisor David VanLuven said. “These lands will benefit Bethlehem and the Capital Region for generations and I look forward to bringing everyone together for a proper ribbon-cutting when the [pandemic] has passed and we can safely stand closer than six feet apart again.”
The land purchases will expand Henry Hudson Park, protect 3,000 feet of the Vloman Kill shoreline, prevent development, conserve natural resources and maintain the surrounding area’s historic integrity. The acquired lands would also be used for passive recreation.
Regarding history, Town Historian Susan Leath said the acquired Downs property is adjacent and north of the Bethlehem House — or the Nicoll-Sill House or Rensselaer Nicoll House — which is along Dinmore Road, privately-owned and built in 1735. While one of the oldest surviving homes in town, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
“There was an early settlement around that area along Vloman Kill and down to the Hudson River. There were several old mills and business activity related to ice harvesting in the 1800s,” Leath said. “There’s also a historic cemetery across the street from the Bethlehem House which has buried soldiers from the Revolutionary War.”
Leath said she shared this information with the stakeholders involved in the land purchases. “There have been no official talks yet but I think it’d be fun that the area includes some informational kiosks for people to learn about the area’s history while enjoying nature,” she added. “I’d say not many people know about the history because there’s not much surface-level evidence left except for some old houses.”
Shaw said the town began working with Downs and Vagele in 2018 who expressed interest in selling their lands, in hopes of open space preservation. Scenic Hudson and MHLC joined in shortly after.
“We looked into the two properties that the town sought to conserve and we determined that these areas are resilient to climate change so we were motivated to help,” said Seth McKee, Scenic Hudson’s land conservation director. “The Hudson River is prone to sea level rises so the lands would help plants and animals move around to adapt. The town has been proactive in trying to secure a high-quality environment for its residents and working on open space conservation.”
He continued, “We’re really pleased with how the town has been doing on those fronts so we brought 50 percent of the overall funding to the table. We used our resources to help the town try to protect these lands to enhance the quality-of-life for residents and the region be more resilient to climate change.” He also acknowledged the Vloman Kill as an important tributary and the land purchases can enable residents to better enjoy nature.
Mark King, MHLC’s executive director, said his organization is experienced in real estate transactions and open space issues. “Although we dealt primarily with the Downs property, we gave guidance to the town on how the contracts, transactions and appraisals work,” he said. “We’ve also worked with Scenic Hudson and the town before. It’s great to see the town be very motivated to take advantage of these opportunities.”
King added that he believed the Henry Hudson Park is “really underrecognized by the town’s population.” He explained that the center of town is not by Hudson River but noted how people have enjoyed the Albany County Rail Trail as a resource to connect communities and enjoy nature.
Other resources include Shaw’s summer kayak eco-tours of the Vloman Kill and Hudson River for the public to learn about the area’s ecology; and Leath’s summer historic paddle tours where people paddle with her into the Vloman Kill’s mouth to learn about the area’s history.
Looking ahead, despite the pandemic affecting the final closing on the lands, Shaw said, “We already overcame the biggest hurdle which is getting Town Board approval to use Parkland Set-Aside funds for the Vagele land purchase and working to receive Scenic Hudson’s gift of $80,000 for the Downs land.”
VanLuven concluded, “We want to do a proper ribbon-cutting hopefully in summer and it’s an incredible, exciting and positive action for the town.”