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Sunset at Mohonk Preserve.

By any means

State judge blasts mid-county land conservancy
over scheme to claim private land

By Eric Francis Coppolino

Reprinted from from Woodstock Times, Dec. 4, 1997 | Edited by Parry D. Teasdale

THE CLOVE VALLEY in High Falls is one of Ulster County's most enchanted spots. At its heart lies a mostly undeveloped 200-acre tract of forests, trails and a majestic stretch of the pristine, spring-fed Coxing Kill, with a five-tier waterfall. Commercially zoned, yet surrounded on three sides by permanently protected lands, the property in recent years has been the focus of an intense land-preservation battle involving several non-profit organizations, one of which is in the process of acquiring land from the New Jersey border north to Albany.

But last week a state Supreme Court judge dismissed an attempt by a land conservancy closely associated with Mohonk Preserve to assume ownership of this privately-held property on the Shawangunk Ridge. In an unusually stern decision issued Monday, November 24, Justice Vincent G. Bradley also wrote that the owners of the property, Karen Pardini and Michael Fink of Kingston, who fought for more than three years to protect their land, "clearly have standing to assert a fraud claim" against the conservancy.

The story that led to Bradley's judgment is a complicated tale of legal maneuvering and deceptive behavior that calls into question the tactics and the ethical standards of several organizations involved in land preservation efforts in this county. It also raises the larger issues of whether unscrupulous means are justified in achieving what most people would see as the worthy goal of protecting undeveloped land.

In successfully defending their property, Fink and Pardini accused Friends of Shawangunks, a tiny, local land conservancy, of having "engaged in a conspiracy or scheme to defraud [and] to deprive them of their property by means of false and fraudulent misrepresentations," adding that the organization used "coercion, economic duress, deceit and misrepresentations to improperly acquire lands [for themselves] and for other groups or organizations under the guise of pursuing a public interest."

A four-month investigation by Woodstock Times has found that the land-grab scheme by Friends of the Shawangunks did not occur in a vacuum, but were set, instead, against the backdrop of a much larger effort being spearheaded by the Open Space Institute (OSI), which is based in Manhattan and which works closely with Mohonk Preserve and Friends of the Shawangunks.

All three groups, OSI, Friends of the Shawangunks and Mohonk Preserve are connected through Robert K. Anderberg, an attorney who serves as general counsel to both OSI and Friends, and who brokers land acquisitions for Mohonk Preserve. Anderberg is also a former long-time trustee of the preserve. The three organizations frequently work together on land acquisitions on the Shawangunk Ridge. But unlike the other two groups, which have a local focus, OSI conducts its efforts statewide; Anderberg said the group acquired 50,000 acres of land in New York state in 1997 alone. All three organizations operate as tax-exempt, non-profit corporations, and solicit donations from both the public and private foundations.

In 1994, under Anderberg's legal guidance, Friends of the Shawangunks, which operates as a land acquisition agent of Mohonk Preserve, sued Fink and Pardini, claiming that land the couple bought in 1987 really belonged to the Friends conservancy. Yet both internal documents of the conservancy and Mohonk Preserve indicate the suit was filed with the full knowledge that neither organization had a valid claim to the land, the former Smitty's Ranch property on Clove Valley Road in the Town of Rochester, near High Falls.

In its newsletter, Friends of the Shawangunks describes the area of the Fink-Pardini property as a "critical part of the viewshed from many points in Minnewaska Park and the [Mohonk] Preserve. One of the key objectives of Friends of the Shawangunks is to achieve protection of as much of this ridge as possible in whatever way seems most practical and effective."

The Fink-Pardini property is located along the 100-mile-long corridor that is the focus of OSI's conservation efforts. And the property is considered by Mohonk Preserve to be a prime target for acquisition and expansion of the preserve's parklands, which surround the property on three sides. Records indicate that the three work so closely together, that once any one of them holds title to a piece of land, the others considered it to have been protected from development.

To make its claim to the Fink-Pardini land, Friends of the Shawangunks first purchased what the court determined were worthless deeds from people who had no real claim to the property, then sued the couple, claiming to hold title based on those deeds. Fink and Pardini believe the conservancy's real strategy was to litigate them until they went broke, forcing them to surrender their property.

Ending the three-year legal battle, Bradley wrote, "Despite the procedural complexity" of the various claims and counter-claims supported by thousands of pages of maps, deeds, motions and testimony, "the underlying facts are fairly straight-forward." Bradley threw out the conservancy's claim on summary judgment, ruling there were no factual disputes that could possibly require a trial. He then took the unusual step of suggesting that Fink and Pardini had standing to bring a separate fraud action, providing them with a specific case law reference under which they could sue.

Commenting on the court's decision, Keith LaBudde, executive director of the Friends of the Shawangunks said Bradley had "misread the information in the case. He doesn't understand the facts." He said his organization's lawyers were reviewing the decision and considering whether to file an appeal. "My attorney tells me we've never won a court decision in Ulster Country Supreme Court," LaBudde added. "We've won a lot of decisions, but they've always been on appeal."

Glenn Hoagland, the executive director of Mohonk Preserve, said there is no direct connection between his organization and Friends of the Shawangunks, noting the two organizations have separate incorporation papers and different board members.

Both organizations were founded in 1963. And while the board members are different, Mohonk Preserve and Friends of the Shawangunks are both connected to at least three individuals who played leading roles in the Fink and Pardini land case. One is Anderberg, who, according to the newsletters of both the preserve and Friends of the Shawangunks, takes an active role in Mohonk's affairs. The others are Norman Van Valkenburgh, a licensed land surveyor working both in-house for Mohonk and under contract for the Friends of the Shawangunks, and LaBudde, the son-in-law of the late Daniel Smiley. Smiley was the founder of the Mohonk Preserve and the long-time chief financial officer of the Mohonk Mountain House. LaBudde presently sits on the preserve's Land Stewardship Committee.

According to LaBudde, Mohonk Preserve recently helped Friends of the Shawangunks pay its "lawyer bills" by buying a parcel of land from Friends for about $30,000. The lawsuit against Fink and Pardini is the only legal action in which Friends of the Shawangunks is currently involved, or has been for some time.

The legal distinction of separate corporations enables Friends of the Shawangunks to use what it describes as "aggressive" land acquisition tactics. Mohonk "felt constrained legally and as a good neighbor from assuming this role in fighting the various development threats in the Shawangunks," LaBudde wrote in the spring 1995 issue of Friends of the Shawangunks newsletter. For this reason, "Certain individuals associated with [Mohonk] played key, behind-the-scene roles in establishing Friends of the Shawangunks as the badly needed advocate for the Shawangunks."

Virtually all property acquired by the Friends of the Shawangunks eventually ends up either managed or controlled by Mohonk Preserve. And Hoagland, Mohonk's executive director, said his organization would have taken over the Fink-Pardini land had the title dispute in Bradley's court been resolved in favor of a "willing seller."

One advantage of this arm's-length arrangement is that it can shield Mohonk Preserve from direct legal liability if a land acquisition project should backfire. The Preserve, which owns about 6,200 acres of land, has considerably more to lose than Friends of the Shawangunks, which presently has no land assets other than a nature preserve consisting of about 22 isolated acres.


The Fink-Pardini property is the largest single parcel on the northern Shawangunk Ridge not currently held by Mohonk. It is within walking distance from Lost City and a mile downstream from Split Rock, two of Mohonk's most popular visitor attractions. The eastern side of the Shawangunk Ridge is home of the world-famous rock-climbing area known as the Trapps, making the whole area one of the best known geographic locations in the Northeast. Local zoning would allow Fink and Pardini to re-open and expand the hotel and ranch facilities that could compete with Mohonk Mountain House and be visible from the summits of the preserve.

While the conservancy's lawsuit technically covered 136 of the 200 acres owned by Fink and Pardini, "those located uphill from the Coxing Kill," Van Valkenburgh, the surveyor, said in a recent interview that the conservancy was really after "the whole farm, whatever they own."

According to the record of the case, the Friends of the Shawangunks' legal strategy involved obtaining two "quitclaim" deeds from individuals who had no real claim to the Fink-Pardini land. Once Friends obtained these deeds, the group filed suit claiming it actually owned the land.

When a quitclaim deed is used, the buyer is purchasing any interest the seller may hold in the land; if the seller has no interest, the deed is worthless.

The Friends' first quitclaim deed was obtained from Mary Lue Smith, a former owner of the ranch property. She had been married to Wilbur "Smitty" Smith. But in 1965, she transferred the land to Smitty's second wife.

Mary Lue Smith was approached in 1994 by Van Valkenburgh, who offered to pay her $5,000 on behalf of the conservancy for what he described as 30 acres of "landlocked" and "inaccessible" property that he led her to believe was different from the land she had conveyed years earlier. "I realize all this may come as a surprise," Van Valkenburgh wrote to her in making his offer.

Smith admitted she was "surprised" someone thought she still owned land, but she agreed to meet with Van Valkenburgh. He went to her home with the quitclaim deed and a check for $5,000, accompanied by Anderberg. According to Smith, Van Valkenburgh described the lawyer only as a notary who would witness her signature.

In her affidavit in support of Fink and Pardini, the 75-year-old Smith testified Anderberg and Van Valkenburgh "misled and tricked me into having me execute the paper " for a parcel that included road frontage and was part of the larger property she had conveyed years earlier.

With the Smith quitclaim deed in hand, Friends of the Shawangunks then attempted to prove Mary Lue Smith had retained an interest by pointing to a copying error in the 1965 deed, which omitted a description of the 30 acres. But Mohonk Preserve had been aware of the clerical error for 20 years, and Bradley said it was "patently obvious" the deed was in error and that the mistake didn't change the amount of land that had been transferred when Smith sold Smitty's Ranch in 1965. The judge rejected the conservancy's claim to the 30 acres.


It may be that the Friends conservancy had its own doubts about whether the Smith deed would hold up in court. But whatever the reason, in 1995 Friends of the Shawangunks amended its challenge to Fink and Pardini to include a second quitclaim deed to a larger portion of the property, one that overlapped the land the conservancy said it already owned under the quitclaim deed from Mary Lue Smith. This second deed was obtained in 1995 from Ulster County residents Wayne Kelder and Lars Hagan.

Kelder and Hagan had gotten their deed from Kelder's neighbor, Roger Osterhoudt, for $7,000 at an estate sale in 1982. Osterhoudt, in turn, had inherited the deed from his parents, who had purchased it from the county at a tax sale in 1946. Titles to old tax sale properties are notoriously difficult to confirm, and this one was no exception. The Osterhoudts had never filed their deed with the county, and had never actually located the parcel of land, which was identified only by adjoining owners, without metes and bounds, an address, lot number or even a road location. The parcel is described in the deed as "35 acres, more or less."

Though Osterhoudt has said he never showed the location of the land to Kelder and Hagen, and no surveyor or title searcher ever had found it, the two men assumed their deed pertained to land somewhere in the vicinity of the Fink-Pardini land. They then attached to their deed their own hand-drawn map encompassing not 35 acres, but more than 80 acres of the Fink-Pardini property.

They filed their new deed with the county, along with the hand-drawn map and with three prior deeds in the chain of title dating back to 1928, none of which had ever been filed with the county. Hagen and Kelder never informed any of their neighbors of their claim to the land, and they were not seen on the land by neighbors until around 1993.

At that time Friends of the Shawangunks was researching land on the ridge for possible acquisition, and Van Valkenburgh, working for Friends under contract from the land surveying firm Brooks & Brooks, conducted an "extensive search" for the Kelder-Hagen parcel and for the chain of title. In a confidential 1993 report to the conservancy, he concluded the two men had no claim to any land anywhere on the ridge, nor did any of their predecessors listed in the various deeds for "many years" before. "In conclusion, we can find no basis of the claim of ownership by Hagen and Kelder," Van Valkenburgh wrote in a report certified with his land surveying license and an official seal.

But two years later, in 1995, in the middle of the lawsuit against Fink and Pardini, both Van Valkenburgh and the conservancy reversed themselves on the issue of whether Kelder and Hagen had owned the land. For $37,500, the conservancy purchased an "interest" in the deed Van Valkenburgh had previously said didn't exist, and then claimed to the court that it owned the land in the hand-drawn map. This, as the suit progressed, Friends of the Shawangunks expanded its claim from 30 acres to 80 acres and then, finally, with no additional justification, to 136 acres, without ever having clear title to any part of the property.

In his decision, Bradley ruled that the Hagen-Kelder deed had "no relevance" to the Fink-Pardini property, citing Van Valkenburgh's assertion in his report from two years earlier. According to Bradley, "The 1982 Hagen/Kelder quitclaim deed description does not, in fact, cover any of defendants' property and is also void for vagueness."

Bradley added, "Van Valkenburgh's change of heart is indeed dubious in view of the fact that no other surveyor was able to locate the parcel."

As Friends of Shawangunks ponders whether to appeal Bradley's decision, Fink and Pardini are now exploring their options, including how to recoup the high costs of their long legal battle.

There is no way yet to predict where the two sides will end up, but the direction of the Friends of the Shawangunks seemed clear as of the organization's spring 1997 newsletter, which appeared before Bradley had issued his ruling. In that publication, Friends of the Shawangunks promised its members it would begin "an aggressive campaign to acquire more open space in the Shawangunks. Land acquisition is a main priority for us.

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