Sunset at Mohonk Preserve.
State judge blasts mid-county land conservancy
scheme to claim private land
By Eric Francis
An investigative report reprinted from Woodstock Times, Dec. 4, 1997
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
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
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
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 owned."
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
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
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
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