An Upstate New York couple hoping to build their dream house on land nestled in the picturesque Shawangunk Mountains has instead been subjected to a more-than-two-decade-long nightmare of harassment and litigation courtesy of a cabal of land trusts intent on seizing their property.
The ordeal of Michael Fink and Karen Pardini, who purchased approximately 300 acres of rocky, heavily wooded ridgeland near New Paltz, NY, in 1987, is testament both to the growing power of land trusts nationwide, and to the determination of ordinary citizens to stand up and defend their property rights against overwhelming odds.
The land Fink and Pardini acquired contains more than just natural beauty; it had once been home to Smitty’s Dude Ranch, a popular local watering hole and inn that had long been a part of Ulster County lore. In addition to building their home, the couple hoped to take advantage of the property’s commercially zoned status and reopen the dude ranch to a new generation of guests.
But standing in their way was a powerful and well-connected neighbor. The couple’s property is surrounded by the Mohonk Preserve, New York State’s largest private nature preserve. Encompassing 8,000 acres, the Preserve is a formidable presence in the area, and its management is eager to acquire even more land, including the property owned by Fink and Pardini.
In fact, the Mohonk Preserve had pressured Wilbur Smith, owner of Smitty’s Dude Ranch, to sell it the property as far back as the 1970s. Smith, however, refused and further infuriated the Preserve by instead selling the land to Fink and Pardini. According to courtroom testimony, then Mohonk Preserve board member Robert K. Anderberg stated around the time the couple purchased the property that he would get their land “by hook or by crook.” It was not an idle threat.
The couple would soon find out that their land was coveted by a coterie of deep-pocketed, self-anointed environmental stewards, who, in the name of protecting and preserving the area’s natural beauty, were perfectly willing to engage in one shenanigan after another to drive the couple off their property, or to turn them into “willing sellers.”
Deeds and misdeeds
In the first years after their purchase, the couple camped out on their property before moving into a barn that would serve as a make-shift residence until their new house was completed. Then one day in 1994, Norman Van Valkenburgh, a surveyor for the Mohonk Preserve and a local land trust, the Shawangunk Conservancy, began putting up pink and yellow ribbons on the couple’s property. Van Valkenburgh, a former director of lands and forests for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, was acting at the behest of the Shawangunk Conservancy, which functions as a land-acquisition agent for the Mohonk Preserve. The Conservancy had come into the possession of two deeds of questionable legality the group, backed by the Mohonk Preserve, claimed proved it owned more than half of Fink and Pardini’s’s land. With the deeds in hand, the Conservancy promptly sued the couple.
Although they were not people of great means — she was a midwife and dance teacher, he selected trees for lumber — Mike and Karen fought back. After a long and costly legal battle, the couple emerged victorious in 1997 when State Supreme Court Judge Vincent Bradley dismissed the dodgy deeds as worthless, even telling Fink and Pardini they could sue the Conservancy for fraud.
Undaunted, the Conservancy also laid claim to another stretch of the couple’s land through a highly unusual (outside of New York) legal process known as “adverse possession,” which is akin to squatter’s rights, or acquisition by trespassing. In the early 1980s, two local outdoorsmen purchased 40 acres of ridgeland based on four poorly worded deeds that dated to 1911. The land in question was actually owned first by the dude ranch and then by Mike and Karen. Over time, the two hunters realized that their claim to the land was dubious at best, so they sold the property to the Conservancy for $37,500. Citing adverse possession, the Conservancy now claimed that the 13 years the two men hunted and chopped wood on the land undisturbed had made them the “owners” of the property and that that ownership was transferred to the Conservancy upon the sale of the land.
Yet in a confidential 1993 report to the Conservancy, Van Valkenburgh had written that “we can find no claim of ownership” by the two hunters. In other words, the Conservancy was now pushing a claim its own surveyor said didn’t exist.
Over the next several years of non-stop litigation, additional claims were made, including a claim by the Preserve that it owned 75 acres of the couple’s land. To buttress its claim, the Preserve offered up an assortment of dubious deeds, including one that dated to 1881. But it was subsequently found that the Preserve had “purchased” the acreage from people who never owned it in the first place. After nine years, the convoluted case finally went to trial in late July 2013.
Testimony was heard from 30 witnesses, and the trial’s transcript ran to nearly 1,300 pages. When the smoke cleared, State Superior Judge Christopher Cahill ruled that the Preserve failed to provide evidence supporting its claim to the disputed land, pointing out that the Preserve undermined its case by not calling its own surveyor (Van Valkenburgh) to take the stand. To the judge, this suggested that the surveyor’s testimony wouldn’t have helped the Preserve.
The couple’s victory, however, was short-lived. As expected, the Preserve appealed the ruling, and in July 2015, a state appeals court reversed the decision, saying the chain of custody of the various deeds favored the Preserve. “The court’s decision said the Preserve had a ‘description’ of the land dating to 1881. But the description doesn’t describe our land; it’s a description of the property to our north.” Fink says. The couple is appealing the decision.
Now, 28 years after they bought their land, the couple still finds itself tied up in knots, burdened by legal bills, and facing a relentless onslaught by forces determined to get their land “by hook or by crook.”
In pursuing their quarry, environmental groups rarely ever act alone. They make use of a vast network of interlocking relationships that include fellow Green groups, government officials at all levels, well-heeled donors, and, of course, attorneys.
We have already seen how the Shawangunk Conservancy serves as the Mohonk Preserve’s land agent. Both have close ties to the Open Space Institute (OSI). OSI’s address – 1350 Broadway, New York, NY – is better known for ready access to big money than to its proximity to open spaces. Together, the three organizations have used their considerable muscle to build their own little empire in the Hudson Valley. By the late 1990s, according to the New York Times, the Shawangunk Conservancy, the Mohonk Preserve, and OSI had amassed over 10,000 acres in the Shawangunk Mountains, which stretch from the Delaware River almost to the Hudson. As for the land owned by Fink and Pardini, it had, according to the Times, long been coveted by the Conservancy “as a missing link in a 50-mile chain of ridgeland that it wants to render forever wild for the pleasure of hikers and climbers.” That meant Mike and Karen had to go.
Anderberg, who played a key role in all the lawsuits brought against Fink and Pardini, served on the Preserve’s board of directors, created the Conservancy, and now is vice president and general counsel of the OSI. As described by journalist Eric Francis Coppolino, writing in Planet Waves, Anderberg’s land-acquisition playbook includes “purchasing a mortgage out from under a neighbor and foreclosing on them, setting up front companies to do transactions, buying land from someone who doesn’t own it, claiming land by adverse possession (squatter’s rights), and setting the Preserve’s neighbors up for costly litigation, sometimes pitting them against one another.”
The ruthlessness with which the cabal goes about building its empire is a reflection of the supreme confidence it has in ultimately getting its way. Aiding the Preserve, the Conservancy, and the OSI in tormenting people like Mike Fink and Karen Pardini is the Land Trust Alliance (LTA), a Washington-based membership organization representing over 1,100 land trusts nationwide. As members of the alliance, the New York cabal can avail itself of the LTA’s latest creation, Terrafirma.
According to LTA’s website, Terrafirma was established “as a charitable risk pool owned by participating land trusts that insures members against the legal costs of defending conservation.” It adds that “Terrafirma sends a clear signal that a land trust has the capacity to defend its easements and conserved land, and coverage provides participating land trusts with access to a nationwide team of experts.”
In celebrating the Preserve’s 2015 court victory over Mike Fink and Karen Pardini, the LTA acknowledges that “this case is one of the reasons we started Terrafirma. And by helping to grow the volume of case law in support of land trusts, the Mohonk Preserve and their supporters did more here than win one for themselves – they won one for the team.”
The “team” the Land Trust Alliance referred to is not going to be lack in funds to go after landowners. Providing the initial capitalization of Terrafirma were the likes of:
- Doris Duke Charitable Foundation
- The David and Lucile Packard Foundation
- Knobloch Family Foundation
- D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation
- Houston Endowment Inc.
- Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation
- Richard King Mellon Foundation
- Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation
With backers like these, Terrafirma can declare open season on any property owner who dares stand in their way. The cost of protracted litigation will be so exorbitant that most rural landowners will have little choice but to capitulate.
Despite the odds, Mike Fink and Karen Pardini aren’t about to hoist the white flag of surrender. “We’re not going quietly,” Fink says. “In fact, we’re not going at all.”