A Hudson River Valley couple who have spent the last 33 years battling well-funded and well-connected Green groups and New York state officials intent on taking their property are hauling their tormentors into federal court.

In a suit filed April 13th in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Michael Fink and Karen Pardini seek $7.3 million from the Mohonk Preserve as “just compensation” for the taking of their property. This with a permanent injunction against the Mohonk Preserve, the Open Space Institute, the Shawangunk Conservancy, the Land Trust Alliance, the New York State Conservation Partnership Program, “and others acting in concert, barring them from further efforts to take Fink and Pardini’s land.”

When Fink and Pardini purchased about 300 acres of ridge land in the Shawangunk Mountains in 1987, they envisioned the picturesque spot as a place where they could build the home of their dreams. The heavily wooded property had once been home to “Smithy’s Ranch,” a popular watering hole near New Paltz in Ulster County, New York. They even thought of reopening the long-shuttered ranch to a new generation of guests.

Their plans, however, ran afoul of powerful interests who coveted the property and who were determined to get ahold of the land, come what may. The couple’s property adjoins the Mohonk Preserve, New York State’s largest nature preserve. Encompassing 8,000 acres, Mohonk 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.

The property known as Smitty’s Ranch had been assembled over many decades from various parcels, all part of a tract that dated to 1799. Instead of going after all of Fink and Pardini’s property in one fell swoop, the cabal coveting their land took a piece-meal approach, using lawsuits and harassment to gobble up chunks of the property, hoping the beleaguered couple would eventually throw in the towel. The defendants claim that their actions were taken to forestall “rapacious development” of the land when, in fact, no such development has taken place in the 33 years since Fink and Pardini acquired the property.

“By Hook or by Crook”

In an ominous sign of things to come, attorney Robert K. Anderberg, a board member of the Mohonk Preserve and founder of the Shawangunk Conservancy, told Fink’s sister in the late 1980s to let her brother know Anderberg “would watch over every single thing [Fink] did and do everything in his power to take that land from [Fink],” according to court documents. Anderberg also told a local resident whose property is nearby that the land in dispute “is the most important property in the Shawangunk Ridge, a privately-owned piece of property, and by hook or by crook he was going to get it,” according to court documents.

These were not idle threats. Beginning in 1994 and continuing for over two decades, Fink and Pardini were in and out of court, fighting to hold on to their property on which they were paying taxes, keeping roads and pathways clear, and managing the forest.

Arrayed against them was a phalanx of deep-pocketed green groups intent on acquiring land for alleged conservation purposes, often in league with state officials. The interlocking relationships and revolving doors among these public and private parties were tailor-made to overwhelm anyone who stood in their way.

In addition to the ubiquitous Anderberg, working on behalf of the Mohonk Preserve and the Shawangunk Conservancy, lining up against Fink and Pardini were the Manhattan-based Open Space institute (OSI), the Washington D.C.-based Land Trust Alliance (LTA) (which maintains a significant office in Saratoga Springs, NY), and the Conservation Partnership Program (CPP), a partnership between the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the LTA’s New York program. Significantly, the CCP offers “competitive matching grants” to “qualified New York land trusts to advance land conservation, recreation, and tourism.” The public-private partnership between DEC and LTA was created in 2002, and is managed by LTA in coordination with DEC.

The “public-private partnership” was also on display in the court battles over Fink and Pardini’s land. Their attorney, Jeff Liddle, points out that the New York DEC contributed $15,000 to the Mohonk Preserve for “conservation defense” “ostensibly for legal fees in their action against Fink and Pardini.” Liddle notes further that the activities of the defendants are “highly intertwined” and that high-level officials within the Mohonk Preserve, Shawangunk Conservancy, and OSI “circulate among these organizations and New York state environmental positions.”

Takings without “Just Compensation”

Summarizing his case, Liddle writes that the defendants “working in concert and claiming to effectuate the State’s codified policy of ecological conservation,’ have been able to obtain, finance, litigate, and use for private purposes Fink’s and Pardini’s land, and the land of others, to accumulate large contiguous parcels in the Shawangunk Ridge. These takings have frequently been accomplished ‘by hook or by crook.’ Although these takings are justified as accomplishing the State’s policies, there has not been just compensation or any limitation to the takings to that which is necessary to effectuate the State’s policy.”

The case, which will be closely watched by property rights advocates, is Michael Fink and Karen Pardini v. Mohonk Preserve Inc. et al.

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