Dan Hust | Democrat
ALPACAS AND DONKEYS coexist on Stuart Salenger's property in Forestburgh, seen here during last year's Forestburgh Day when Salenger invited the public to view his farm and animal rescue operation.
Forestburgh lands included in ag district
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Twenty-five acres in the Town of Forestburgh consumed two hours of the County Legislature’s time last Thursday.
Two parcels in Thompson and four in Forestburgh generated comment during a public hearing to include them in Agricultural District No. 4, but it was the Forestburgh properties all owned by Stuart Salenger that caught the bulk of attention.
Salenger has built up a veritable zoo of farm and exotic animals surrounding his home off Cold Spring Road, known as Philwold (or the old Bradford Estate).
Some creatures, like the alpacas, are bred for their wool, while others, like a camel, have been rescued from uncertain fates. To accommodate them all, Salenger has created special enclosures, some brightly lit, and hired staff to tend to them.
He also cultivates orchids and has bought some of the animals formerly housed at the Catskill Game Farm.
He sought inclusion in the ag. district, which is designed to preserve and promote agricultural areas in the county.
Problem is, the estate has not been a farm for most of the past century, and Salenger’s “upper-class” neighbors (as they described themselves) aren’t keen on the smells, sights and sounds emanating from the farm.
Thirty-one-year resident Jessica Jones said that when she and her husband moved to the shore of Gilman Pond which Salenger now owns it was a beautiful, pleasant, quiet environment.
“Sadly, that quality of life has changed,” she related of sodium vapor lights, security cameras and fencing. “... [This] is inappropriate for our neighborhood.”
Neighbor Ben Wechsler, who is tussling with Salenger in court over two other property issues, termed the estate “an agro-industrial complex” and complained that due notice had not been given for residents and officials to contemplate the impacts of such a decision.
“Notice was improper,” he stated. “The procedure was offensive and improper.”
Robert Kaplan, chairman of the county’s Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board, admitted this matter should have been presented in May or June but a “foulup” occurred. However, County Attorney Sam Yasgur reportedly said the late notice was legally sufficient.
But an extra degree of tension and complexity was introduced when the Forestburgh Town Board voted unanimously earlier this month to oppose adding Salenger’s property to the ag district.
Supervisor Jim Galligan and town board members John Galligan and Gene Raponi told legislators that all the surrounding landowners had conveyed their opposition to the inclusion, as well.
“I’ve never had so many calls and requests,” related John Galligan. “... They figure it’s an intrusion.”
Town leaders added that the property is zoned rural residential and that Salenger could work out any issues with the township.
But Salenger found many a supporter in the legislative audience that day, first from local ag leaders, then from men with whom he does business and well-regarded philanthropic work, and finally from legislators themselves.
“He’s done quite a tremendous job [in Forestburgh],” remarked County Fountain Supply owner Gary Tugender. “It would be a huge loss for Sullivan County and the Town of Forestburgh to see him pick up and move to greener pastures.”
Salenger, one of the area’s wealthiest residents, said he’s been called a “gentleman farmer” but is actually “a farmer who is a gentleman.”
“I just want to give back,” he told legislators. “I just want to do farming.”
He found support from several legislators.
“I’m trying to make a decision that’s not inflammatory or offensive,” admitted Legislator David Sager, who said he’d spent a sleepless night wondering if home rule applied. “... But nothing that Mr. Salenger is proposing, in my mind, is offensive.”
“It has nothing to do with anybody’s pocketbook,” added Legislator Leni Binder, whose family owned a farm in Mountaindale years ago.
She, like other legislators, noted that Forestburgh approved the first Right to Farm Law in the county and had not cited Salenger for any code violations despite the complaints.
“He meets everything under the [state] Ag and Markets ruling,” added Legislator Elwin Wood.
Besides, said Legislator Ron Hiatt, “it’s not for the county to enforce town code or private deed restrictions.”
And, said Legislator Frank Armstrong, Salenger’s efforts represent “the cutting edge of redefining agriculture.”
“I would not want that right to be taken away from anybody in Sullivan County,” he said.
While Legislator Jodi Goodman took great pains to announce that her employment with Catskill Regional Medical Center in Harris was not dependent upon nor influenced by Salenger’s charity work with the hospital, fellow legislators Jonathan Rouis and Alan Sorensen chose not to comment publicly on the matter.
Legislator Kathy LaBuda who represents Forestburgh on the Legislature moved to table it so that the town board could meet with Salenger and legislators, but she found support only from Sorensen and Rouis.
In the end, the resolution to add Salenger’s property (and 11 other parcels in the Monticello area) passed 7-2, with LaBuda and Rouis opposed.