Dear Friend and Reader:
Nearly everyone who lives in the Hudson Valley of New York is familiar with the land preservation efforts of Mohonk Preserve. The name has a national reputation, synonymous with forests, trails and the most famous rock climbing area in the Northeast -- the Gunks. The Preserve describes itself as the responsible steward of its land holdings, estimated at 8,000 acres and expanding constantly.
In that light, it's noteworthy that in late May, State Supreme Court Judge Christopher E. Cahill issued a decision after a nine-year lawsuit that involved Mohonk Preserve claiming title to 75 acres of land that the court held actually belonged to its neighbors, Karen Pardini and Michael Fink. [You may download and read the full decision by Judge Cahill at this link.]
More noteworthy is that Mohonk and its land-acquisition agents have sued Pardini and Fink four times trying to take their land, keeping them tied up in nearly nonstop litigation and appeals for 19 years. In all that time Mohonk has never once won a case against them or had one upheld on appeal; their batting average is zero.
Pardini and Fink's 300-acre property is the largest privately held undeveloped tract on the Shawangunk Ridge. Located directly in Mohonk's viewshed and developable as a commercial property, Pardini and Fink's land is surrounded by the Preserve, which has contested nearly every boundary the two neighbors share.
The Preserve started as the Mohonk Trust in 1963, when the Mohonk Mountain House, a for-profit resort hotel, put the majority of its land into a conservancy, thereby taking it off of the property tax rolls -- and with that savings, helping the hotel avoid bankruptcy.
While Cahill's ruling only addresses one property dispute, there are numerous similar situations that are currently developing. Mohonk variously claims to have between 100 and 250 neighbors along its perimeter, 28 of whom have signed an open letter to the Preserve objecting to its land-acquisition tactics, including the use of adverse possession or squatter's rights as a means of acquiring property, something commonly done by Mohonk.
"We respect the property rights and boundaries of the Mohonk Preserve," the letter states. "We now ask the Mohonk Preserve to publicly state their willingness to respect the property rights and boundaries of all of their neighbors."
Smitty's Bar and Dude Ranch
Many old-timers in the Hudson Valley remember Smitty's Bar and Dude Ranch on Clove Valley Road. It was owned by Wilbur Smith, known to everyone as Smitty. For more than a generation, Smitty's was the place to hang out by the stream, ride horses, camp and go hiking. The bar, located in an old barn, featured live music and dancing in a magnificent rustic setting. Regulars and staff stayed in a little hotel upstairs. Smitty patrolled his land on horseback wearing a revolver on his hip.
Toward the end of his ownership he was in foreclosure and Mohonk was circling like a great white shark. Mohonk's documents from that era indicate that they were urgently trying to get his land into the Preserve. Pardini and Fink came up with the funds to buy the place from Smitty, who went on to be a minister.
The couple closed the business and made a project of cleaning up the land from decades of overuse, removing old buses, trailers, campsites, dilapidated structures and 74 dump truck loads of trash and debris the first few years.
After nearly three decades of ownership, their only development of the property has been renovating the old bar and hotel into a home, and planting a garden. They have also maintained the labyrinth of trails and wood roads that spiral through the property, some of them dating back to before the American revolution.
The couple was first sued in 1994 by The Shawangunk Conservancy, which serves as a land acquisition agent of Mohonk Preserve. That suit unsuccessfully attempted to take 136 acres from them. State Supreme Court Judge Vincent Bradley said in his 1997 ruling on that case that Pardini and Fink had standing to bring a fraud action against the Conservancy. Had the Conservancy won, Mohonk said the land would have gone to them.
When I interviewed Mohonk's longtime in-house surveyor, Norman Van Valkenburgh, about that lawsuit in 1997 as a reporter for Woodstock Times, he told me that he was after "the whole farm, whatever they [Pardini and Fink] own."
He really meant it. For example, Pardini and Fink's property includes about 200 acres on the north side of Clove Valley Road. In various lawsuits (including the most recent one), Mohonk or its agents have claimed every acre except for Smitty's former house.
Fink said in a July interview that he and Pardini have spent more fighting lawsuits by Mohonk and its agents than they paid for the whole ranch. One can only imagine Mohonk's legal bills.
Which is the Real King's Lane Lot?
Land in the area where the lawsuit takes place is located within a land grant from 1770 called the Nineteen Partners Tract, which was subdivided into 19 sections or lots in 1799. [See map below -- note that northerly is downward, opposite of a normal map.]
In 1841, the property boundary of a farm (called the Curran Farm) was drawn along a ridgeline laterally through Lots 1-5 and has not changed since. The Curran Farm may be forgotten, though a detailed history of its land transactions is lovingly preserved by the county deed office, tracking the details of title transfers going forward to the present.
Pardini and Fink's land includes 75 acres at the south end of Lot 1, on the other side of the ridge, close to Clove Valley Road. Their land was never part of the Curran Farm.
In 1994, Mohonk ‘purchased' for $82,000 a deed for that 75 acres from Gloria Finger, falsely claiming it was the King's Lane Lot. In other words, Mohonk bought the land from someone who didn't own it. The transaction was arranged by Robert K. Anderberg, who served on Mohonk's board of trustees from 1981-1987. He went on to become general counsel to both the Open Space Institute and the Shawangunk Conservancy.
Anderberg has purchased land from non-owners before. In an earlier land transaction that resulted in litigation, Anderberg posed as a notary and with Van Valkenburgh, 'purchased' land from Smitty's ex-wife Mary Lue Smith long after her ex-husband had sold the ranch to Pardini and Fink.
Knowing that she used to hold deeds in her name for her husband, they told her she didn't know she still owned some land somewhere up on the ridge and paid her $5,000 for a quitclaim deed, releasing any interest she might have to them. The Shawangunk Conservancy then sued Pardini and Fink, claiming the nonexistent interest as its own. That's the case where the judge said the couple had standing to bring a fraud action.
Anderberg's plan to acquire the 75 acres on Mohonk's behalf dates back to a March 24, 1993 memo from Anderberg to Van Valkenburgh, and Glenn Hoagland, Mohonk's executive director. In that memo, Anderberg writes, "One of the landowners on Rock Hill, a Gloria Finger, is interested in selling a portion of her acreage to the Mohonk Preserve."
Testimony from other lawsuits indicates that Anderberg was acting in his capacity as general counsel to the Shawangunk Conservancy, the land acquisition agent for Mohonk.
Finger 'retained' the 26 acres she really owned -- she gave up no land in the deal.
Mohonk filed the map with the county and used it to get Planning Board approval for a subdivision from the Town of Rochester, 'dividing' the two sections of Lot 1 that have been separate since 1841. That is when the Curran farm boundary line was drawn, bisecting Lots 1-5; there have been different owners on either side of that line since it was originally drawn.
The same map was used to secure title insurance from First American Financial of Santa Ana, CA. Title insurance is a form of coverage that protects the buyer in case it turns out the purchased land was not actually owned by the seller. The Preserve then brought a lawsuit in State Supreme Court against the actual owners of the property, Pardini and Fink, attempting to get the courts to affirm what it claimed was "record title." The litigation was paid for by First American, which now must either sponsor an appeal or reimburse Mohonk for its cost of purchase.
A First American spokesperson I spoke to in July had no official response but seemed surprised when I informed her that the company was the plaintiff, not the defendant. Title insurance carriers rarely prosecute lawsuits. They are usually the ones sued by others.
While it may seem that Gloria Finger tried to trick Mohonk into buying land that she didn't really own, it was Anderberg -- an attorney -- who arranged the transaction on Finger's and Mohonk's behalf. This is apparently a routine activity for him. In a recent interview he told a reporter, "I'm involved with conservation transactions and dealing with landowners, many in Ulster County."
Yet Fink says that Finger knew he and Pardini were the real owners of the land at that end of Lot 1. The King's Lane Lot is landlocked; it has no road access except for the King's Lane, which is more like a wide trail. Since she had no other way to get a car onto her property, Finger once approached Fink and Pardini to buy a right-of-way onto her acreage through Pardini and Fink's portion of Lot 1. She ultimately withdrew the idea because the distance was too great and the terrain too steep to make a driveway practical.
In trying to prove that a smaller 26-acre piece of land was a neighboring 75-acre tract, Mohonk presented conflicting theories that in effect attempted to rearrange the ownership history along that section of the Shawangunk Ridge.
Over nine years of litigation, the court heard from 30 witnesses (eight of whom were Mohonk's), reviewed 100 exhibits and read 1,299 pages of trial testimony. After all of this, Judge Cahill ruled May 29 that Mohonk Preserve had no claim to the 75 acres in question.
The court rejected every single claim made by Mohonk Preserve and its attorney, John Connor of Hudson. It accepted every fact and argument presented by Pardini and Fink and their attorney, Sharon Graff of Kingston.
The Case of the Moving Mountain
As is true many places, rural land along the Shawangunk Ridge is often described in the deed record by the neighboring properties. These are called adjoiners. Once something is described by its relationship to adjacent lands in all directions, you know where it is and you can follow the deeds to who holds title in the present.
No two parcels of land have all of the same adjoiners; each is unique. This is why adjoiner descriptions are so dependable. Your land describes that of your neighbors; their land describes yours. Change any one adjoiner description and you have to rearrange the descriptions of every property in the area, since they all depend on one another.
It's a little like turning a Rubik's Cube. When you turn any one section, you simultaneously rearrange the patterns on four sides of the cube and shift the orientation of the other two. You cannot just move one square on the cube.
One example involves land formerly owned by John I. Davis in the 19th century, now called the Davis parcel. The real King's Lane Lot -- the 26-acre one owned by Finger -- calls for Davis as its eastern adjoiner.
But Mohonk claimed that Davis was next to the 75 acres owned by Pardini and Fink, which it is not. To do this, they had to pretend that the adjoiners for the real King's Lane Lot would work simultaneously for that lot and for the 75 acres they were claiming, and where it really was. In other words, Mohonk claimed that the Davis parcel existed in two places at once.
In Van Valkenburgh's survey of the 75 acres that was used to make the purchase and secure title insurance, he accurately lists Pardini and Fink as the eastern adjoiner.
Then in court, Mohonk tried to claim that the John I. Davis parcel was the eastern adjoiner to the 75 acres, in effect attempting to kick Fink and Pardini off of even more of their land. Davis is nowhere to be found in Pardini and Fink's chain of title, for a good reason. The Davis parcel is located east of the real Kings Lane Lot, not the 75 acres that Mohonk was pretending was the King's Lane Lot.
That Van Valkenburgh originally listed Pardini and Fink as the eastern adjoiner to the 75 acres in the survey used for the purchase and title coverage proves he knew Davis was not located there and that he knew who the real owners of the 75 acres were. Doing a survey involves researching the ownership history of each adjoiner. But he had another reason to know the real history: he had been surveyor and expert witness in every prior lawsuit against Pardini and Fink. There are documents in the record demonstrating that Van Valkenburgh has researched the ownership of Lots 1 through 5 back to the dawn of time; he knows exactly who owns them.
At trial, Mohonk failed to present a witness who had actually done a survey of the property it was claiming. Notably, Van Valkenburgh was not called as a witness by Mohonk to tell the story of his survey, which would be pro forma -- an expert testifies to the technical work he's done. Instead, he sat in court nearly every day of the trial and assisted Mohonk's legal team.
As for the King's Lane, the ancient road which seems curiously left out of this whole saga: it follows the ridge along the Curran Farm boundary, leading into the King's Lane Lot itself -- along the north end of the ridgeline and the John I. Davis parcel, far from Pardini and Fink's land. Its place on the landscape and in history is undeniable.
Presented with these and other facts, Judge Cahill concluded that Finger never owned the land Mohonk had 'purchased' from her, and ruled that Pardini and Fink hold both proper title and common law possession of their land, calling theirs the "more coherent" of the two descriptions of ownership history, current title and usage -- an understatement on the judge's part.
In late July, I went to Mohonk Preserve to interview its top leaders -- Glenn Hoagland, the executive director, Ronald Knapp, the board president, and Gretchen Reed, a lawyer who serves as the Preserve's publicist.
They spent an hour and 20 minutes attempting to convince me that it was really Michael Fink who was trying to take their land from them. Mohonk's execs also claimed that Pardini and Fink didn't believe they owned the 75 acres that the judge determined were part of the couple's own property. This is where the interview started to feel like a Saturday Night Live sketch.
Fink and Pardini didn't believe they owned it? That's what they said -- the logic here being: they didn't know they owned it, so we claimed it. Or, we claimed it before they claimed it. Or we filed a map that they didn't know about, so that makes it ours.
Mohonk recently said that its board of directors had voted to appeal Cahill's ruling. In a July 5 letter to the Preserve's members and supporters, Hoagland and Knapp claimed that Mohonk still owns the 75 acres. They trivialized Judge Cahill's decision as being just three pages long when in fact it's 90 pages, most of it straightening out the deed history in accordance with what Pardini and Fink's attorney had presented at trial.
Hoagland and Knapp wrote, "The continuing litigation [...] underscores the importance of the Preserve's critical land protection work, which deals not only with acquisition of land and conservation easements but with the perpetual protection of lands in our care. With your continued support, we will remain steadfast in our 50-year heritage of saving the land for life."
Sure sounds good.
For the Grandmothers.
Rounding Out the Boundaries
The Land Preservation Projects of Bob Anderberg
By Eric Francis Coppolino
When Mohonk Preserve wants to expand its land holdings, they often depend on the services of a man named Robert K. Anderberg, a former trustee of the Preserve and currently general counsel of the Open Space Institute (OSI). [The Preserve recently lost another case involving an attempted land acquisition; see related story.]
Anderberg's land acquisition playbook includes purchasing the 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.
Once owned by Wilbur Smith, it was a mecca for hippies and nature lovers, who would turn out in droves every weekend and hang out naked by the stream. But by the mid-1980s, Smith was in foreclosure and was facing the potential auctioning off of his land. The end of an era was drawing near. Mohonk wanted the land and was watching carefully.
When I interviewed Smith for Woodstock Times, he told me that at the time, he was exhausted from repeated attempts by the Mohonk Preserve to take his property or prevent him from using it. He didn't have the money or the skills to defend himself, so he sold the ranch to Karen Pardini and Michael Fink, his old friends who were frequent visitors to Smitty's.
In 1985, while Smith was still owner, Seward Weber, the new executive director of Mohonk Preserve, filed his last quarterly report of the year. "A major challenge and opportunity faces the Preserve in that the first and second mortgage holders on Smitty's Ranch plan to foreclose on that property about the middle of December," Weber wrote to his board of trustees.
"Bob Anderberg is studying ways the MP might obtain this land which I am sure everyone realizes is of critical importance to us since it is contiguous, large (over 200 acres) and contains the most attractive stretch of the Coxing Kill including a waterfall," he wrote.
At the time, Anderberg was a trustee of the Preserve and had been since 1981. His role, as it is today, was land acquisition.
In his report, Weber explained why Mohonk should own Smitty's. "Most of the land is undevelopable and should come to the Preserve just because it would round out our boundaries in that area."
Weber explains that Anderberg has a "promising" approach to getting the land, by forming a separate corporation funded by "a few wealthy individuals" who would loan it the money necessary to buy the land at auction.
"Once it owned the property, the corporation would donate the undevelopable areas, including the Coxing Kill frontage, to the Preserve and develop the land on the road into lots with deed restrictions or conservation easements" to ensure that building proceeded "in a manner satisfactory to the Preserve."
The loans would be paid back and Mohonk would own part of Smitty's and develop the rest. That is to say, the Preserve's plan was to develop much of the property into a camping area and private homes.
The plan did not work out that way. Smitty was able to avoid foreclosure and two years later ended up selling the ranch to Pardini and Fink. But Anderberg would persist in his efforts to get the land. He had by that time left the Mohonk board, taken a job as general counsel for Open Space Institute, and was also general counsel for a small conservancy called Friends of the Shawangunks, which serves as a land-acquisition agency for Mohonk.
In 1994, Anderberg, working with Mohonk's surveyor Norman Van Valkenburgh, approached Smitty's ex-wife Mary Lue Smith and told her that she still owned a portion of the ranch, the deeds for which Smitty had kept in her name.
"I realize all this may come as a surprise," Van Valkenburgh wrote to her in making his offer, knowing she had conveyed all her land to Smitty's second wife Ruby decades earlier.
In her testimony, Mrs. 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 and top official of Open Space Institute only as a notary who would witness her signature.
In an affidavit, the 75-year-old Smith testified that 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's documents indicate that the Preserve had been aware of the clerical error for 20 years. In particular, a July 5, 1974 letter from what was then the Mohonk Trust to Smitty warned him of the error in his deed, stating, "one or more pages have been left out." They urged him to file a corrective deed with the county.
Then two decades later, Anderberg tried to get the land based on that mistake. Judge Vincent Bradley said it was "patently obvious" the deed was in error. Bradley in his decision said that Pardini and Fink had standing to bring a fraud claim.
Around the same time, Anderberg arranged for the purchase of another portion of the former Smitty's Ranch from someone else who didn't own it.
The land that Anderberg chose to purchase from Finger (from among three different options), however, was always part of Smitty's and was now owned by Pardini and Fink. Van Valkenburgh, the surveyor, drew a line around the approximately 75 acres at the west end of the ranch, filed the map with the county clerk and the Planning Board, and the Preserve paid Finger $82,000 for land worth more than $2.5 million. She lost none of her own land in the transaction.
With the backing of its title insurance carrier, First American Financial of Santa Ana, CA, the Preserve then sued Pardini and Fink for that property, ultimately losing the lawsuit after nine years of litigation.
Anderberg had tried other tactics to acquire the Smitty's Ranch property. For example, When Smitty still owned the ranch, Anderberg recruited Anita Gehrke, Fink's sister, to help acquire the land.
Gehrke was friends with Smitty and Anderberg felt that could give him an advantage. "He knew Smitty hated him and Mohonk, and therefore would never sell the property to either of them," Gehrke said. "So he came right out and asked me to front for them -- to purchase it with their money. I decided there was no way I could do this and deceive Smitty."
When Fink came up with the money to make the purchase directly from Smitty, saving him from foreclosure, Gehrke got a call from Anderberg, who was furious at her and her brother -- about which she has testified at trial.
"I want you to call your brother and tell him that I'm going to be breathing down his neck the rest of my life," Anderberg said to Gehrke in a phone call. "I'm going to do everything in my power to take his land from him. Tell him to watch what he's doing. Any mistake he makes, I'm going to be watching," she recalled him saying.
That's the same area that Seward Weber described as "most attractive stretch of the Coxing Kill including a waterfall."
In one other well-known case, Anderberg was attempting to acquire land owned by Louise Haviland adjacent to the Preserve. Haviland had purchased her land directly from its prior owner, who was holding a private mortgage for her.
Anderberg personally purchased the mortgage, and after he did so, took advantage of a provision allowing him to call in the note -- that is, to demand that Haviland pay him back all at once. When she could not do that, Anderberg brought a foreclosure action against her and her tenants, ultimately taking possession of the land and selling it to Mohonk.
On Thursday, I called up the Land Trust Alliance, a national organization of land conservancies based in Washington, DC, and asked it if its code of ethics approved of these kinds of practices.
Robert Aldrich, the communications director, told me, "Land trusts don't do that, to the best of my knowledge. The whole thing about land trusts is that it's a voluntary agreement between the land owner and the land trust."
I guess Mohonk has its own definition of "voluntary."