“Massive makeover proposed for Wildberry Lodge plan in New Paltz”

Whatever happened to Wildberry Lodge in New Paltz? The plan has received a massive makeover. Rocking Horse Ranch owner Steve Turk initially proposed a water park, conference center, and 250-room resort on land adjacent to the Thruway in 2014, but the investment climate has cooled considerably, causing him to scale back and reconsider the project. The newest iteration, presented to town planning board members at their February 27 meeting, is short one water park, lighter on hotel rooms and very bullish on butterflies.

The Wildberry Lodge proposal is now a more modest, phased project, with the first portion centering on a 90-room “contemporary modern barn” hotel designed by local architect Rick Alfandre, and a butterfly conservatory of 3-6,000 square feet that would also be suitable for catered events. The facility would also house event space for 150 with a demonstration kitchen, a “local merchandise and craft shop” and spa facilities. The 57-acre property, where both Walmart and Crossroads were once proposed to be built, straddles business and industrial zoning districts; these structures would be in the B-2 zone. The remainder of the property would be lightly developed with trails and outdoor activity venues. Future phases would add 30-50 hotel rooms and a restaurant; Turk expects that not to occur for another four to seven years. The entire venue would be open to the public, not just hotel guests.

Turk said that the pool of investors interested in the $75 million water park proposal has since dried up; the talk of a development moratorium for that part of town was one of several contributing causes to that trend. The new proposal is one he feels he can do on his own dime, especially if it’s built in phases.

The butterfly conservatory, which will have its own full-time staff, would be ideal for small events, Turk said. In his presentation, it was pictured with restaurant tables set up among the foliage, with colorful insects floating about. It will also serve as the gateway to the back of the property, which is to include a “treehouse and canopy adventure” as well as an outdoor amphitheater large enough for 300 people. Turk said the amphitheater is modeled on Opus 40, and would be for acoustic and theatrical productions.

Undergoing hip-replacement surgery this past year caused Turk to reevaluate the way forward, he said. “I want to spend my dying years here,” and ultimately leave Wildberry Lodge as some kind of enduring testament to his life’s contributions. He acknowledged that he will be seeking to contribute a bit less in terms of taxes by using the jobs he expects to create in return to convince county IDA members to cut him a break. Those jobs will include local high school students, he said, and if Rocking Horse Ranch is any indicator, Turk will hire more than he promises to county officials.

This large a shift will require some reconsideration by planning board members, as well. The draft environmental impact statement reflecting a water park is well underway. The detailed scope approved for that statement should still be suitable, but it will take another three to four months to finalize the DEIS with this information. One way forward would be to consider this new version one of the alternatives which must be studied in an EIS; board member Lyle Nolan thought it should stand alone, lest it be deemed a “bait and switch” by members of the public.

Another challenge existed under the first proposal, as well: the zoning definition for “hotel” is “vintage” according to board attorney George Lithco, and the code is silent on “resort.” Absent a code change, board members may have to rely on a formal interpretation by one of the town’s two code enforcement officers.

Nolan also cautioned that, while butterfly conservatories are popular in urban areas, any escapes in this more agrarian area could result in impacts which “should be carefully studied.”

– Terence P. Ward
New Paltz Times