Preservationists get black eye in land battle Lawsuit exposes questionable tactics by N.Y. conservancy groups


HIGH FALLS, N.Y. - Karen Pardini and Michael Fink, two middle-aged children of the back-to-the-land 1960s, had long had their eyes on a largely untamed patch in the Shawangunk Mountains.

So when the land became available in 1986, they cobbled together a down payment to buy 211 acres and began fixing up a tumbledown barn. For eight years, they camped out in woods '' and took pleasure in their land, sometimes hiking to a ridge at the end of their property to savor the soaring views of the Catskills.

Then one day, as Ms. Pardini walked along the road that cuts across her property, she noticed pink and yellow ribbons put up by a local surveyor. Someone else, she realized, coveted her property.

It eventually turned out there was a claimant, and it was not a wily real estate speculator but a land preservation group, the Shawangunk Conservancy. The conservancy, one of 1,100 such groups nationwide that pride themselves on their ethics by buying from willing sellers with unclouded titles, had long desired the land 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.

Two unorthodox deeds

The group produced two unorthodox deeds that, it argued, proved that it now had possession of almost half of the land Fink and Ms. Pardini thought they owned.

In the long, nasty quarrel that followed, a judge ruled in March that the conservancy's deeds were worthless and said Ms. Pardini and Fink could sue for fraud. As a result, the conservancy and other groups that preserve land in the Shawangunks have found themselves on the defensive. Even some other land preservationists have accused the conservancy of overzealous tactics.

"Land conservation for many people is a crusade," said David Church, executive director of the New York Planning Federation, which advocates sound land use. "And well-meaning or not, what you discover on a crusade is that the means are justified by the ends."

The conservancy is appealing the judge's decision. Keith LaBudde, its president, says it acquired the disputed land in legal and upright fashion because Ms. Pardini and Fink never authentically owned it. He rejects the idea that his group should have passed up the disputed land rather than distress people who bought the land in good faith.

"Environmentalists are supposed to be featherheads, is that it?" said LaBudde, a 63-year-old retired professor of computer science. "I think what you do is pursue with rigor, you look at all the facts and approach it in a businesslike way."

The dispute has had some wider ramifications as well. Though the conservancy is a small, 10-year-old organization, it works to acquire land with much richer and better known organizations in New York like the Mohonk Preserve and the Open Space Institute. Together, the three groups have assembled more than 10,000 acres in the breathtaking Shawangunks, which stretch from the Delaware River almost to the Hudson and are the setting for the popular and historic Mohonk Mountain House resort near New Paltz.

Not the first dispute

The Pardini-Fink dispute is not the first in which residents in the New Paltz-High Falls area have felt mistreated by preservationists. At least two other landowners say that within the last 10 years they were pressured to give up long-held mountainside properties after they were barred from using the rights of way to the land. The Mohonk Preserve eventually acquired the properties. The preserve denies that it acted improperly and says that the disputes were complicated by such factors as conflicts with neighboring landowners.

At bottom, Fink and Ms. Pardini accuse the conservancy of trying to steal their land by tactics more fitting a real estate operator than an upright environmental group. "Everybody knew was our property," Fink said in a recent interview. "Just because the bike wasn't in the backyard and tied up doesn't give you permission to take it."

Ms. Pardini had long craved the land. Almost 15 years before she and Fink made the down payment, Ms. Pardini camped out at Smitty's Dude Ranch here. It had a bar popular with hippies and was owned by an engaging character, Wilbur Smith, who kept his land in his wives' names.

In 1983, Ms. Pardini, a midwife and teacher of African dance, met Fink, who made a living selecting trees for lumber. They fell in love and talked about one day buying "Smitty's" land. In 1986, they raised enough for the $300,000 purchase by asking their parents and a sister to mortgage their homes. Eight years later, they saw the ribbons put up by Norman Van Valkenburgh, the surveying consultant for both the conservancy and the Mohonk Preserve.

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