Ruling rescues river access

As state agencies dither, fate of homes, recreation hangs in balance

STUYVESANT–Columbia County has only six points of public access to the Hudson River, and until July 19 one of them–at Ferry Road in Stuyvesant–was threatened with closure by the state Department of Transportation.

On that day, after years of discussion, planning, promises and bureaucratic delays, an administrative order was issued by the DOT deferring any possible closing of Ferry Road until at least 2012. The order is a reprieve for the residents of Ferry Road, but it still leaves the future of their homes in limbo.

 

Ferry Road leads from state Route 9J across the tracks of CSX Transportation, Inc. to part of the Nutten Hook Unique Area operated by the state Department of Environmental Conservation under an arrangement with Scenic Hudson intended to enhance public access to the river. The Ferry Road river access has a car-top boat launch and is frequented by kayakers and canoeists, fishermen and fisherwomen who enjoy the deep waters even at low tide, bird watchers and picnickers.

Nutten Hook (or, Newton Hook) is a bedrock outcropping in the Hudson River Estuary–an area that feels the ocean’s rising and falling tides and currents as far upriver as Troy–and is part of the freshwater tidal wetlands known as the Stockport Flats. Ferry Road was the site of a ferry slip, with ferries running between the Hook and Coxsackie, just across the river.

Ferry Road resident John Hutchinson remembers his neighbor, Jim McManus, recounting that during the winters, kids from Nutten Hook would walk across the frozen river to see the movies at Dolan’s Opera House in Coxsackie. Sometimes, the movie would be interrupted with an announcement telling the Nutten Hook kids to go home because an icebreaker was coming downriver.

In summer, the ferry linked the two towns, which were then bustling, like a subway. Nutten Hook, at the turn of the last century, boasted three hotels, including the Lynch Hotel built in 1881 and now Mr. Hutchinson’s home, a train station a post office several brickyards and the former R + W. Scott Ice House, a structure that, like two of the remaining homes, is listed on both the National and State Registers of Historic Places.

Another of the old buildings, the Central Café, was operated by Mr. McManus’ father, but closed during Prohibition. Mr. Hutchinson describes it as a “time capsule of a 19th century railroad station café.”

At the heart of what might be an historic district is the Scott Ice House. It was the 6th largest and is considered the best preserved of the roughly 135 ice houses that lined the Hudson’s shores between New York City and Albany by the late 1880s, a time in which 1.5 million tons of ice in large blocks hand-cut from the river were sold each year in New York City alone. The ice blocks were hoisted by steam-powered conveyor belts and an elevator, stored in sawdust and then shipped downriver by barge. The Hudson ice trade died in the early the 1900s amid concerns that the water carried typhoid bacteria and as the electric refrigerator market developed. The Scott Ice House closed in the 1920s, but the State recently spent some $500,000 to restore its power house.

More recently the Ferry Road/Nutten Hook community has dwindled to a few structures, and in 1996 the DOT obtained an administrative order directing that the Ferry Road crossing be closed for safety reasons and that the nearby private rail crossing on Ice House Road be transformed into a public crossing and equipped with automatic flashers and gates. The ruling discussed building a road to connect Ferry and Ice House Roads to prevent residents of Ferry Road from being landlocked and to provide them with access to Route 9J. At the time the DEC approved the plan in concept. But the order contained no deadlines and was never carried out.

At some point, the Pataki administration proposed a two-lane road, large parking area and motorized boat launch. But that plan raised environmental concerns and the proposal was abandoned. In 1999, a DEC official internally proposed a simple, one-lane, gravel road, as a practical solution with only nominal environmental impact. That proposal never was implemented, either.

Then, in 2006 a revised order provided that the Ferry Road crossing could remain open, and the Ice House Road crossing remain private until the connector was constructed.

Again, no work followed, and the site did not make news again until earlier this year, when the DOT received funds from the federal economic stimulus package for the safety improvements on Ice House Road. As a result, a new hearing was convened in May to consider the closing of Ferry Road, the possible destruction of the houses on it, the improvement of Ice House Road and related matters.

Residents of Ferry Road, Stuyvesant Town officials, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D), Rep. Scott Murphy (D-20th) and other local representatives mobilized to prevent what Mr. Hutchinson called the destruction of a “historic gem” and the loss of access to what Stuyvesant Town Supervisor Valerie Bertram (R), in a letter to DOT and DEC, called a “unique parcel of riverfront open space.”

At the May 12 public hearing, DEC officials explained that sometime after 1996 the agency determined it could not approve the connector road because it would cross freshwater wetlands , a conclusion disputed by some observers, including blogger Mike Cooney (www.upstateearth.blogspot.com), who describes the route as being “on dry ground” and provides a photo to support his view. The DEC also says that less intrusive alternatives might be available.

The DOT, in turn, explained the difficulties of making the Ferry Road crossing safe by any alternative means, because of the railroad tracks run so close to Route 9J, and the transportation department expressed concern about the possibility of “a catastrophic situation” because of high speed (85-mph) trains mixed with vehicular traffic.

But consistent with the suggestions of local residents that all alternatives to closing the crossing be considered, the DOT recommended at the hearing that its regional office in Poughkeepsie begin a study of alternatives that might satisfy DOT’s safety concerns, DEC’s issues and the rights of Ferry Road residents, with the release of the report followed by a public hearing process.

And it was that decision that led an administrative law judge to issue the July 19 order superseding the prior orders, directing upgrade of the safety features at Ice House and Ferry Roads, leaving the status of those roads as is, and directing DOT to submit a report of its study by June 30, 2012.

For now, access to Nutten Hook and the Ferry Road homes is assured, though As Mr. Hutchinson explained, without certainty that there will always be access to the homes, banks will not provide financing and land titles are clouded. Further, he and other Stuyvesant residents are disappointed that their enthusiasm for creating a Nutten Hook historic district is not shared by state officials.

And until the DOT finishes its report—and possibly long after that–Ferry Road homeowners remain caught between the conflicting views of two state agencies.

 

SIDEBAR:

 

Headed to the Hudson?

STUYVESANT–Aside from the Ferry Road access to Nutten Hook, the other crossings to public access points on the Hudson River are:

•Riverside Park in Stuyvesant

•Taggart Road in Stockport

•Water Street, in the Hudson Waterfront Park

•Anchorage Road (Lasher Memorial Park), North Germantown

•Cheviot Road in Germantown.

 

 

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