Dear Legoland: The county’s oldest living thing is in your hands

| 24 Feb 2017 | 02:38

I’m for Legoland, but with some changes. I like the diversity of activity it will bring to the county. It’s not housing or warehouses. It’s families visiting. It means a bigger share of tax revenue for every town in the county, and the Goshen schools will flourish.

But Legoland wants a permit to clear-cut the land and radically change the elevations. I want them to promise to work with the land, to honor the land. I talked with the Orange County Land Trust and was convinced that this piece of land is not as worthy of full conservation as others in the county. They say the housing developments on each side have compromised the wetlands. The land in between is reclaimed farmland with mostly invasives and young scrub trees — except there are a few very old trees in what is the center of the planned facility.

In particular, there is a healthy sycamore, which you can actually see from Route 17, that measures 79 inches in diameter. That means it’s about 300 years old. Three hundred years! “Oh yes, I know that tree,” said Philip LaPorta, a Goshen-based geologist. “It was planted by the very first surveying team in Orange County in the early 1700s.”

At 300-plus years, it’s the oldest living creature in our county. But wait, there’s more. On that same hilltop there are several more trees, mostly oaks, that are 72 inches in diameter. It’s not just one tree, but a clan of trees that have been here longer than any of us. All told, there are 45 trees of “significance.”

Legoland’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement is on the Town of Goshen website and lists the significant trees, their species and size, and a map of their location (check it out, starting on page 53).

“Yes we are certainly aware of them and will be trying to retain them,” said Legoland’s Phil Royle. “As you are aware though, trying to retain trees when you have so much soil disturbance is difficult but we certainly have it in our plans to work around them.” There are no drawings or words in the submitted documents, though, to indicate the trees are a protected feature. I’m worried. But there are three ways to protect these trees.

1. The simplest is for Legoland to directly make the trees a feature of the project. Legoland-Florida was built around a preserved historic botanical garden, which boasts the largest tree in Florida. Nancy Proyect, president of the Orange County Citizens Foundation, flew down south to check it out. She said the area, although open to the public, felt very quiet and private. So Legoland has the experience and sensibility to do this.

2. To nudge this process, the Goshen Planning Board can cite and enforce its own guidelines, which state: “Existing features which are important to the natural, scenic, and historic character of the Town ... such as large trees, watercourses, scenic views, historic places, and similar irreplaceable assets, shall be preserved, insofar as possible... The Planning Board may impose restrictions designed to preserve such features.”

3. “The Balmville option” would turn the hill into a protected park. The sycamore is about the same age as the venerated Balmville Tree, dated to 1699. Only after a public outcry, that tree became the state’s smallest public historic park at 348 square feet. The age and size of the 45 trees on this hilltop would seem to warrant consideration as a similar old growth stand.

This cluster of ancient trees doesn’t technically comprise an old growth forest, according to George Profous, senior forester with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “However, that does not preclude the historic importance and values of certain large old trees on the property.” Such a stand could be put on the National Register of Historic Places as the Balmville Tree was in 2000. The Balmville Tree was badly damaged in Hurricane Floyd and was finally taken down in 2015. This Balmville option would require the public to make some noise.

I’ve hiked up to these trees a few times in the last month. It is a naturally religious experience. I’d like Legoland as a respectful neighbor, who will make saving and celebrating these trees a promise. Let Phil know how you see it: