Conservation Easement for 273-Acre NY Property

From the Southeast Patch

Westchester Land Trust announced the preservation of a Putnam County property with a conservation easement that provides significant wildlife habitat and water quality protection. The 273-acre property in Patterson, N.Y., known as Birch Hill, expands a 2,000-acre conservation corridor that includes New York State's Cranberry Mountain Wildlife Management Area and Putnam County's Michael Ciaiola Conservation Area.

Birch Hill

Birch Hill in Putnam County, NY/Westchester Land Trust

The new conservation easement is the third largest that the WLT has completed in its 30-year history. A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust that permanently restricts the development of a property in order to protect the land’s important conservation values. The Birch Hill property, which is owned by Benny Caiola, will remain in private hands, and not be open to the public.

“The Birch Hill conservation easement demonstrates WLT’s strategy to protect land that connects existing open space corridors and safeguards public drinking water supplies,” said Nanette Bourne, who chairs WLT’s Land Preservation Committee. “We’ve known for a long time that this land is special and that incompatible development of it would jeopardize the environmental integrity of this region.”

This area of Putnam County was specifically identified in the 2016 New York State Open Space Conservation Plan as a high priority for preservation due to its high biodiversity and watershed protection.

The Birch Hill property includes rugged forested terrain with areas of steep slopes and rock outcroppings. The protected land buffers water flowing into the Great Swamp watershed, one of the largest freshwater wetlands in the state of New York. The Stephens Brook flows through Birch Hill and empties into the East Branch of the Croton River, part of the New York City drinking water supply system.

“Our family loves this land and we are honored to be able to preserve it by donating a conservation easement to Westchester Land Trust,” Mr. Caiola said. “The WLT staff were very sensitive to our goals as landowners, and taught us how our property’s significant environmental features linked to the larger protected landscape around us.”

Parts of Birch Hill are actively managed for New England cottontail habitat through a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program. The only native rabbit in the region, the New England cottontail has been threatened by an 85 percent habitat loss over the past century, and today remains in only five small areas in New England and eastern New York.

New England cottontails and many other mammals and birds require young forest and shrubland areas for food and shelter. The cottontail has been designated as a Species of Special Concern by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, whose goal in partnering with the Fish and Wildlife Service is to create 10,000 acres of suitable shrubland and young forest habitat for the rabbit by 2030.

Mr. Caiola, who resides in Larchmont, will continue to own and care for the property. The conservation easement will permanently prevent the land from being developed, and enable him and future owners to work with partners such as government agencies and non-profit conservation organizations to manage the property for biodiversity and watershed protection. Westchester Land Trust retains the obligation to ensure that the terms of the conservation easement are honored forever.

"Now that we know our land is protected forever, we feel great about our decision and know that we've done the right thing for our family, our community and the region," said Mr. Caiola, who, along with his wife Michelle and children, plans to enjoy its rugged terrain, unique habitats and scenic beauty for years to come.