Community Benefits from a Lasting Tribute
Land trusts are not often in a position to work directly with developers. But in December 2011, Rensselaer Land Trust (RLT) cut a deal with the family of the late John. B. Staalesen, which donated 23.6 acres for a preserve in the city of Troy, New York. One of the last remaining undeveloped tracts of natural area, wildlife habitat and open space in the city, what makes it even more significant is that the land borders a neighborhood consisting of low-income minority residents who are eager for enhanced green space near their homes. The lifelong commitment of Staalesen to building homes with access to open space is a powerful testament to the growing base of support for land conservation, and the new nature preserve to be named in his honor will carry on this important intersection of conservation and development.
The Preservation of an Oasis
In September 2011, Staalesen’s family members approached RLT to propose a lasting tribute to their father: a nature preserve. RLT worked with an ecologist to identify key natural features, and together they determined that the area would be a very valuable property for both ecological and recreational purposes.
One of only three areas from which the public can access Wynantskill Creek (a tributary of the Hudson River), the water is clear and boasts a functional adjacent riparian zone. Moreover, several rare vascular tree species grow in the habitat of the preserve and nearby wetlands are home to many ecologically important flora and fauna.
The area’s importance to human communities is also substantial. Vanderheyden Neighborhood, where this preserve is located, borders a South Troy neighborhood that is home to mainly low-income minority residents and that has been a priority redevelopment site for the city for years. Unlike many natural areas that are in remote, rural areas, the preserve is accessible using public transportation. For people who rely on the city’s bus system rather than a personal vehicle, this location in an urban center is critical. As Executive Director Christine Young notes, “This is a gem. We are incredibly lucky to have this ecologically valuable land in an area that is accessible to urban residents.”
In April 2012, RLT received a $20,000 grant from New York State’s Environmental Protection Fund through the Conservation Partnership Program in support of this effort. A “transaction” grant, this financial assistance has allowed RLT to fund the ecological survey, necessary legal work, staff time, creation of the baseline report and public access enhancements. As an accredited land trust abiding by Land Trust Standards and Practices, RLT is obligated to have a large percentage of necessary funds available at the outset to ensure a timely and professional completion of the project. Many options are being considered as it raises this money.
A Community Comes Together
The community has expressed their enthusiasm and support for the establishment of the preserve in many ways:
- Private monetary donations
- Positive media coverage
- Pro bono legal services
- A group of five households has formed a committee of volunteer workers to help with stewardship projects
One weekend, Young and other friends of RLT walked through the adjacent neighborhoods, handing out 300 flyers to invite residents to the Community Day planned for an upcoming Saturday. A “What’s in your creek?” activity and display introduced children to the many plants and animals that inhabit the stream running through the preserve. Adults were invited to take a survey to identify what sort of structure will best meet the needs and desires of residents. RLT is considering the installation of a pavilion, a playground or some other facility, but it intends to keep the majority of the preserve in its natural state.
RLT also recently granted the Capital District Community Gardens a 60’ by 80’ plot for a new community garden to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to nearby residents. Overall, it is hoped that the creation of this nature preserve will provide many new venues for urban children and families to explore and enjoy the outdoors. From environmental education to outdoor recreation to healthy local food, the John B. Staalesen Vanderheyden Preserve promises to transform these neighborhoods.
A Developer and a Land Trust
Since the preserve is one of the last tracts of open space in Troy, it is undeniably important to local residents, ecological communities and the long-term goals of RLT. But it is also special to the family of John B. Staalesen. Over more than 40 years, he built hundreds of homes in this area and took particular pride in the creation of houses for first-time homebuyers. A true community member, Staalesen became friends with many of the people who purchased these homes and it was often said that “his heart was there.” Perhaps the most salient demonstration of this commitment was his consistent concern about access to open space: he worked hard to ensure that children would always be able to play outside. This preserve creates a lasting tribute to his memory and also adds special value to the homes and neighborhoods he built during his lifetime.
Writer: Joan Campau
Editors: Sheila McGrory-Klyza and Christina Soto
Photos: Christine Young, Rensselaer Land Trust