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Natural Awakenings Westchester / Putnam / Dutchess New York

Patterson Property Owner Donates Land for Permanent Conservation

Birch Hill in Patterson, NY

Westchester Land Trust (WLT) has reached a formal agreement with the owner of a 273-acre property in Putnam County to restrict development on the land in order to safeguard its important conservation values. The Patterson property 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. Owned by Benny Ciaiola, Birch Hill will remain in private hands and will not be open to the public.

Based in Bedford Hills, WLT works with public and private partners to preserve land in perpetuity and to enhance the natural resources in Westchester and eastern Putnam counties—a densely populated region under persistent threat from the pressures of development. Through conservation easements and outright acquisition, WLT’s land protection work benefits the long-term health of regional communities by safeguarding air quality, food supply and community character, as well as critical watershed areas.  Since its founding in 1988, WLT has preserved more than 8,350 acres of open space, including 745 acres of preserves owned by the organization which are free and open to the public year round.

Preserving environmental integrity

The legal arrangement to preserve Birch Hill is the third-largest conservation easement WLT has completed in its 30-year history.

“The Birch Hill conservation easement demonstrates WLT’s strategy to protect land that connects existing open-space corridors and safeguards public drinking water supplies,” says Nanette Bourne, who chairs WLT’s Land Preservation Committee of the Board. “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 is comprised of 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 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,” Ciaiola says. “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.”

A Cottontail Habitat

Parts of Birch Hill are actively managed to protect New England cottontail, as part of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program to restore habitat for this species. The only native rabbit in the region, the New England cottontail has lost 85 percent of its habitat over the past century, and today remains in only five small areas in New England and eastern New York. It has been designated as a Species of Special Concern by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, whose goal in partnering with USFWS is to create 10,000 acres of suitable shrubland and young forest habitat by 2030.

Caiola, who lives in Larchmont, will continue to own and care for the Birch Hill property. The permanent conservation easement will enable him and future owners to work with government agencies, conservation nonprofits and other partners to manage the property for biodiversity and watershed protection.

“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,” he says.

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