Neighbors interested in walking trails create community when they establish the Westchester Wilderness Walk preserve.
By Susan Lahey
Pound Ridge, a beautiful wooded area 40 miles from New York City, is a place people go to get away from other people. Some past and present residents have included Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, Glenn Close, Chevy Chase and Richard Gere. Mostly they buy large tracts of land to insulate themselves from others — including neighbors.
That’s one reason Paul Zofnass, president of Environmental Financial Consulting Group, had such trouble rallying his illustrious neighbors to action.
Zofnass, who bought a place in Pound Ridge in 1982 with his wife, Renee Ring, was cross-country skiing one day and noticed some red markers in the ground — a clear warning that development was about to hit his pristine community. Driven by the specter of hundreds of houses crowding the neighborhood, Zofnass hatched a plan whereby neighbors would all contribute land to a huge nature preserve. It would have a trail they could enjoy and even open to the public. The land could either remain in the owner’s name and be designated a permanent conservation area, or it could be donated or sold to the Westchester Land Trust, which would manage the preserve. He studied tax maps to discover who owned the surrounding properties, then launched what would turn into a 10-year campaign.
“We pledged that if they wanted to participate in this with us we would take responsibility for coordinating with other neighbors and constructing a trail everyone could walk and enjoy,” Zofnass says. “Most people didn’t respond. Some people responded a little bit. One by one we were able to gather a little bit of interest.”
Zofnass’ efforts flew in the face of everything the neighborhood was about, says Christopher Shimkin, whose father owns one of the largest tracts in what became the Westchester Wilderness Walk preserve. Shimkin is founder and executive director of Global Village Engineers, a nonprofit he describes as “a cross between the Peace Corps and Doctors Without Borders.” Shimkin is also the grandson of one of the first owners of the publishing company Simon & Schuster, Inc. And finally, he is a former environmental consultant who volunteered to help Zofnass map out the best route for the trail.
As Shimkin pointed out, people moved to this area to stake out their own private retreats, not invite the public to cruise a trail in their backyards. Zofnass seemed oblivious to the protocol.
“When he came over to walk what he thought was the (future) trail, he walked in the back door of my father’s house and just announced himself,” Shimkin recalls. “You just don’t do that in this neighborhood. But that’s Paul. I actually think he was on cross-country skis. He would come over with maps and just throw them on the table. That tenacity is what got this ‘walking trails create community’ project through.”
One parcel of land with a couple hundred acres was owned by a fellow who had no interest in the wilderness walk. He saw the property primarily as an investment. He tried to sell his land to a golf course and then to a developer. Zofnass’ efforts to persuade him to contribute part of his land to the conservation area were met with indifference.
“At first, I was very upset, disappointed, angry. I wrote some more letters. Finally I realized I probably wasn’t going to get very far with it.”
Then a wonderful turn of events occurred. The fellow sold his property to Garry Trudeau, writer of the comic strip Doonesbury and his wife, Jane Pauley, former host of Dateline NBC. That couple contributed about 50 acres to the nature preserve and offered to support it in any other way they could.
Another neighbor owned 40 acres and wanted to sell the land and donate the proceeds to the Holocaust Museum. Zofnass persuaded her to sell the land to him at a slightly lower price than what she might get if she were to sell through a broker to a developer, on the understanding that he would make a donation in her name to the museum. He then put conservation easements on that land through the Westchester Land Trust. By taking advantage of the tax savings conservation easements can create, he was able to recover part of his cost of making these 40 acres available to help establish the preserve.
Yet another neighbor wanted to put a housing development on his 120 acres. Zofnass helped him work an arrangement with the town to permit him to construct the number of houses he wanted, if he clustered those houses on roughly half the property, and gave the other half of the property to the preserve. He argued that the proximity of the new houses to the preserve might even enhance the value of those new homes.
Zofnass, his wife Renee and his sister Joan Zofnass did a lot of the clearing and creating of the eight miles of trail themselves. Not long ago, former president Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Clinton walked the trail. And the neighbors, who used to have little contact with one another, now visit when they see each other in the woods.
“We ended up getting to know all the folks who are our neighbors and in some cases became pretty good friends,” Zofnass says. “When you don’t know your neighbors you can attribute terrible things to them. You think ‘Well, they keep to themselves, and they’re not very nice’. And they think the same thing about you. But when you work together on something and then your children meet their children and suddenly their dog barking at night doesn’t bother you. Now you know the dog is there keeping the grandmother safe during the day.”
— Susan Lahey