Lawsuit defendants allege intimidation in Mohonk land disputes
Published: Sunday, July 03, 2011
By WILLIAM J. KEMBLE
GARDINER — Neighboring property owners say the non-profit Mohonk Preserve and its partner agency, the Shawangunk Conservancy, have used intimidation and fraudulent documents to add to the preserve's 7,000 acres.
The allegations are in response to two lawsuits filed by the Mohonk Preserve in state Supreme Court in disputes over land ownership.
In one case, Karen Pardini and her husband, Michael Fink, are awaiting a ruling on the ownership of a 71.45-acre portion of a 300-acre parcel in the town of Rochester.
In the second case, oral arguments were completed this month, but legal documents still are being filed. In the suit, the Mohonk Preserve is seeking to clarify boundaries of a 14-acre property in the town of New Paltz. The suit, which names Christopher Ullrich, Sarah Emond, Thomas Marks and Helen Ullrich as defendants, contends a neighboring parcel has been used for access to preserve property to cut firewood and that "No Trespassing" signs have been removed from preserve property.
As for the 71.45 acres claimed by Pardini and Fink, the Mohonk Preserve, citing a paper trail dating to 1881, argues that deeds show the property is among holdings it obtained through previous purchase. The dispute represents the third legal battle in the past 16 years over ownership of various sections of a 300-acre parcel purchased by the couple from Marellan Associates and the fifth case overall for Fink stemming from the land disputes.
In 2004, the Mohonk Preserve charged Fink with trespassing on preserve property, but the case was dismissed. Fink subsequently filed a suit charging the arrest amounted to malicious prosecution. That suit was settled for an undisclosed sum.
Mohonk Preserve Executive Director Glenn Hoagland acknowledged the settlement but declined to discuss details because of restrictions in the agreement. He did say the organization was forced to ask state police to intervene in the 2004 case because Fink was being disruptive.
The first case overall was won by Pardini and Fink in 1997, when the Shawangunk Conservancy claimed ownership of more than 136 acres. Fink said the conservancy sought property that actively was used by the Mohonk Preserve and that false documents were used to support the conservancy's case.
"The deed that the conservancy claimed the property by was certified to Mohonk Preserve," Fink said. "Their name (Mohonk Preserve) was on the deed. Mohonk Preserve posted the property. Mohonk Preserve installed a cable across the access."
In 2005, the Mohonk Preserve filed suit against Fink and Pardini, claiming it owned a 38-acre parcel. The couple settled by selling the land for $15,000.
"We settled the case because she didn't want to go through any more," Fink said, referring to his wife. "At the time, we'd been in court since 2004 (with the trespassing cases). It affected our lives big time, cost hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars, and she didn't want to go on. At that time, (Pardini) was stressed, so we made a settlement."
Hoagland says the 1997 case involving the Shawangunk Conservancy should not be associated with his organization.
"It is a separate non-profit organization," he said. "We were not involved as a party to that, we weren't named in any judge's decision, we weren't called to testify. It's a huge stretch to say we were involved in that case."
Hoagland said his organization has cordial relations with most owners of properties abutting the Mohonk Preserve.
"It's over 250 contiguous neighbors, and we're in court with two of them," he said.
The case against Christopher Ullrich and his domestic partner, Emond, as current property owners, and Marks and Helen Ullrich involves a boundary dispute. Marks and Helen Ullrich are the parents of Christopher Ullrich. They owned property adjacent to the Mohonk Preserve that they sold in 2005 to their son and Emond.
Christopher Ullrich said the case was initiated after Mohonk Preserve officials came to him with claims that he was clearing land deeded to the preserve by a previous owner.
"They presented me with a map ... and said that the prior owner agreed that the line was here (and) 'we'd like you to sign a boundary line agreement,'" he said. "So I showed the map to my father. He'd never seen the map, and, basically, it turned into a lawsuit from there. Then they didn't even end up using that map. Interestingly enough, the map they have (and produced for the court case) refutes the first map."
Hoagland said Ullrich has declined to produce surveys supporting claims to boundary lines, but he contends there is about a 20-foot margin of difference in ownership claims between the two sides.
"(Christopher Ullrich) bought the property in 2005 and, shortly thereafter, started making incursions seeking private gain onto Mohonk Preserve property," Hoagland said. "As a land conservation organization ... we hold these lands as a public trust, and our job is to defend the lands entrusted to us to prevent these kinds of incursions."
Other property owners also have complained about tactics used in boundary and title disputes by preserve officials, as well as by the Shawangunk Conservancy.
One persistent critic has been Sue Boice Wick, who began following what she calls "bullying" tactics after she said her grandmother was the victim of improper efforts to acquire land in the town of Rochester that had been in the family since 1918.
"The original piece she had ... was 3.75 acres," Wick said. "All of a sudden, it disappeared off the assessment tax roll sometime after 1950."
The change was found by Fink in 1997 and brought to the attention of Wick's family, which ultimately was given title to the property as a 3.26-acre parcel.
"Nobody noticed it was missing because my grandmother died (in 1960), and my mom was busy raising nine kids," Wick said. "Mohonk had known that there was an error as early as 1992, but they didn't do anything about it."
Hoagland said the preserve actually restored ownership to Wick's family after conducting surveys to review its own land holdings. "Those lands were incorrectly assessed by Ulster County, which is often the case" he said.
Wick, a professional property deed title examiner, said her mother was contacted in 1988 about another parcel that Mohonk Preserve officials wanted to buy.
"They told her that if she didn't sign it over to them for a couple hundred dollars, they were going to take her to court and she wasn't going to get anything," she said. "The outcome of that was that my mother called me crying. … So I had her set up a meeting and got (a Mohonk Preserve representative) to say the same thing, then told him to get out of the house."
Wick also said a town of Rosendale property listed at 5 acres was purchased by the Mohonk Preserve at a tax sale in 1987 for $1,400 but since has expanded to 22.59 acres after the preserve conducted surveys. She said that is one of several tactics used by the organization to expand its holdings.
"They create conflicting chains of title, enhance their surveys, they piggyback their deeds, they change the assessments, they threaten, they lie to people and talk people into selling their land for peanuts," she said. "They'll chain off an access road, and then they'll tell people they're landlocked now, (saying), 'We'll give you a key, but you'll never be able to sell your property because we own the road.'"
Hoagland said it's not surprising that acreage would be adjusted after being purchased by the Mohonk Preserve.
"All property the preserve acquires is subject to survey and the normal deed transaction, so if acreage changes, it probably means the surveyor got a look at it and found the deed didn't match the acreage that was being advertised," he said. "That's very common in real estate transactions."
The MPNA is an advocacy group for adjacent neighbors of the Mohonk Preserve. In the event of a dispute with the Mohonk Preserve, we can offer assistance in obtaining experts in the following areas; Surveying, Lawyers, Title, expert witnesses, ancient document research, and Maps.