Speech from Proceedings of the Third Annual New York Conference
on Private Property Rights
(1998)

Land Trusts - Pirates of the Shawangunks
Eric Francis Coppolino
Independent Investigative Journalist, Woodstock

I just wanted to thank Carol for inviting me to come here, and, indeed, the token hippie. Also the token recruit plucked straight from the hard-core, left-wing-pinko-commie environmental movement.

I’ve covered a lot of things in my reporting career: judicial corruption, land-use industrial development, labor relations, student strikes, tantric yoga. The vehicle and traffic law is one of my favorite instruments of tyranny. But I spent most of my hours and years covering ... G.E., Westinghouse and Monsanto, specifically the poisoning of the planet with dioxin and PCB’s.

I stumbled upon a story that got my attention, and it is a kind of a “murder” by strangulation and the people who I wrote about managed to survive this murder by strangulation.

It’s a kind of a study in cell biology of what the land trust movement is capable of doing and how they’re able to squeeze people off of their property. Like the PCB scandal, I discovered that this was kind of a mushroom. You know, you can pick a mushroom and then if you analyze another mushroom six miles away, you find out it’s the same mushroom. When the PCB’s blew up in my neighborhood and I began investigating in earnest, and discovered that the entire world had been contaminated. Knowing a similar pattern involved with this particular story in the Shawangunks involving land theft, it turned out, there’s now a whole room full of people. I’m not just a little guy Xeroxing away any more. I’m now standing in front of an entire movement of people protecting property rights.

This story barely got into the public eye. I am barely here today. The only reason why is because I am a gentlemen of leisure and I happened to have four months just to dig through an immense pile of deeds, documents and such. I had the patience, and, because I cover murder, I knew how to dig out the story and validate it. I drove Michael Fink, who’s sitting right there, crazy, feeding nickels into the machine at Staples, verifying and going up and down every single deed in the story, every single document verified. These papers don’t do this. They print press releases. We all know this. So you better write a good press release if you want a good story, or really go crazy documenting what you’ve done, and then you’re lucky if you get it in. Because I happen to have reporting relationship with the Woodstock Times and there was a long-standing trust between Karen and Michael and the Woodstock Times, the story was able to be put in the paper based on its credibility — but then also based on our credibility and the credibility as a whole thing with the press. Never trust the newspaper; always trust a reporter.

The story begins when Karen and Michael bought some land in 1987. They bought it in the regular way. They got mortgages, they paid taxes and title insurance and all that and didn’t do anything with this land, never announced plans for this land. They just basically had picnics on their land.

One day, several years later, they were served with a lawsuit by an organization called Friends of the Shawangunks. They are a little teeny land conservancy in a community that is full of land conservancies because it’s on this mountain that everyone is trying to conserve... or something.

The lawsuit basically said, This land ain’t your land, this land is my land. That was news to them. It was their land. They bought this land and they paid substantial taxes. It’s commercially zoned, so it’s about $20,000 per year in taxes and they paid those taxes. They paid their mortgages and they paid everything else they had to pay, and they cleaned this land up, taking some fifty or seventy dumpster loads full of garbage off the land, and one day, knock, knock knock, the lawsuit shows up and it says, You are despoiling the land, you are destroying the property, it ain’t yours, it’s ours.

How did they say this? They had a little deed to the land. Who did they get the deed from? They got the deed from someone who conveyed the land 39 years earlier. It was a quitclaim deed from someone who the land conservancies went to, a little old lady in Newburgh, New York, with cancer, 75 years old. They said, You still own the land up on this mountain that you conveyed to your ex-husband’s new wife thirty years ago. She said, That’s a surprise, I didn’t know I owned any land up there. They said, Well, you own some land up there.

They came back, two men, Van Valkenburgh and Anderberg, with a quitclaim deed, and she signed the deed over. Then they went to State Supreme Court and they sued Karen and Michael, and said, This land is our land. We haven’t paid any taxes to it, of course; we don’t have any mortgage to it; we don’t have any survey; we don’t have any title insurance; we don’t have anything except this rather skimpy quitclaim deed. If you want a copy, call me, I’ll fax it to you.

The basis for arguing for the validity of this quitclaim deed came from a defect in Karen and Michael’s deed which they had no clue was there, because the deed was really thick and it was one of those complex real estate transactions that no one in their right mind could ever comprehend. Their deed ends in a comma, which means there is more to come, but then there are some signatures and notary seals and that’s the end of the story. What Van Valkenburgh and Anderberg argued in the State Supreme Court is that because the deed ends in a comma, leaving off thirty acres, those thirty acres weren’t maybe supposed to be transferred down the chain of title to the new owners, and hence little old Mary Lue Smith in Newburgh, New York, still actually had claim to that land and therefore this quitclaim deed was a valid deed. (A quitclaim deed, by the way, is a deed which just lets go of any claim you may have in property. It doesn’t mean the new people get it. It’s just, you quit your claim and you sign it on to the next guy who takes the claim over.)

So now you see you’ve got to fight a suit before you default, and fighting suits is expensive and it takes a lot of tenacity and it takes patience, and it takes money, and it takes lawyers and it takes everything else that is not part of the welfare state. You’re not just handed a public defender in a civil suit.

So they fight on for a while and they make all kinds of little revelations, and all the while they’re believing that this thing called the Friends of the Shawangunks, this little teeny land conservancy, is trying to own about thirty acres in the middle of a mountain ridge somewhere — it’s about that big, the land conservancy — they are thinking that this is the organization that is actually their adversary. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

A year later, the door is knocked upon again, and an amended complaint arrives. The amended complaint expands the claim from thirty acres to something around eighty acres. This new claim upon their land comes up, overlapping the previous claim, mind you. They got a big piece of their claim twice and another bigger piece that they’re only claiming once.

The way this happened was, that these two kind of local guys, Hagan and Kelder, knew that there was some question of ownership of land up on the ridge many, many years ago, and one day in the eighties bought a deed at a tax sale, no, at an estate sale. It was purchased in the forties at a tax sale. Back in a chain of title, it was never filed with the county, going back to 1911. If you were a title insurer, you would immediately write insurance on that, I’m sure.

Hagan and Kelder have this deed. There is no land connected to it. No title searcher could find the land. No one could actually put it on the ground. But in 1982 they bought this claim, at a yard sale, I call it, from this guy Osterhoudt, who inherited it from his father, who bought it in the forties. They file all these deeds with the county one day in 1982 and they file with it a map, traced off the tax maps, shading in 80 acres of land, with a deed that says, 35 acres, more or less. And they’re not seen or heard from in more than a decade. They don’t go on the land. They don’t do anything. They just basically file these deeds with the county and then they disappear.

They later reappear. Norman Van Valkenburgh, who is a surveyor, is doing research for the Friends of the Shawangunks for this land acquisition program which felt originally like eminent domain but it’s started to look like manifest destiny after a while because they’re basically attempting to conquer the hill. Van Valkenburgh is doing research on this mountain because they’re conquering the hill and they want to know who owns what. And what they come up with is that the Hagan and Kelder claim is garbage, and Van Valkenburgh signs and he puts a surveyor’s seal on it and that’s what he writes. By a little miracle (Michael can sometimes walk through walls), Michael comes up with this little report that Van Valkenburgh says that there’s really no Hagan and Kelder parcel. This doesn’t really exist. There’s always miracles when citizens come into lawsuits, guaranteed. Often miracles come in the form of documentation.

So there’s no Hagan and Kelder parcel. Mary Lue Smith didn’t own the land which she conveyed, but this lawsuit is grinding on through years and years in the courts.

Well it’s a long story. It’s very complicated. No one really understands it and the whole point of this was to create a web of deception so thick that the judge couldn’t see through it. At the same time, it was strangling Karen and Michael to the point that they were choked and could no longer fight. That’s a very common strategy. It’s often used by chemical companies who are trying to stop people from telling the truth about chemical companies. It’s called a SLAPP suit.(1)

It’s very interesting. When I started digging, Karen and Michael were under the impression that it was the Friends of the Shawangunks that were actually responsible for this. We were entertaining a theory that maybe it wasn’t the Friends of the Shawangunks, but no one could really prove that. So we started digging and digging and digging. I always work with the position that there’s just one side to the story. If the story has two sides, I don’t do the story. This is a story with one side.

It turns out that Friends of the Shawangunks is kind of like this corporate veil. Corporate veil theory comes in here. The corporation is a peculiar entity. It’s a paper person. It’s a thing that can be the size of Israel as its general electorate with the rights of a private individual. You can’t ever stop it because it can outlive you. GE will live until our great-great grandchildren are contaminated.

So it turns out that there starts to be this trail of evidence linking Mohonk Preserve, the infamous, the beloved Mohonk Preserve, which no one could believe, because Mohonk is the “knight in shining armor,” Mohonk are the “protectors of the land.” All the evidence pointed to the fact that Friends of the Shawangunks are kind of a puppet, and this argument ensued between me and them.

[At this point the speaker put on hand puppets and acted out the following discourse, bringing down the house with laughter.]

I said, Youre really the Mohonk Preserve, and they said, No, Im not, were just Friends of the Shawangunks.

No, no, look, theres a hand in there, and it looks like Mohonks hand, and Friends of the Shawangunks said, No, you cant do that, we have separate keepers.

As it turns out, the Friends of the Shawangunks president is the son-in-law and heir to the Smiley(2) fortune. So there’s a little link. And it turns out that Van Valkenburgh, their surveyor, is the in-house surveyor for Mohonk Preserve. And it turns out that the Mohonk chief ranger was on the board of directors forever. And it turns out that Robert Anderberg, their attorney, was on the Mohonk board of trustees for nine years, and later served in the community as the Mohonk Preserve’s land acquisition agent. Very interesting. Proves absolutely nothing ...

Im the Friends of the Shawangunks. Im your friend. Were not evil. I look evil, but Im your friend.

So then, my editor faxed me an article from the New York Times which indicated that the Open Space Institute, this other thing, this bigger thing, was acquiring land from the Palisades to Albany, where we sit. And it will probably acquire this room fairly shortly.

They are doing this with great tenacity. They have lots of money, millions seem to come... out of somewhere — like the Wallace fund, the Readers Digest fortune, and it just seemed to be a coincidence that Friends of the Shawangunks, Mohonk Preserve and the Open Space Institute all had in common one person, Robert Anderberg, who was the general counsel to Friends of the Shawangunks, general counsel to the Open Space Institute and longtime trustee of the Mohonk Preserve, and also sometimes legal adviser and often guy on the ground, buying your mortgage, suing you to get you off your land, blocking your right-of-ways, calling New York City Water Department and making sure you can’t cross the aqueduct to get onto your land, etc., etc..

So I put this all together and I start calling them all back, and say, Well it looks to me like there’s a little conspiracy here. They said, Oh, no, there’s no conspiracy, we have this piece of paper proving that we’re separate from those guys. And I sat there with the chairman of the Mohonk Preserve and I tried to explain about corporate veil. I didn’t stop and think that he understood the corporate veil better than I understood the corporate veil. He just sat there with a perfectly straight face and said, Oh no. Oh no, no, no. We have separate boards of directors. You’ve checked with the State Department like I said, right? I said, I’m sure all your paperwork is fine. You guys have very expensive lawyers. What you’re pointing to is the conspiracy, the cover-up part of this, the piece of paper that says you’re not what you are. But you in fact are, because all this land that the Friends of the Shawangunks buys mysteriously ends up where? In the hands of O.S.I. or Mohonk Preserve. What a coincidence!

So this is a basically cell biological study. It’s on a microscopic level. But when you start to look on a microscopic level, you end up in a room full of people to whom similar things have happened. You very quickly go to the macroscopic level.

What’s the point?! The point is that Karen and Michael won in State Supreme Court. Judge Bradley ruled in their favor. Michael had this great nerdy real estate lawyer named Wayne Graff who is a great writer. He sits at his computer and he writes the paperwork out and he gets things in order. Michael is one of these tenacious people who does nothing but collect documents. You’ve got to be a document collector. Get a three-hole puncher, a lot of binders and a big bookshelf and start collecting documents. Get a little copier or go to Staples and make a lot of copies. Copy everything three times. Because you need the documents. You need them to explain to your lawyer, what’s going on, because your lawyer may not understand it. Your lawyer may have connections, but if you prove your case, you’re more likely to win your case.

If you can prove your case and explain it and provide clear documentation, you’re more likely to get a newspaper, which is my job, to report on this and to make sure that the truth is told and that the record of the case is clear. By a miracle, this article is in all your packets, it’s the Woodstock Times. That’s basically the story.

In answer to a question from the floor:
Bradley said that there’s compelling evidence of fraud here and that Karen and Michael have the right to sue for fraud under a case that I don’t quite understand yet that says that even if you are not personally defrauded but you’re the victim of fraud against someone else, you have the right to move under a fraud statute and move for your fees.

Karen and Michael had argued that, and this is, I believe, this is Wayne Graff’s language, that Friends of the Shawangunks had engaged in a conspiracy to defraud and deprive them of their property by means of false and fraudulent misrepresentations, adding that the organization used coercion, economic duress, deceit, misrepresentations to improperly acquire land for themselves or other groups under the guise of pursuing a public interest. This is clearly a private interest.

It’s very hard to fight these things because you’re out-moneyed, you’re out-maneuvered. They have very high-powered environmental lawyers who are fighting to take this land away. And there are no constitutional provisions protecting us from corporations, which can be the size of Israel, live forever and have the rights of private individuals. The Constitution does not cover corporations. This is very interesting. The Fourth and Fifth Amendments protect property rights but they protect you allegedly from the government. So, what does the government to? The government incorporates and makes a little puppet and in many of your cases, in this case, there is no Fourth Amendment (3) protection against search and seizure by Friends of the Shawangunks. It’s not listed in the Bill of Rights. It’s not included. Yes, you can allegedly block the government. (This has all gone to hell, also.) And I know we’re on the conservative side here and we’re starting to sound a lot like commie-pinko-left-wingers, because the government can just come strolling into your life. But it’s worse when the corporations do it, because there’s no protection against that in the Constitution. So it’s very, very hard to argue, and your private interest ends up going up against their private interests.

You have to have tremendous patience, you have to have tremendous tenacity, and basically not meet their energy with negative energy. I’m speaking here as an astrologer, you have to kind of breathe in to the conflict and not meet it like a bat going at it because you’ll bounce right off their heads. I understand these are very emotional issues. They can drag you down on the spiritual level. They can attack you. You’ve got to use these things to build your community. You’ve got to use these things to strengthen your family and not weaken your family. You’ve got to love what you’re doing and you’ve got to have a passion for the truth that supersedes all else.

In reality we’re just stewards of this land and, by far, making this right on a karmic level, getting the truth just straightened out and recorded, I believe, is the most important thing. That takes tremendous patience, it takes a lot of love, and it takes community.

It takes an understanding that there are many such stories. So please call me and tell me your stories. Share with me what has happened to you and in your community. I’m looking for stories in this area. I’m looking to expand this and basically document this, and start to get this into places like “60 Minutes.” If I can have a couple of stories that come out of Peoria, I can get this onto “60 Minutes.”

So I’ll leave you with the words of Marge Pearson, who wrote in a poem called “The Good Go Down.”

“Goodness is not dangerous enough. ...The good must learn to cultivate their anger like fields of wheat that must feed them.”

(1) strategic lawsuit against public participation.
(2) The late Daniel Smiley, the founder of the Mohonk Preserve, according to Mr. Coppolino in “By Any Means,” Woodstock Times, Dec. 4, 1997.
(3) or Fifth Amendment - Ed.

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