Keeping all options open, the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem will likely move to appeal a judge’s rejection of a wolf compound on town-owned land, the organization’s executive director says.
While no firm decision has been reached, executive director Deborah Heineman said in a telephone interview that the center will probably file a notice of appeal while it studies other alternatives when she returns to work after her current vacation.
The notice, which is not itself a formal appeal, keeps the legal door open to filing one later if the center decides to go that route.
State Supreme Court Justice J. Emmett Murphy ruled against the Wolf Conservation Center Tuesday in a lawsuit brought by the Westchester Land Trust against both the center and Town of Lewisboro. In a five-page opinion, Murphy upheld the trust’s central contention that building enclosures for the wolf compound would violate a conservation easement restricting use of the property.
The proposed eight-acre wolf compound would have occupied a sliver of the Leon Levy Preserve, a 380-acre stretch of hardwood forests and wetlands, bounded by routes 35 and 123. It includes about 90 acres of New York City watershed and is formally bound to remain forever wild.
Lewisboro bought the property in 2005, when it could still be developed. In return for the town’s granting a conservation easement—including the prohibition against any development—the land trust chipped in $5.5 million of the $8.3 million purchase price. A foundation largely funded by Levy, a fund manager and philanthropist who died in 2003, supplied $5 million of the land trust’s contribution. His widow, Shelby White, who arranged the gift, could not be reached for comment.
Lewisboro and New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection also kicked in $1 million each and the Dextra Baldwin McGonagle Foundation contributed $500,000 over five years.
In his decision, Murphy called the restrictions on the land’s use “unequivocal,” saying, “The plain language of the easement itself expressly provides that its purpose is . . . to hold the land which comprises the preserve in an ‘undeveloped state’ in perpetuity and to provide for ‘passive recreational activities.’”
While the easement does not specifically outlaw a wolf compound, he noted, it clearly forbids the kind of “excavation, extraction, grading or removal of soil” associated with fence building.
Heineman called it unfair to make fences an issue. “Of course you have to have fences when there are wolves,” she said. “But nobody said a word about them when we were walking the property [in 2009, discussing a lease for the compound].”
But Tom Andersen, the land trust’s director at the time of those discussions, disputed her recollection, saying fences had been an integral part of the talks from the beginning. Asked why the land trust had not simply rejected the wolf center’s overtures at the first mention of any construction, Andersen said the discussions never got beyond the talking stage.
“We always said that for the land trust to make a decision, we needed to see a real [written] proposal,” he said. “They never did that.” Instead, the Wolf Conservation Center negotiated a lease directly with the Town of Lewisboro, he said, prompting the land trust’s lawsuit.
Andersen called the court decision “very important,” going beyond the Wolf Conservation Center dispute to provide judicial affirmation of the land trust’s many conservation easements.
Heineman said the Wolf Conservation Center, believing it had a green light for the compound, applied for and subsequently received a $300,000 grant from the state’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Another $1.3 million in private donations also came into the center to help fund the compound.
Pianist Hélène Grimaud and others founded the nationally known Wolf Conservation Center in 1999. Some wolves roam the center’s current grounds in South Salem, shielded from people and eventually set free in the wild. A handful of others—now down to one—become “ambassadors,” trained to meet the public, both at the center and at venues far removed, to educate people about wolves and the center’s work.
Westchester Land Trust, with roots in Lewisboro and Bedford, was founded in 1988 and has since grown into a countywide organization that seeks to protect environmentally important open space.