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Head for the Hills

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Take a Peak: Michelle and Derek Sanders on their Roxbury spread.  

Upstate, it takes Slowey a full hour round-trip to buy her Sunday Times, but she relishes the lack of amenities. “There’s no designer anything in this town,” she says happily. “These people carry shotguns and fishing poles.” Plus, she points out, “every farm is a boutique farm. Someone sells maple syrup, another sells fresh eggs, another has beautiful flowers.” And while there’s nowhere to be seen, there’s plenty to look at: “I have fawns who sleep in my yard and coyotes who come out to eat them.”

Living among the coyotes is not for everyone. Matthew Lee and Ted Lee, South Carolina–bred brothers who make a living writing about southern foods, prefer the more urban nature of the northeastern Catskills. Their new pad is a three-bedroom house in Coxsackie, an eighteenth-century mercantile town on the Hudson River. They bought it last spring for $140,000. “After dreaming of farmland, we realized that the country setting we most wanted wasn’t dark and quiet when the sun went down,” says Matthew. “At some point, that’ll be appealing, but now it’s more important just to have a manageable 0.2-acre plot and access to more fun: food, booze—and we’re 50 yards from the free boat ramp.”

The Catskills offer endless opportunities to plan your dream house—the Lee brothers are saving for a new slate roof, Anne Slowey is importing a load of seventeenth-century French stone for her bathroom, Jared Paul Stern wants a swimming pool sometime in the near future (though, to be fair, “not a big one”)—but there’s no arguing that they are remote. What the Catskills don’t have is a ready-made sense of community—for weekenders, at least.

In an area where local families count the histories of their friendships in generations, not years, there’s not a lot of mingling between the old and the new. Look past the euphoria that the recent economic growth has created among the contractors and the real-estate brokers, and it’s clear that for many of the people who live and work in the Catskills, the swarms of shiny European cars are about as welcome as the deluge of water that flooded dozens of towns to create the area’s reservoirs in the fifties.

Every day, between stories on the local high-school sports stars and the latest DWI offenders, the Catskill Mountain News tells of yet another territorial squabble between those who want to keep the wilderness unspoiled and those who want to profit from it: There was the fight in Andes over replacing individual septic tanks with a town sewer system (good for the watershed protection efforts, but bad for local business since a sewer’s capacity limits growth). Then there’s the puppeteer–house painter from the Green Party—a weekender favorite—winning the mayoral race in New Paltz. In Gardiner, there’s the “Save the Gunks” effort to prevent a developer from subdividing the 2,700-acre Awosting Reserve into plots for 349 luxury homes.

And then there is the mother of all conflicts: For the past four years, there’s been a dispute over the future of Highmount. Dean Gitter, owner of the $500-a-night Emerson Spa in Shandaken, followed a New Age guru to the Catskills before any of the recent arrivals and had the foresight to buy himself half a mountain, not to mention the local water supply. Now he’d like to turn his property into an 1,800-acre golf course with several more expensive lodgings. While the contractors and shop owners who would profit from the tourist traffic are all for it, weekenders who crave privacy—and locals who fear a population boom—are not. “It’ll take eight years to build,” says Peter DiModica, Shandaken town supervisor and owner of a small antiques shop in Pine Hill. “And between 600 and 900 workers. People from all over the country will be doing the work, putting pressure on housing and increasing rents for people who live here.”

It’s that fear of being priced out of the area that makes some locals suspicious of newcomers. Toni Perretta, a former cosmetics executive who now runs a popular restaurant called That Certain Something, found this out the hard way when she moved to Fleischmanns in 1996. “When I got here, I noticed that the established communities had more activities,” she remembers. “So I organized a Fleischmanns Field Day. It was designed to be cultural. We got Herb, who trains falcons and hawks; we had storytellers; I had a line caller and a square dance.” But Fleischmanns, named after the margarine family who built the stately Victorians that line Main Street, is a quiet little town that had been in decline since the forties, and her new neighbors didn’t want to play along.

“Field Day was one of the worst experiences I’ve had up here,” says Perretta. “There were rumors that this was a get-rich-quick scheme for a city girl, and no one showed up. I think that they wanted to discourage me. People who were born here, they’re concerned by, say, what’s happened in Woodstock. They’re afraid they won’t be able to afford to live here.”

On the first dry day of the summer, the weekly farmers’ market at the Round Barn in Halcottsville hums with vendors hawking everything from farm-raised lamb chops to handmade note cards, and smartly dressed weekenders pick their dinners from artfully arranged mounds of radishes, new potatoes, and tomatoes.

Dominic Michel, who works for the nonprofit educational organization Prep for Prep in Manhattan, takes a swig of fresh strawberry juice as he surveys the scene. “My family’s been coming to Roxbury for 40 years,” he says. “See that house over there? When I was a kid, my friend lived in it, and he’d have to chase the cows into the barn before he went to school. I always get a kick out of coming here because I think of Richard and those cows.”

Already, cows in the Catskills seem to be headed the way of the potato farms in Long Island—driven into extinction by rising land values. “We’ve all had to diversify,” says Barbara Hill, a former dairy farmer who’s now presiding over her family’s maple-syrup booth. “I just saw in the paper today that the 25-years-ago prices for milk were the same as they are today.” She eyes a group of venture capitalists in designer sunglasses who are checking out her $3 bags of maple sugar. “The maple prices aren’t the same—that’s for sure!”

Neither are the land values—particularly in Greene and Delaware counties, where asking prices have gone up at least 20 percent in the past year. Witness a massive, McMansion-ish hilltop spread that a contractor built for himself near Margaretville: It sold last year for about $750,000; the new owner is now trying to flip it for $1.25 million.

Widespread price inflation is making homesteaders wonder if they’re going to want to live here in twenty years—or whether the landscape will be spoiled by suburban sprawl. “Every week, I speak to another person who’s getting a house in the Catskills,” says Raina Penchansky, publicity director for Coach (she and her husband bought in Margaretville last fall). “But it’ll never be the Hamptons. There aren’t as many homes, and there’s tons of land. They’ll never be able to build like that.”

She’s got a point: Delaware, Greene, Ulster, and Sullivan counties encompass an area of 4,200 square miles; the South Fork of Long Island is about 150 (in fact, all of Long Island covers 1,700 square miles). So while you and your friends may all be moving to the boonies, learning to weed gardens and to maneuver the kind of all-wheel-drive wagons you used to think were just for soccer moms, it’s unlikely you’ll be bumping into one another when you get there.


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