1942 – 1999 The Abandoned Years

When the war ended, Grenci & Ellis continued to own and operate the Mount Waldo quarry in Maine, but the Mohegan Quarry was abandoned and any remaining equipment was sold, transferred elsewhere or left to be vandalized. The sheds that once housed busy cutting, polishing and carving operations were either demolished or left for nature to take its course; today, only the foundations of these sheds remain. 

In 1944, Grenci & Ellis began selling the land. In 1944 and 1945, land was sold to Mogul Park Estates and Alpine Woods for future housing developments around Lake Mohegan. In 1952 land was sold to the Algonquin Pipeline Company and in 1957 to New Jersey resident John Van Kirk. 

In the summer of 1954, when the Town of Cortlandt was considering banning Yorktown garbage collectors from disposing of their loads in a Cortlandt dump, the Yorktown Town Board entered into discussions with Grenci & Ellis to purchase, at a cost of $24,000, 97 acres to be used for both the disposal of  the town’s garbage and a park. At the time, no decision had been made as to how the garbage would be disposed of, e.g., as a landfill or incineration. But, at a Town Board meeting, the Director of the Division of Sanitation for the Westchester County Health Department advised the Town Board that based on his inspection, the site was “ideally suited” for a sanitary landfill operation.

The issue generated considerable interest, both for an against the plan. The Chamber of Commerce supported the plan, but by the fall, homeowners in the Mohegan area, including the Alpine Woods Community and Mogul Park Estates, opposed it and submitted petitions asking the Board to discontinue negotiations. Opponents also organized Yorktown Citizen’s Committee for Better Health under the leadership of Leo Chancer.  Councilman Dr. Hyman Millman, a Mohegan resident, was also opposed.

In October, the Town Board scheduled a December 18th referendum on the purchase, but before the vote even took place, and in the face of strong opposition and comments from Supervisor John Downing that the county operated Croton Point landfill operation would remain available for the next 20 years — and possibly 50 years, the garbage part of the proposed purchase plan was dropped. Instead, the purchase would be only for creating a future town park.

But the change of use didn’t quell opposition to the purchase. And in November, Chancer’s group held a meeting, reportedly with 200 people in attendance, in opposition to the plan. Chancer also criticized the Board for not holding a public hearing on the proposed purchase and for not releasing a report on the feasibility of the site for a town park that had been prepared by the town’s consultant, Ralph Barnes.

The day after the meeting, Chancer urged the Town Board to rescind the resolution that authorized the supervisor to enter into a purchase contract with Grenci & Ellis. But the town attorney advised Chancer that once the contract had been entered into it could only be nullified if the referendum was defeated. And, he added, if the referendum passed, it would be up to the Town Board to decide how the property would be used. The town attorney also advised Councilman Millman that it was too late to accommodate his request that the wording of the referendum be changed to delete any reference to garbage disposal.

The planning consultant’s report about the site’s potential use for recreation purposes was eventually was made public. It described the property as consisting of three areas: one low and marshy, a middle section open and fairly level, and a third that was a very precipitous granite hill, the site of the abandoned quarry. The report went on to say that the former quarry buildings could be repaired and used but that “much of equipment had deteriorated beyond use.”  Also “a considerable amount of cut granite of various sizes remains and hundreds of cubic yards of granite tailings are piled near the buildings.

The report went on to list both the advantages and disadvantages of a potential park.

The advantages of the site were:

  • It was sufficiently large to permit a variety of activities to be developed
  • It was conveniently located
  • Its development would not tend to devalue any extensive residential areas
  • The topography made it extremely difficult and expensive to develop for other purposes and, at the same time, its ruggedness enhanced its value as a large park.

The unfavorable aspects of the property as a potential site for a park were:

  • As a large park, it was not centrally located, except that it was close to the town’s main east-west road
  • The existing buildings would have to be either demolished or repaired to avoid potential hazards to the public
  • The only access, at that time, was a narrow driveway across property that was not part of the tract proposed for purchase

The report concluded: “It is recommended that the Town acquire the Grenci-Ellis tract for use as a large Town park in view of the advantages listed above which in our opinion outweigh the  disadvantages. We are also of the opinion that the acquisition price, as quoted to us, if very favorable.”

Despite the report’s findings, Chancer’s group remained opposed to the park and Councilman Millman labeled the tract a “white elephant,” adding that the town hadn’t been able to improve the parks it already had. He also noted that the Town would likely have difficulty “unloading” the land at some future date because of a restrictive clause in the purchase contract forbidding its use as a quarry. It seems, he pointed out, that the town “could not sell to anyone interested in the property for the only purpose that it is suitable for.”   

The purchase continued to have the support of the Chamber of Commerce which had earlier supported the garbage plan. It was opposed by the Yorktown Democratic Club.

In the days leading up to the referendum Chancer said:

“If the C of C was so concerned with recreational projects, why then did they not speak up at the last Town Budget meeting when it was revealed that not an additional penny would be spent to further develop our two existing parks where the facilities are so sorely lacking?  It is alright to plan for the population of tomorrow, but what about the children of today. If we toss our money away on a foolish project, we are merely depriving our children of the fun, health and recreational facilities known to prevail in other towns.”

At the December 19 referendum, 384 residents voted No, compared to 137 Yes. A total of 83 ballots were void. Commenting on the vote, Councilman Millman said:

“It is gratifying to me to see once again the exercise of intelligence and good judgment on the part of the voters.  I have always had faith in the intelligence of the people provided facts were given to them fairly and sincerely. Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty, but also of good government in fact they are inseparable.”

Chancer’s group, which had spearheaded the opposition, lauded Dr. Millman for his “tireless and courageous campaign” to defeat the referendum.

Two weeks prior to the referendum vote, the Town Board appointed a 15 member citizen’s  advisory committee to survey the establishment of a municipal town-wide garbage collection program.

In July, 1957, Yorktown resident Pliny Fisk, president of Westchester True Soil, Inc. applied to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a special permit to use the Grenci-Ellis site for composting operation to handle the town’s garage disposal needs. According to Fisk, while the operation would be the first of its kind in the United States, it was being successfully used in Paris, France. Prior to the ZBA submission, Fisk arranged for town officials to see a demonstration of the composting operation in Maywood, New Jersey.

The composting operation would be housed in the site’s existing 4,000 shed and run 24 hours a day. The refuse would be brought to the site in covered trucks and sprayed with a bacterial solution to eliminate odors. The garbage would then travel by conveyors to a 20’ high digester for grinding. While on the conveyor, the garbage would be sorted and cans, rags and paper removed. The entire operation would take place inside the old quarry sheds. The digester, he said, would be a better alternative to either a sanitary landfill or incineration and would be totally odorless. The digester’s end product would be fertilizer that could be used in a composting operation.

Source: Peekskill Museum
Source: Peekskill Museum

It didn’t take long for opposition to the digester plan to surface. In August, a large crowd, armed with petitions against the plan, jammed into town hall for a ZBA meeting. In addition to area homeowners, the opposition included Loyola Seminary, the Jesuit seminary on Stony Street that had opened in 1955. Speaking at the hearing, the Very Rev. John J. McMahon told the board, “Under the guise of a temporary permit it will become a permanent nuisance” and that such an operation would “seriously jeopardize our nearly $7,000,000 investment.” The Seminary also hired an engineer who wrote that an odorless system for disposing of garb age had yet to be discovered.

A group of environmentalists (not named in the newspaper report), supported the project. The  ZBA advised residents that it would not render a decision until it received reports from the town’s new planning consultant, Robert Mickle,  and the town engineer and building inspector.  But, in a preliminary report, Mickle advised the board that he would be seeking answers to would two questions:

  1. Would the process, which was shown to work in a test tube, work in an actual manufacturing process?
  2. Was the process a suitable use for the Grenci-Ellis site?

In September, Fisk, accompanied by his 12 year old son, Pliny Fisk, III and a model of the digester, had a booth at the Grange Fair to explain the digesting operation.

Source: The Evening Star

At the ZBA’s October meeting, representatives of Loyola Seminary requested that the hearing be postponed as its engineer’s report was not completed. Mickle did, however, give the board a progress report, noting that the Master Plan envisioned the site for public or semi-public use. He also advised the ZBA that the Planning Board had asked him to identify alternative sites for handling the town’s garbage.

At its October meeting, the ZBA also heard from a representative of the Naturalist Workshop of Northern Westchester-Putnam Counties in support of the plan, and a report was read into the record from the Chamber of Commerce urging “favorable action” on the permit request. Shrub Oak resident  John Amorosi, who had been a member of the 1954 Citizen’s Advisory Committee, urged the ZBA to approve the project, telling the board, “It is not a question of trying something that is new  but it is a question of pioneering something that is going to be of benefit to the public.”

Fisk advised the ZBA, “I believe in the honor of the men who govern this town.  If they say they are going to put restrictions on this plant to make sure it is what it claims to be. I believe they will uphold these restrictions.”

When the hearing resumed in November, the banner across the entire front page of The Evening Star read “Clash at Digester Hearing” and the article described a “record-breaking” crowd that jammed into the Town Hall meeting room and spilled over into the building’s lobby and out the front steps. But ZBA chairman Theodore Hill, Jr. advised the crowd that the board would not be making  a decision that night, adding that statements for and against the permit application could be submitted over the next ten days.

Crowd fills Town Hall for digester hearing. | Source: The Evening Star

At the hearing, planning consultant Mickle recommended that the ZBA give favorable consideration to the location for the digester type of operation on an experimental basis — but he made no specific recommendation as to the Grenci-Ellis site and said he could not until more detailed plans were submitted and reviewed  by the county’s Health Department. He went on to say that the ZBA should not reach a decision until it had heard from both area residents and the entire town.

A spokesman for Loyola Seminary advised the ZBA that it “had no legal right to grant the permit” and that “it would not be in harmony with the purpose of the Yorktown Zoning ordinance.”

A Mohegan resident said “We do not want to be the guinea pigs. We do not want to live in an area where there is a possibility of constant odor. Citing potential health hazards and dangers to the area’s children, she claimed that the garbage would be rising to our windowsills if the plant should break down.

A spokesman for 25 homes in the Alpine Woods community told the board that the composting plant would threaten the life savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars of homeowners. He claimed that over 1,000 people were against the proposal. According to the newspaper account of the hearing, the meeting got out of hand when the speaker’s comments led to a series of both boos and applause.

Mr. Peter Rottenberg, who said he spoke for “300” Mohegan homeowners, and a spokesman for the Mogul Park Association also voiced their opposition to the plan. Local realtor Frank Reilly, Jr.  advised the board that the plant would result  in a “marked depreciation of real estate values in the whole area.”

But there were also speakers in support of the digester plan.

A sanitary engineer from Boston advised the board that the composting operation was “feasible”  and that any operation that led to soil conservation was a fine idea. He added, though, that there were “practical” issues with the Fisk digester plan that had to be “cleared up.”

The town’s consultant and town engineer advised the board that based on a 1951 survey, similar composting operations were successfully being used in Italy, France and Denmark – but that there were still disadvantages to that type of plant. He said that while potential odors could be controlled, there was a potential problem with the disposal of warm water. But Mr. Fisk’s attorney assured the board that the plant would not create any water problems. “The disposal of water is not a problem. The property is quarry land, the water will be filtered through 10 feet of granite.” He also assured the board that, “If we fail, our financial heads can be knocked off.” Once again, Mr. Fisk guaranteed no odors.

Later that month, the Lake Mohegan Resort and Homeowners Association voted “to make a concerted effort to see to it that our area does not become a guinea pig for a garbage digester…We who live and own property in the area of the proposed site, feel that the aesthetic atmosphere of the entire Lake Mohegan area will suffer resulting in devaluation of property.”

The ZBA did not arrive at any decision.

On December 5, a petition with approximately 200 signatures from Mohegan residents that called the digester plant “improper and illegal” was incorrectely filed with the Cortlandt Town Board and referred to the Yorktown Zoning Board.  Petitions in support of the project that were placed in three retail stores on “Main Street” disappeared.  

Seeing the proverbial handwriting on the wall, on December 17, two days before the ZBA decision was expected, Mr. Fisk notified the town that he was withdrawing his request for a special permit. In a prepared statement, he thanked town officials for their efforts in reviewing his application and added that his company would continue to pursue its plans elsewhere. 2

On December 19, ZBA chairman Hill indicated that the board would have denied the application for the digester operation but because the application had been withdrawn, no board action was needed. A seven-point final report of the board’s findings was, however, read into the record.  The report  concluded that :

  • The property was wholly in a residential area and that the applicant was aware of the fact that the proposed use was not a permitted use when he contracted to purchase the property.
  • No claim was made that the property was not available for other uses.
  • The applicant did not allege, claim or prove the existence of any undue hardship or practical difficulties.
  • That a 1954 referendum had rejected a garbage disposal operation on the site.
  • The operation would substantially depreciate property values of the adjoining and surrounding land owners.
  • That the proposed use was not in harmony with the general intent and purposes of the Zoning Code and that it was not in character with the adjacent and surrounding areas.

Reporting on Mr. Fisk’s final comments, the newspaper noted that Mr. Fisk had no fight or dispute with the board but had complete faith in the process and that he felt he would be able to prove the merits of his digesting operation as time went on.

The ZBA recommended that the town appoint a committee to study the town’s garbage disposal problem and to “look further into the permits of the process.”

In 1967, a different use for the Grenci & Ellis site was proposed: this time, for a garbage transfer station — which ironically was not all that different from the 1954 discussion.  By the 1960s, Westchester County was facing a garbage crisis and the need to close the Croton landfill. In 1967, an engineering report recommended the construction of a modern incinerator — and also for the county to acquire additional disposal sites in “relatively undeveloped areas,” one such site being the quarry in Yorktown.  The report’s recommendations were never implemented.

By the 1970’s, the former Grenci & Ellis holdings were broken up into mostly three large parcels, each with different owners, and in 1979, the town acquired one of the three parcels, a total of 207 acres, in foreclosure proceedings. The acquisitions likely led to the recommendation in the 1983 Master Plan that the former quarry site could be used for a park or open space as an alternative to low density housing.

sylvan_acquire map3-8_rev

In the late 1980s,Van Kirk, the owner of the third parcel entered into a contract with the Hovnanian Company, a major developer of single family houses and condominium communities.  At that time, the company had offices on Strang Boulevard in Yorktown and had built the Society Hill development in Peekskill. Regrettably, no records of what Hovnanian was proposing for the former quarry site have survived, except for a single mention in Planning Department records that there was a proposal for a “Yorktown Quarry” development.

In 1993, Van Kirk sold the flat land fronting on Route 202, which was roughly where the quarry’s sheds and finished stone was shipped from, to 202 Golf Associates, which in turn sold off a small piece fronting on Lexington Avenue to Foleys Industrial Park, Inc. 

By 1995, Van Kirk’s representatives were suggesting a new proposal to town officials for his remaining 85 acres.  While the details of the plan have not survived, according to Town Board minutes, the plan appears to have been building on a small portion of the land with access from Grant Avenue and over town land, plus giving the town 60 acres. 

But by 1996, that plan, whatever it was, was scrapped, and on August 20, 1996, the Town Board voted to accept a “gift of land” from Mr. Van Kirk and pay his broker $48,000 “in consideration of such broker’s services to the town in connection with the transaction.”

Three years later, in October, 1999, and as a direct result of a campaign spearheaded by Judy Shepard, president of the Yorktown Land Trust and a Westchester County legislator, the Town Board dedicated the land it had acquired over almost three decades as Sylvan Glen Park Preserve.  According to John Schroeder, a member of the Yorktown Land Trust, the name “Sylvan” was a reference to Sylvan Road and the nearby headwaters of Sylvan Brook which runs through the Park; the word “Glen” was an added thought.

Once the land was dedicated as a park, Shepard worked with scout troops to turn the site’s existing road network once used by quarry workers into trails and also to lay out new trails with the help of the town’s naturalist David Klotzle.

In 2000, the town approved the expenditure of $40,000 to build a parking lot off Grant Avenue.  A second parking area was created on Stony Street when the town was straightening the street. 

In 2010, the New York New Jersey Trail Conference entered into a Memorandum of Agreement with the town to maintain the trails. The Agreement is still in force as of 2021.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Five additional small parcels were subsequently added to the park by foreclosure.
  2. In a 2021 phone conversation, Pliny Fisk, III, Mr. Fisk’s 77 year old son said that his father’s company eventually built a similar plant in somewhere in Tennessee. He did not remember the exact location. Mr. Fisk also vividly remembered that after his father’s plan had been rejected, some family members and friends brought 20 loads of refuse from Philadelphia to the site and under cover of darkness, processed the refuse over three nights. And, he stated emphatically, there was no odor. The equipment was subsequently dismantled. As a post script to the digester’s history, Mr. Fisk, III went on to become the co-founder of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, a not-for-profit organization devoted to promoting sustainability.