Land Acquisition Push Gains Steam
Reprinted from Hamilton County News, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 1992
It appears the campaign to preserve the Adirondacks has entered high gear, as preservationists press their case with an array of powerful weapons.
Headlines announcing calls to save the Adirondacks take choice space in New York newspapers. National environmental organizations are organizing rank and file members across the country to push for state and federal legislation to rescue "the disappearing" Adirondack wilderness from development although 42 percent of the six million-acre Adirondack Park is protected state Forest Preserve and the remaining private land is strictly zoned by the state.
Environmentalists focus on promoting federal legislation to save "timber land", saying it would preserve the traditional economy. The state-wide draft Open Space Conservation Plan has begun its publicity runs around the state. Funding sources proposed in the plan total $1.4 billion. The plan lists more than 1,300 potential acquisitions.
An unexpected ploy brought a nationally successful preservation tactic to the Adirondacks for the first time an "endangered" species has been discovered. Barely two weeks later, a new angle was added to save restored species long absent from the Adirondacks.
Finally, town-by-town, local officials all over the Adirondacks have begun honing their approvals of lists of land for the state to acquire lists primarily provided by environmental groups. This local participation is timed so the lists will be added to the Open Space Conservation Plan after public hearings on it are over.
Meanwhile, the participation of speaker after speaker at the draft Open Space Conservation Plan [land acquisition] hearings in January created an illusion of democracy, as the state 13 not bound to act on comments. The most controversial area, state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Region 5, including most of the Adirondacks, had no proposed list of acquisitions from its Land Acquisition Advisory Committee (LAAC).
The refusal to hear speakers from the Adirondacks at the New York City hearing was not reported by the press there. Opposition is also quieted by avoiding use of the words "eminent domain" and citing the proposal to use easements for much state land acquisition.
More and more state-imposed restrictions and an ever-increasing state-imposed tax burden make it continually more difficult for average Adirondackers to bear the cost of holding on to their land.
A growing demand from voters for fiscal responsibility contrasts with borrowing which would be necessary for recommended land acquisition, while environmentalists are depicting land acquisition proposed in the 1992-93 state budget as relatively modest and pay-as&SHY;you-go.
"Do it without causing a fiscal crisis," says John Sheehan for the preservationist Adirondack Council, using the good sell of fiscal restraint adopted by land acquisition advocates after the 1990 Environmental Quality Bond Act borrowing scheme was defeated by voters.
Only $9 million will be sought for land acquisition in the new state budget, according to DEC Spokesman R.W. Groneman. However, DEC Commissioner Thomas Jorling requested $50 million, according to a Nov. 24, 1991 interview of DEC Executive Deputy Commissioner Langdon Marsh in the Watertown Daily Times.
Whatever the sum allocated for land acquisition, the weapon of apparent fiscal responsibility is good for pacifying taxpayers. The self-perpetuating land acquisition fund would also serve land buying goals admirably.
Heavy guns to get land acquisition and Adirondack land restrictions are also being brandished outside northern New York.
Of all the environmental tools to stop human activity in a region, the Endangered Species Act has become the most powerful by far. "It can stop any human activity," bemoaned logger Tom Hirons of Gates, Ore.
A trial balloon was floated in New York the day before hearings on the open space plan were held. It concerns 100 acres of a 1,200-acre pine barrens in Clinton County where a moth which is rare in this area has its home. The land has been sold to developers.
It is not exactly a "charismatic megafauna", as environmentalists label such appealing creatures as the spotted owl, that can gain enough public sympathy for preservationists to mount a national campaign. It is not a listed endangered species; but it is a test of the capacity of a species to be used to gain support for the preservationist agenda.
Vast habitats are often sought for endangered species. Concepts such as "intact ecosystems" and "land bridges" explain the vast expanses of vacant land depicted on the Adirondack Council's 20/20 Vision maps of Adirondack bioregions areas presently populated by many small towns.
The UNESCO Adirondack-Champlain Biosphere Reserve status which was assigned to the Adirondacks in 1989 involves ever-expanding uninhabited areas and continuous restoration of pristine status to areas that have been influenced by human activity.
Environmentalists are also touting reintroduced species in an argument to save vast habitats. The comeback of the moose in the Town of Long Lake's 52,000-acre Whitney tract, owned by Sonny Whitney, is being used as a reason for acquiring that land. "It is clear that some animal species cannot survive dodging car traffic and need huge areas of habitat," the Times Union quoted an expert saying recently.
Environmentalists are also using endangered species as a reason to acquire the Whitney tract before the species are reintroduced. "If the timber wolf and the cougar were ever to be reintroduced in New York, the Bob would offer the most promising habitat," the Times Union reported Feb. 2 in an article pushing for state acquisition of the Whitney lands.
"The Bob" refers to the Adirondack Council's proposed current pet project, a 408,000-acre Bob Marshall Great Wilderness area in the west-central Adirondack Park, which the Whitney lands would become part of. The area contains 441 lakes, 50,000 acres of forests and 71 miles of waterways within the state's Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System, according to the Adirondack Council.
The second most effective weapon nationwide to remove land from human influence is the wetlands designation. The Adirondack Park Agency (APA) has used the wetlands designation to impose concessions on many project applicants.
THE NINE JEWELS
The "Nine Jewels" campaign of a consortium of environmental groups, including the Wilderness Society and the National Audubon Society, has been pushing for northern forest lands preservation for the last couple of years and reaches beyond state borders.
Their New Year's campaign list includes three Adirondack parcels the Follensby Pond tract in Franklin County, the Morgan property on Lake George and an International Paper Co. tract on Raquette River.
Explaining the national drive by Audubon, Campaign Director Eric Siy said, "Being it's the centennial of the park and the fact that the governor is considering legislation for the park, Audubon has gotten involved in making sure that this legislation does something for the park and those who live there."
Siy's reference to the beneficial economic features of the governor's Adirondack Park bill does not reflect widespread reactions by groups from regional tourism to economic development experts, which have decried the bill's features.
Siy believes Adirondackers support land acquisition and the giant voting margins in the Adirondacks against the 1990 Bond Act reflected concern against borrowing, not land acquisition.
While the Audubon Society is steering clear of any reference to the Whitney estate, the Adirondack Council is calling for "protection of it in a variety of different ways," according to Sheehan.
"It is all part of the Bob Marshall Great Wilderness," said Sheehan. Referring to the five-parcel Whitney subdivision presently before the APA, Sheehan said, "I don't like to see it broken up."
The Times Union turned the heat up Feb. 2 in an article headlined, "Meet Bob: big, wild and in need of protection". It was peppered with emotional warnings such as the Whitney property "could be divided into 1,200 lots" and references to the Whitneys' "development plans".
Whitney Industries has applied to the APA to subdivide into five lots 50,000 acres of property designated Resource Management on the APA's Land Use and Development Plan Map. The lots would consist of four building lots, one of which is vacant while the other three have long-existing buildings on them. The fifth lot of 49,000 acres would be retained.
Resource Management lands are subject to 42.7-acre zoning under the APA's intensity guidelines.
Even well-heeled landowners like the Whitneys can feel the pressure of land acquisition campaigning. "Obviously, we don't like finding our name on a list of potential acquisitions," said Tim Schlachter of Whitney Industries.
"We don't plan any more development as the Adirondack Council has alluded to nor any change to the open space character of the property," he added.
APA Commissioner Peter Paine told the Whitneys, "This
is the last bite you're getting out of the apple."
DEC tried to get its Region 5 LAAC to endorse acquisition of the Whitney estate, along with 14 miles of Niagara Mohawk Power Co. shorefront along the Hudson River in Warrensburg and Lake Luzerne and four other oft-sought tracts, but the committee balked.
This did not prevent the Times Union from making the misleading announcement Feb. 2 that environmentalists "scored a victory for The Bob" because "a state-appointed open space committee for the region finally agreed to name parcels that deserve protection from development", when in fact the Region 5 LAAC did no such thing.
Claiming a development crisis, threats to pristine lakes and shoreline vulnerability, environmentalists spread the word outside the region in campaigns that indeed have the power to propel Adirondack Park legislation and the land acquisition budget.
The press in general is also stressing the state's empty coffers for land buying. An opening quote from Audubon's Siy that Follensby Pond would make "an enticing view from shoreline condominiums" is typical of the tone of Glens Falls Post-Star articles. The Times Union has stressed the "ominous" questions of availability of state money to buy land.
One of the most powerful tools of the land acquisition campaign is pacification of local residents by creating a network for participation into which to funnel and diffuse opposition.
The framework for participation was laid out by environmental interests from beyond the park's borders, via the 1990 Bond Act and the modifications DEC laid out in the operations of the nine regional land acquisition advisory committees.
DEC rolled with the punches as local officials grabbed control of the key Region 5 LAAC, where, as on all the committees, local officials had a mandated minority compared to the governor's appointees. DEC refused only one demand by local officials on the committee: it did not and will not release its secret acquisition map.
It is expected the map would spark a storm of controversy like the map attached to the Commission report did. Except for the Adirondack Council, preservationists on the committee expressed satisfaction with the end result of the committee's year-plus effort a system of guidelines and priorities rather than a list of land to acquire.
Siy expressed outrage at the "black hole" in the Adirondacks on the state-wide land acquisition plan; but in the end the Region 5 process paved the way for local participation in a way that should serve the cause of enlarging state land holdings far more smoothly than the submission of the lists preservationists wanted to offer.
Donald Gerdts of the Citizens Council of the Adirondacks, who criticized the Region 5 LAAC when it came out with guidance for the use of eminent domain, called the regional committee "a charade and a scam" after it began detailed evaluation of state land acquisition lists.
"The people of the Adirondack region voted 10-1 and 20-1 [depending on county] against land acquisition," Gerdts said. "It's the same game a constant repetition of the abortion of our rights." Disgusted with local Adirondack political leadership, Gerdts founded the Property Rights Council of America last year to fight nationally against the environmental campaign for more government ownership of private land.
EVALUATING LAND LISTS
Three pilot programs in the towns of Newcomb, Lake Pleasant and Indian Lake to involve local towns in recommending lands for state acquisition got DEC smoothly on the way for an Adirondack-wide participation process.
The Newcomb committee, for instance, recommended the acquisition of land at high elevations and along the Hudson River. It balked at endorsing the acquisition of land considered economically significant and the Gooley Club property sought for the state by the Adirondack Council.
The Region 5 LAAC has drafted a letter to town supervisors urging them to form local committees to make their own land acquisition lists. DEC is expected to give each county the land acquisition lists proposed by preservationists for local committees to hone. Enabling legislation puts the plan and the ultimate choice of which land to buy in the hands of Jorling, however.
Asked about the erroneous report by the Times Union, George Cannon, supervisor of the Town of Newcomb and Essex County representative on the LAAC, said, "That's the price you pay for participating in the arena. We could have walked away.
"The question was deciding whether we can participate in the process or not. We could stay out and scream up and down. History will tell if we're right."
Looming ahead is the federally&SHY;funded U.S. Forest Service's Forest Legacy Program and the Northern Forest Lands Act of 1991.
The Legacy Program was established as part of the 1990 Farm Bill to protect forest areas from conversion to non-forest use. The program authorizes federal funding for conservation easements and other land conservation tools to be purchased from willing sellers.
The Lands Act authorizes a Northern Forest Lands Council to assist the Forest Service in developing and approving a 'means of "resource identification and inventory" of natural and scenic areas within the region, to establish a map defining the target region, and to address any "threats to the integrity of the forests considered appropriate to the Council."
The governors of each state in the region New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine appointed three members each to the council to work with the Forest Service.
Congressman Jerry Solomon, whose district includes much of the Adirondacks, partially monkey&SHY;wrenched the Forest Legacy Program in New York after local opposition erupted, but the Lands Council moves forward steadily in its evaluations of the 26-million-acre region it is envisioned to oversee, including parts of northern New York state.
For next year, President George Bush has proposed $1.85 billion for a fund mainly for land acquisition, including forest lands.
The governor's Adirondack Park bill offers tax breaks in exchange
for land rights, with the big breaks for giving up easements to
the state in perpetuity.
The state has been tightening down each year, shifting the cost of mandates to localities, which must fund them through property taxes, and adding budget-breaking new mandates like landfill closure, The state's machinations with the transitional assessment have resulted in budget chaos for some small towns.
And, for the fourth year in a row, the governor is seeking to phase out the transitional assessment, which was promised as a permanent relief to Adirondack taxpayers in a partial exchange for support of the APA Act restrictions years ago.
THE REGULATORY NOOSE
Since the Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st Century's report was released, the APA's super-zoning authority over Adirondack Park land use has tightened.
Adirondackers are not only subject to 42.7-acre and eight-acre zoning and innumerable legislated restrictions on 86 percent of the private three million acres of land in the Adirondack Park, but also have been hit with such extra-regulatory requirements as having to turn over roadway frontage rights to the state, cluster houses and meet new "back country" concepts as proposed in the Commission's report.
While Adirondack landowners were still absorbing the news of Assembly bills to tighten up state control along the lines of the Commission's recommendations, Cuomo released his proposals.
The governor's bill would affect almost all the private land in the park by making landowners who wanted to build anything in the newly-created "backcountry" and along shorefronts and roadways carry the burden of proving it would have no impact on such vague, broad concepts as "biodiversity", "intact ecosystems" and "scenic vistas".
The bill could be introduced to the state Legislature at any time.
By CAROL LaGRASSE
Special to the News
Adirondack Park Agency
Government Land Acquisition
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