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Big Federal Funding, Contrived Local Support

Saratoga County Canalway Trail Shrouded in Secrecy

Trail Planned along Champlain Canal Route through Saratoga & Washington Counties

Many private property owners are likely to experience very negative effects from the proposed Saratoga County Canalway Trail, but they are being deprived of full disclosure of information about the plans and their finances. As a result, they are unaware and ill-prepared to protect their private property from a major land grab.

The New York State Canal Corporation, the National Park Service and the New York Parks and Conservation Association have harnessed their heavy weight and an undisclosed level of federal funding behind their plan for a 26-mile trail along both the functional and abandoned route of the Champlain Canal through Saratoga County.

According to documents describing the plan, the continuous trail will pass through private property for about half of its length. In addition, access routes are planned through private property even where the government now owns land along the canal that is suitable for the trail. The preliminary plan calls for completion of the uninterrupted trail within ten years.

At the present time, the trail project is shrouded in secrecy. The public is being fed piecemeal information and public relations pabulum. The threats to private property ownership along the canal route and adjacent to government-owned canal lands are being glossed over, while privately, the Canal Corporation and the advocacy organization, the New York Parks and Conservation Association, are quietly forming a front group to be called "Friends of the Canalway" or the like to give a friendly, local public face to the plan.

Judging by the $50 million in additional funding that New York State and the U.S. Department of Transportation have just announced for further development of the already lavishly funded Erie Canal tourism program, which has an accompanying trail, the funding from the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of Transportation for the proposed Canalway Trail through Saratoga and Washington counties from Waterford to Whitehall must be quite generous.

However, at a quiet little meeting on October 9 at a table in the cavernous Schuylerville High School cafeteria to nurture the fledgling four-member "Friends" group, John Dimura, the spokesman for the Canal Corporation refused to divulge the amount of its contract with the Parks and Conservation Association for the Association to hire a private consultant to develop the 40-page "Concept Plan" for the Saratoga Canalway Trail.

When asked about the dollar amount being paid by the Canal Corporation to the Parks and Conservation Association under the contract for the Canal Trails Partnership, he replied, "I don't know that I have to disclose that. I will consult with our attorneys..."

The Canal Corporation is exempt from New York's Freedom of Information Law, as are such quasi-government authorities, even though the Corporation was established by the Legislature and much of its funds come from the taxpayers, as do probably all of the funds for this project.

The consultant, an architect named Jeff Olson who appeared to guide the meeting, adamantly refused to divulge the amount of his contract fee from the Parks and Conservation Association for his work under the Canalway Trail Partnership. The private individuals who were present complimented him for "volunteering" his services for the meeting.

Considering that one of the four supposedly private individuals who were present was an employee of the National Park Service trails program who said that he "just happened" to drop in, in reality only three of the four people present who identified themselves as "residents" at this, the third meeting to form the fledgling "Friends" group, were perhaps merely local residents. Of the six individuals present at the meeting, not counting for the two-person PRFA team, the other three were the representative of the Canal Corp, a National Park Service trail specialist, and the consultant.

Government cultivates a pseudo-grassroots group

As part of what appears to be the training of the prospective members of the "Friends" group, they are being led to help prepare applications for federal and state grants about which the Canalway Trail consultant has the inside information. The first grant in which they are getting involved is an innocuous little project to improve the surface of a trail through a park in Schuylerville. For this purpose, the consultant advised one of them to go to a training session for writing grant applications to take place soon afterwards at the Saratoga National Battlefield, which is a National Park.

In addition, the consultant assured them that additional grants would be forthcoming under the federal "Lakes to Locks" scenic byway designation now affecting the north-south corridor. This is the combination pork-barrel/land-use control program under which the corridor to the Canadian border was suddenly given restrictive All American Road status recently.

As residents, the "Friends" are also to discretely carry out local lobbying. Their first assigned target is the Saratoga County Legislature, from which they were asked to obtain a resolution as soon as possible in support of just the "broad concept" of trails - for now. At the meeting, they discussed the various members of the County Legislature and the likelihood of which one could be persuaded to introduce the desired resolution.

But even a local resident "Friend" ran into hitches. She reported on her effort to persuade a member of the legislature from the western edge of the county to introduce the resolution. However, an interview by PRFA of that legislator later that week revealed that she would be unwilling in principle to introduce a resolution that would violate an unwritten rule in the legislature to avoid introducing actions that solely affect the territories of other members.

The problem for the Canalway Trail advocates is that farmers in the eastern edge of Saratoga County, where the Champlain Canal is located, have already raised some of their concerns. This could delay a resolution from being introduced by the legislators from the towns through which the Canalway passes.

To the public eye, the Canalway Trail idea that is being gently talked up in eastern Saratoga County is just a series of disconnected hiking, biking, and possibly snowmobile trails through public parks that already exist. By cultivating a local cadre of residents, the powerful government agencies and non-government organization are able to keep a low profile while using local people to approach additional potential local allies. The "Friends" group is likely to present itself as one that represents "spontaneous" local support for the project. This is a well-established formula.

Limiting Information to make the Trail Plans appear Non-Threatening

The entities behind the plan appear to not want the public to understand at this relatively early stage that it is their agenda to push an uninterrupted public hiking, biking and snowmobile trail through both all private and publicly-owned land along the location of the old route across two counties from Waterford to Whitehall. In some residential areas, the backyards of private houses directly abut the canalway. Intimidation of property owners on an individual basis about the clarity of their title to canalway lands has already begun.

If the Canalway Trail advocates can get the trail moving, so to speak, then gradually individual property owners will be approached one at a time, for easements, donations of land, and the like, with the final holdouts likely to be pressured most forcefully. The National Park Service is noted nationwide for its sophisticated mix of eminent domain and coerced "willing sellers" to create and later widen trails as time goes on.

It appears that the Canal Corporation does not want the public to know about the large sums of federal money from the National Park Service and U.S. Department of Transportation behind the plan. It would be interesting to know who is paying the big bucks for the complex web site that the New York Parks and Conservation Association hosts about the Saratoga County Concept Plan and other parts of the New York State canal trail system. An unsettling aspect of their plan is their "gap analysis" related to private land ownership that stands in the way of trail completion. The Association has "gap analyses" of the various sections of the Mohawk-Erie Canal trail from the Hudson River area in the eastern extreme of the state to the shore of Lake Erie.

The natural question to ask is, "Why is the Canalway Trail shrouded in secrecy?" What is the reason for the lack of notice to the public about the full agenda to complete the uninterrupted trail through government and private property in just ten years, plus accesses through private property to canal land that is already government-owned?

The only way that some farmers found out about the first three meetings to form the "Friends" group was by pure happenstance. At the October 9 meeting, one of the "Friends" said that a good way to find more people for their group would be to approach people who are out walking . The impression left at the meeting was that the public would not be notified. No consideration was given to locate every property owner who might be affected and to notify each one of them in clear English of the ten-year plan for the trail.

This is especially ironic considering that the private property belonging to farmers, homeowners, and others along the route is being thoroughly studied by professionals who are planning to execute the trail. Because of the secrecy, the property owners along the route are unaware that, according to the preliminary plan, their land will be the object of a "detailed property ownership inventory."

Property owners on the opposite side of the canal from the likely route of the trail might find that they have reason for concern, also. Historically, the National Park Service and environmental advocacy groups do not stop their land-holding ambitions with one side of a waterway. Ultimately, the idea is likely to arise to acquire privately owned land on both sides of the Canalway, and then to continually widen the swath of government-owned land. In fact, the written plan calls for the trail to "continue to be enhanced and mature" by 2027, which is fifteen years after its 10-year completion goal.

Disrespect for private property ownership

The individuals who plan trails on the scale at which the National Park Service deliberates have no respect for private property ownership. Judging by the experience of many landowners, private property ownership is just an obstacle to overcome. Local government very often falls into the same pattern set by the large federal and state agencies, whether the National Park Service, the New York State Canal Corporation, or the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

The mission of the big agencies leads them to trick, pressure and threaten private landowners into conveying their land to the government for a trail. These government officials do their utmost to keep the difficulties of individual landowners from becoming apparent to the public until the trail is well along. The property owners are not important to them because of any concern for the well-being of the property owner or the family. The rights of the individual do not matter to them except where the property owners could obstruct the project if their potential difficulties became public.

That is why these government officials keep eminent domain under wraps early in a trail project. It was very embarrassing during mid-October for the Schenectady City Council that the threat of eminent domain to force part of the Erie Canal bicycle trail through a local resident's backyard precipitated a protest at the Council meeting.

The big agencies are keeping a lid on information about the Saratoga Canalway Trail project because, if the truth were out, property owners could stand in the way of the uninterrupted full 26-mile long trail through Saratoga County, as well as its continuation a distance of over twenty miles further to Whitehall at the south end of Lake Champlain. If property owners organized, they could obstruct any possibility of the Champlain Canalway Trail being developed to the Canadian border.

- Carol W. LaGrasse
October 20, 2002

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