Property Rights Foundation of America®
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THE CANAL TRAILWAY

A Threat to Private Property Owners

By Carol W. LaGrasse

Speech Hosted by
Rondout Landowners Alliance
Rosendale Community Building
Rosendale, New York
September 18, 2003

Introduction

Thank you for the honor of this opportunity to address the Rondout Landowners Alliance and the citizens and property owners of Rosendale and Marbletown about the threat of canalway trails to private property owners and the dynamic future of rural communities. It is an honor to receive your invitation to speak to your fine gathering tonight. The unselfish, capable leadership of Kelli and Joe Havranek is an inspiration. You, gathered here today, are unique. What you are accomplishing, by exposing the realities of just one seemingly local trail program and informing the citizens about what the powerful, federally funded national trail movement and the National Park Service have in store for property owners, can have far-reaching consequences.

Three years ago, when it hit the press that the National Park Service intended to condemn land belonging to the Franciscan Friars on the other side of the Hudson River from here, in Garrison, New York, to widen the Appalachian Trail, people were shocked. Trails, including this famous 2,144 mile-route from Georgia to Maine, were “motherhood and apple pie” to New Yorkers until then. The idea that the National Park Service would condemn the land of a charitable organization, a group of friars who at their Graymoor property had over the years hosted thousands of men and women, among other ministries, went against the grain. The people that the friars hosted included hundreds of trail hikers each year. According to an Associated Press article by Jim Fitzgerald (Glens Falls Post-Star, Aug. 7, 2000, p. B6), the friars had even built a shelter, complete with shower, for hikers.

But the article revealed a certain attitude among the hikers that bodes ill for property owners. The article quoted the remark of hiker Ken Turner of Manchester, New Hampshire, after the friars and hikers blessed a mea together:

“They do have a lot of land here that’s not being used,” he said. “They could definitely spare the land, from what I’ve seen.”

The friars had already granted the Park Service an easement to control over 58 acres through the 400-acre Graymoor property. But, according to an article by Mary Ann Poust in Catholic New York (July 27, 2000, p. 28), Father Arthur M. Johnson, the minister general of the Atonement Friars, said that giving up an added 20 acres would cut into the order’s ability to maintain their sewage treatment facility, which needed to be improved. During the 1980’s the friars had reluctantly allowed the Park Service to move the trail to a location that was less preferable to their ministries, being closer to their inn, the friary, and other buildings.

In May 2000, the Park Service sent their eminent domain request to the United States Department of Justice to take the additional 20 acres from the ministry, which had occupied the land since 1898. Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Sue Kelley got involved, demanding of then-Secretary of Interior, Bruce Babbitt, that eminent domain proceedings be dropped, according to Associated Press. The Park Service announced that it was holding off temporarily.

Later that August, in a letter replying to a Property Rights Foundation participant, Father Johnson wrote instructively. “During our ordeal with the National Park Service, people have alerted me to various materials and organizations that might be of assistance or provide insight. This has been quite an educational experience for me and I do appreciate all the support we have received from throughout the states.”

He described the 4-hour meeting he had had the day before with the National Park Service and the agreement that they had reached for a smaller easement that did not infringe on the ministries of the friars but fulfilled the needs of the Park Service.

However, although he termed the new agreement a “win-win situation for the Park Service, the Trail hikers, the people who come to Graymoor for assistance and the Friars and Sisters,” he remarked, “My one remaining concern is that the National Park Service can’t guarantee that the government won’t be seeking additional land in the future.”

Here in Rosendale and Marbletown, the trail is in relatively early in the stages of development compared to the trail that the friars have to deal with. Back in 1923, the friars first informally allowed the Appalachian Trail to pass through a corner of the other side of their property. The big change came in 1984, when the friars consented to giving up the full 58-acre easement through the opposite side of the property. For the great number of ambitious trails under development throughout the country, largely under the auspices of the National Park Service, either overtly or without the agency showing its face publicly, often the local property owners who will be affected are prevented from knowing the full extent of the plans until the trail is well established.

For instance, north of Albany, the National Park Service and the New York State Canal Corporation are developing a trail that is planned to connect the Erie Canal to Lake Champlain by following the old, partially abandoned, Champlain Canal route through Saratoga and Washington Counties. The New York State Canal Corporation, the Park Service, and their consultant, who received pass-through funding paid by the government to the New York Parks and Conservation Association, are developing a puppet local grassroots organization as a front in one town, Schuylerville, and training the members, which were only one or two when I observed one of their meetings. The expensive consultant for the plan is funded to develop its entire, full-length design. However, the full extent of the plan is hidden and was never actively publicized until the Property Rights Foundation ran a newsletter article. Otherwise it can be found on an obscure web site sponsored by the New York Parks and Conservation Association, which is the Park Service’s non-profit partner in New York.

When I was at their meeting, it was clear that when the little group the skillful bureaucrats are organizing has a three or four members, it will have become an effective front for the Park Service and Canal Corporation, and will be used as the core of what will be termed “local grassroots support” in funding requests for grants that are pre-arranged for approval whenever the supposed grassroots group will have learned under the prearranged tutelage to make the applications. So much for “grantmanship.”

At that stage, small local projects to start the trail in one locality were projected to begin, for instance the improved surface of an existing hiking path through a public park in Schuylerville on the Hudson River, in the area of the Champlain Canal. Only later will the private property owners be subjected to pressure from the trail, when it begins to become connected. But at that point, the trail will have progressed through various publicly owned properties.

I only found out about one of the first, tiny meetings of the pseudo-grassroots local group being developed by the Park Service, Canal Corp, NYPCA and the consultant because a brief meeting notice was left carelessly on the desk of someone who was considered a good candidate to help out with local recruitment. Charmingly, the official from the Park Service said that he only dropped in by chance to join the one or two budding local trail mavens, a Canalway official and the consultant.

At the Rondout here in Rosendale, you are not in the late stages of a National Park Service trail with eminent domain and the threat of it to create so-called “willing sellers,” as has been used to widen the Appalachian trail more and more over the decades. However, you are much further along than the Champlain Canalway trail. Just like the original Delaware and Hudson Canal to move coal from the mines of Pennsylvania to the Hudson to barge it to New York City to heat the homes of the emerging downtown City during the 1820’s, the trail being sought along the Rondout is part of one traversing the entire geologic trough connecting the Delaware and Hudson Rivers. Ironically, the trail would cut through private property for much of its route, creating government property and easements out of private land, whereas the D&H was the only substantial canal in this state that was privately owned. It operated profitably for almost three-quarters of a century.

As a trail progresses, the pressure on private property becomes more intense. Up in Ellenville, which was the high point of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, the town of Wawarsing has engaged Herta Diener in a long dispute because she does not want to sell the former Port Ben railroad station and surrounding 13 acres that she owns. According to the Daily Freeman (Dianne Weibe, Dec. 29, 2003), the town wants Ms. Diener’s land as part of the rail trail that is intended to extend from Kingston to Carbondale, Pennsylvania, along the old Delaware & Hudson Canal and the former Ontario & Western Railroad. The Freeman article stated that the town has been interested in buying Ms. Diener’s property since 1993. The Wawarsing Supervisor, Richard Craft, was quoted as saying that the town had planned to pay for it with a reimbursable grant of $180,000 from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

The supervisor was said to have made this personal remark about Ms. Diener, “She just enjoys making life miserable for the town. She has used one delaying tactic after another.”

In the meantime, after failing to reach agreement with Ms. Diener, the town dropped the grant application. Once it could not get the big grant, the town got a reappraisal showing the value of the property and building at only $78,600, which Ms. Diener disputes. The town proceeded with condemnation of the property, including the old railroad station.

Notice that the condemnation proceedings and the public conflict were entirely handled by the town. The National Park Service, all the other state and federal bureaucracies, and non-profit organizations, all of which actually conceived the entire plan and deftly managed its progress, are invisible, but patient. They are limitlessly funded puppet masters pulling the strings of local government’s duped “leaders.”

Can you imagine the results if the National Park Service, the big national not-profits and their affiliated New York associations attempted to honestly present the agenda for the Delaware and Hudson Canal Trail from the beginning?

Imagine one day a decade or two ago. Three well-dressed men representing each of their agencies or organizations appear at the Rosendale Town Board meeting. One of them raises his hand.

“I’d respectfully like to make a presentation to the Town Board,” the National Park Service spokesperson says.

“Who are you?” replied the Supervisor, who chaired the meeting as usual.

Each of the men introduces himself and his affiliation. Then the National Park Service spokesman says, “We would like to make a presentation about starting a trail through Rosendale to the Delaware River. Here in Rosendale, the trail will go through the backyards of the people who own property along the Rondout. We’d like to request that you hear our full presentation, so that you and the citizens of Rosendale will be fully informed before we proceed with any part of the trail. After all, private property will be severely affected, there will be losses, liabilities, vandalism, nuisances, burglaries, and perhaps worse felonies such as rapes. We will want to widen the trail later, protect the view, and make many improvements over decades.”

“We realize that you are responsible to the taxpayers and property owners,” he continues. “We intend to build the whole thing, not bits and pieces, although the construction will be budgeted by the National Park Service, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the New York State Canalway Authority, the N.Y. State Department of Transportation, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, the Town of Rosendale, Town of Marbletown, numerous towns and counties along the route, and numerous non-profit organizations that we’ll train in obtaining grants ultimately paid by the taxpayers from all over the country, all of these expenditures in stages.”

“There are benefits to people from all over New York and the nation — and even the world — contained in our plan, and we would like to explain the big picture, also,” continues the National Park Service spokesman.

The Town Supervisor thinks out loud. “I think that we should call a public hearing. This is too big a responsibility even for the elective representative government of the town. Everybody in town, especially the property owners along the Rondout and those across the road and nearby, should be fully informed about your proposal.”

A few months later, the town hearing draws almost every property owner along the canal and nearby, as well as a great many of the interested taxpayers. The town hall is packed so full that people are standing in the doorways and peering in from the open windows.

The town supervisor announces, “The town board has called this hearing tonight because the National Park Service and a number of other government agencies and non-profit organizations have developed a grandiose plan to establish a trail along the Delaware and Hudson Canal from the Hudson to the Delaware. We want the public to understand the plan fully and advise us of their viewpoints about it. These officials have come from their headquarters elsewhere in New York and Washington, D.C., and will tell you themselves about the advantages and problems that their plan has. Let’s give them a full hearing and ask questions, and let the town board hear your reactions.”

Well, the meeting did not take so remarkably long as one would expect. When the official from the National Park Service presented charts of statistics about crimes along trails and explained that it is hard to police them because they are too long and narrow; when he explained that they never fence such trails because it interferes with the natural aspect and that burglaries and nuisances, intrusions, late night carousing on private property result; when he finished with the statistics about accidents and the related liability lawsuits that landowners had to defend; when he explained that Congress had prohibited the National Park Service from using eminent domain to condemn the property but that the town would have to do that dirty work or threaten to do it in order to get what they call “willing sellers”; the room kind of acquired a low mumbling.

A lot of property owners who weren’t nervous when they entered the room got a creepy feeling when the spokesperson mentioned that every couple of thousand feet along the trail they would also require an access from the highway through the properties between the highway and trail. He had a nice map showing all the access channels. These might require parking areas, he mentioned.

He explained the idea of trail tourism, and historic tourism, and that there would be grants and profits for some businesses in town and grants for some people to restore their houses. Then ugly looks went from the mass of people to businesses that the people had a gut reaction would profit from their adversity. He said that in many towns the zoning wasn’t restrictive enough to make the town a good tourism destination, and more regulations were needed.

That was where he brought in the need to establish a State and later a Federal Scenic Byway along the major thoroughfare serving the tourists who come to appreciate the historic look of the town and the canalway trail. Scenic Byways require a management plan, which a non-profit organization will draw up, which can involve new zoning laws. Sign laws will be pretty strict, he said; not just billboards, but all signs would be reduced. Some management plans prohibit signs, he said.

One idea that the Park Service spokesman explained was confusing to most of the people at first. He said that if the trail succeeds, and many people are drawn to it, it would become the raw material for a greenway completing an ecologically unique space stretching from the Hudson to the Delaware. But the people began to nod in comprehension, or, in many cases, shake their heads in consternation, when he explained that the trail would be gradually widened, with more houses, yards and vacant properties gradually bought up.

When he also mentioned the regulation of viewsheds, a new idea to most people, they quickly understood, however, because he explained that a viewshed meant whatever someone could see from the trail or any vantage point they selected.

He said that on his tours around town he’d noticed that a lot of the houses were not too desirable from the point of view of tourism. He also remarked that as time passes, increasing numbers of wealthier people would be moving out of the City, and that as taxes on private property rise on account of more land becoming preserved and less land paying taxes, the increase of wealthy people would be good because they can afford the higher taxes. He pointed out that a problem often results with a tourism-based economy that the people who are needed to work in the hotels and tourism facilities cannot afford to own property like the independent country people are accustomed to. The rents also go up. With the building code rules, it gets hard for landlords to rent to the workers. This is an irony of rural prosperity and preservation, he said. You have fewer people earning modest incomes, like the independent country people, more that are much poorer, and more that are wealthier. He said that government-aided housing programs would take the place of independent landlords and home-owning people of modest means.

But a look of distant vision came over the National Park Service spokesperson’s face. He began to use words like landscape preservation, establishing a grid of greenways that would ultimately preserve the entire American countryside, protecting the riverways like the Hudson and the Mohawk in New York, the canalways like the D&H and the Champlain, the ridge trails like the Appalachian and the Highlands, forming an interlocking grid of trails and greenways that would become the matrix for successful total landscape preservation, stopping the metropolitan sprawl that is destroying the countryside. The vision of interlocking trails and greenways would progress first throughout the East, where most needed, then across the country. Programs in Congress like the Scenic Byways, the National Heritage Areas, and other greenway-related schemes would succeed where the National Parks had been just isolated oases on the vast over-developing landscape.

So, he summarized, your sacrifices would be relatively painless, in gradual stages, and your town would play a part in a great America-wide — and world-wide — landscape preservation movement, originally precipitated by the visionary not-profits like the Rockefeller’s American Conservation Association and the Mellon’s Conservation Fund, but now masterfully provided for through the Congress and the great infrastructure of federal and state agencies, and lavishly funded by the American taxpayers.

Well, as I said, it actually did not take very long to cover this ground. A strained mood came over the town hall. The town fathers squirmed in their seats. The supervisor did turn out to be a leader, after all. As he stood up, a dead silence had suddenly fallen on the hall. He said that the people had sat still long enough and advised everyone to take a quick stretch before each of their turns came to ask questions and comment. While the people were vociferously conversing with each other about what they intended to say, and even some of them intimating about what they might do if this scheme were approved, the supervisor led the three representatives of the trail plan aside toward the men’s room. Fortunately, that hallway also led to the back exit. He got the men into their cars and advised them not to stop at the motel lodging they had arranged, but to drive away as fast as they could safely make it.

Then he called the meeting to order. He said very little. He simply announced that tonight he hoped that the people had experienced the same education that he had. While he had their attention, he gave out an assortment of pens and pencils, plus paper, envelopes and stamps. He asked the people to write their Congressmen, Senators, Assembly Members, and the Governor and President right now to tell them what they thought about plans like the Delaware and Hudson Canal Trail.

This concludes my speech

I’d like to wish success to all of you who are defending your right to own private property and the future of your community against the narrow, fanatical vision of wealthy, powerful people who are using their non-profit privileges and the powerful interests of government at all levels against your just interests.

Thank you again for the privilege of speaking tonight.

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