Property Rights Foundation of America®

Over 13 Years Since PRFA's Warning about the APA's GIS


Statute of Limitations is Now Urgently Needed

The APA has finally announced that it is going to use the power of its world-class GIS system to snare offenders. Over thirteen years after PRFA's publication revealed how the Adirondack Park Agency, or APA, was "becoming the world's foremost environmental snoop," the regional zoning agency has proudly let the cat out of the bag. The state agency, which wields power over private property owners in a twelve-county area in northern New York, announced during January that it would combine the luxury of additional staff made possible under a more generous state budget and its technology known as geographic information systems, or GIS, to find existing violators of the Adirondack Park Agency law and enforce the rules.

The APA stated that it will use "a statewide real estate database, coupled with its GIS" to accomplish its new line of enforcement work, according to an article by Charles Fiegl in the Glens Falls Post-Star. GIS is computerized overlay mapping that combines information that was once in various tabulations or individual maps, but has been converted over the past two decades to digitalized maps, making possible instantaneous overlays of many categories of geographically-based data. These computerized overlay maps are equivalent to the combinations of maps with different sets of information such as wetlands or political boundaries that cartographers and planners once painstakingly accomplished by laying transparent Mylar drawings over each other to show multiple sets of data on single sheets or projections. This computerized overlaying of information is possible because of the uniform geographic coordinate system that agencies have gradually adopted.

In 1994, in the PRFA's publication, The APA Shell Game, I called attention to approximately thirty types of map information available to the APA that were becoming capable of being digitalized. Examples included the APA's all important official land use classification map; the local town tax assessment maps; county and town building permits; and the sophisticated wetland maps that the APA was developing under grants from the federal government. At the present time, the APA has many more digitalized collections of map-worthy data in its system, with today's GIS elements ranging from aquifers to the 1950 and 1995 Adirondack blowdowns.

In addition, the APA now has access to one of the most intrusive collections of map-related information ever imagined, the State of New York's low-level fly-overs where the entire surface of the state was photographed to either 1 or 2 ft. accuracy beginning in 2001 and 2002. Areas deemed to be environmentally sensitive, such as the six-million acre region of government-owned and private land denoted as the Adirondack Park, were photographed to one "ground-foot accuracy." Known as New York State's "orthoimagery" program, the project initially demonstrated fly-over photos with ground resolutions of even greater accuracy, down to 0.5 ft. American space satellite imagery beginning at the turn of the century made photographs with impressive resolutions like this available on a commercial basis.

One of the capacities of GIS is to tap into local assessors' computerized inventory data about the interior of houses, which contains information that would otherwise not be available to enforcement agencies without a search warrant. When my husband Peter J. LaGrasse, the chairman of the Stony Creek Board of Assessors, initiated an effort to make computerized information about interiors of houses inaccessible for purposes other than assessment, he was ultimately rebuffed by other assessors and officials. However, his concerns about protecting the constitutional right to privacy were vindicated in 2006, when the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, Second Department, held in the matter of Comps, Inc., v. Town of Islip that tax assessment rolls are available, but not the inventory data, which are exempt from the Freedom of Information Law because the release of the data would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy. Since the ruling related specifically to commercial interests, it is not certain how far it would protect computerized assessment information in the State data system from enforcement agencies such as the APA.

I discovered the investment in staff time that the APA was making on GIS during 1994, while analyzing three years of voluminous APA financial reports presented to a member of the State Legislature. The APA soon achieved prominence as a leader in the field of GIS. During the 1990s, the APA began giving local government agencies introductory GIS courses for the purpose of land use planning. In 2004, John Barge, who began working in the field of cartography and GIS as a summer intern at the APA in 1981, was recognized with an important award by an association of GIS experts in the Northeast. For his accomplishments in taking a new, expensive technology and developing it into a practical system for the APA, he was presented the Peter S. Thacher Award. Thacher, a diplomat with the United Nations and Distinguished Fellow with the World Resources Institute, was a pioneer in using computer mapping technology.

The APA Goes To Work

The APA staff has already begun using a statewide real estate transaction database to find new subdivisions. With the tax parcel numbers for new subdivisions, the APA staff then automatically search into their GIS program to determine whether the subdivision is a violation. According to the APA, its intention is to prevent illegal subdivisions from occurring by notifying the public of its new GIS-based enforcement program and to find the illegal subdivisions quickly to simplify enforcement.

However, there are already countless subdivisions and structures that fail to meet the arcane requirements of the complex APA law and the increasingly restrictive interpretations by the agency. The fear that an unintentional infraction will be discovered by the APA is a source of dread in the region. In addition, when properties are sold, violations are found that were caused by previous owners. Properties with violations may have already been sold more than once, and the original owner who unknowingly created the violation, may be deceased. In any case, the burden falls on the current owner. One not uncommon source of existing violations is where the property is located near the boundary of the Adirondack Park, and the owners thought that they were outside the APA's jurisdiction. Another recurring situation is that building permits have been given for decades by local building departments without advising the property owner that there was a state zoning agency with potential jurisdiction. That is where the need for a statute of limitations on violations of the APA law, which went into effect in 1973, is urgently needed.

Need for a Statute of Limitations

Every criminal offense except murder has a statute of limitations. For example, both rape and criminal conspiracy have a five-year statute of limitations. Senator Elizabeth O'C. Little and Assemblywoman Teresa R. Sayward, whose districts include much of the Adirondack region, submitted a bill during 2003 to establish a ten-year statute of limitations on certain violations of the APA law.

"We believe there should be a limit as to how far back the APA can go requiring correction of violations," they said in their joint statement. Their bill received a great deal of interest.

"The APA has a backlog of 600 subdivision enforcement cases," according to the Post-Star in January. "Most cases are discovered when landowners submit applications or inquiries regarding projects to the agency."

When the APA statute of limitations bill was proposed, the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board made a policy statement that the ten-year statute of limitations should run from the original occurrence of the violation rather than from the date that the APA discovered it, as the bill proposed.

With the APA's announcement of its vigorous new enforcement program in January, Fred Monroe, the executive director of the Local Government Review Board, pointed out the need for an APA statute of limitations. He said that it is unfair that even though the agency is aware of some illegal subdivisions, which could have been many years ago, they are still subject to APA action.

The need for a statute of limitations on violations of the APA law is likely to become more urgent as the APA's new staff and the efficiency of its GIS-based tracking of subdivisions and probably other violations enable it to intensify its enforcement actions.

Carol W. LaGrasse
February 2, 2008

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© 2008 Carol W. LaGrasse
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