PROPERTY RIGHTS FOUNDATION OF AMERICA, INC.
P.O. Box 75, Stony Creek, New York 12878 - 518/696-5748
Founded 1994

The right to own private property is a fundamental American freedom that
guarantees personal liberty and promotes economic prosperity.

 

Website: www.prfamerica.org
E-mail: prfa@prfamerica.org

April 26, 2010

Dear Friend:

Our cause of private property rights is so essential to the well-being of individuals, families, and communities that I believe it actually undergirds our entire societal structure.

On the other hand, private property rights stand in the way of power- and money-seeking interests. The result is that opponents of our cause must be challenged on many diverse and difficult fronts and that private property rights will always be threatened.

Our enemy is concrete, motivated, power-seeking, and often very wealthy and powerful.

There is no "common ground" with an arrangement between corrupt city officials and well connected private interests who intend to tear down a community to build a hotel complex or sports arena. Nor is there any "common ground" with a university that attempts to continue its relentless expansion at the expense of the existing neighborhood's future.

On the rural scene, there is no "common ground" with environmentalists who make a pretense of helping to plan for local property tax relief while suing to stop fisherman, hunters and other sportsmen from using seaplanes and other motorized recreational access to remote lakes and forest land during various seasons, or while suing to interminably delay or stop the redevelopment and improvement of ski centers, so valuable to the winter economy.

But there is a common thread in the issues where powerful interests are behind efforts to cut off the way of life of people in rural communities and to impede the community future.

This common thread can be summarized very simply with three issues:

• Deny private property rights.
• Deny access to the land.
• Using a multiplicity of measures to ultimately destroy communities

Under the mantle of environmentalism, these three elements of destruction are being repeated all over the United States. Whether water is being cut off from California farmers to supposedly save a fish species or whether land is being gobbled up in Maine to expand a National Park, the tactics have a striking similarity and the agenda and effect are the same.

The North Country of New York State where regional preservationist zoning was first put in
place illustrates how these three elements are currently being applied. My husband and I moved here in 1973 and have inadvertently studied the juggernaut in dismaying depth.

Private property rights infringements here in the so-called Adirondack "Park" are all-pervasive. The governor-appointed zoning commission called the Adirondack Park Agency implements a measure passed in its final form under the administration of Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1973 after his brother Laurence failed to get the most mountainous part of the region declared a National Park.

By statute, the commission enforces zoning provisions that make is very difficult for the ordinary people who live and are employed in the area to continue, because they can neither afford land nor meet the requirements to build a house. Some important examples of the strictures are:

• Forty-two acres of land required to build a house, applying to half the private land, with home building restricted to large lot sizes on all but a small percent of the remaining private land.

• Wetland restrictions far tighter than the statewide environmental law and the U.S. government restrictions, making some legal, pre-existing lots unbuildable.

• Setback restrictions on lakeshores and the many official "scenic rivers" in the region that severely diminish or eliminate the ability to build on this desirable land.

There are hundreds of complicated rules restricting ordinary families that are beyond the ability of any but specialized experts to fathom.

In addition, the regional commission has the final word on the management of the three million acres of state-owned land.

A twist that has expanded under everyone's noses with almost no opposition by local officials is the acquisition of conservation easements. In just a short time since the mid-nineties, the state has acquired 700,000 acres of these deeded rights in the Adirondacks, leaving title permanently sullied. The right to build dwellings is always eliminated in these so-called "easements."

Beyond statute, the commission routinely reinterprets and expands the meaning of the written law. For instance, a general clause in the law pointing out that the agency should keep aesthetics in mind has been expanded to include requirements for invisibility or "substantial invisibility," and is even applied to individual single-family dwellings. The wetland jurisdiction is expanded to give the commission control over many non-jurisdictional lots, no matter how large, if there is a small wetland, say, in one corner of the lot.

Part of the Adirondack Park Agency's hostility toward the practical enjoyment of the land is directed at hunters. In late 2008, the agency issued rules that severely regulated small non-jurisdictional hunting cabins. However, the county level of the state court has thrown out the rules on the basis that the camps were outside of the agency's jurisdiction and the litigation is in appeal.

Adirondack Park Agency review for developments that are theoretically possible according to statutory densities and other requirements is so elaborate that significant projects are often stymied. Even the expansion of tourism, which has the law's imprimatur, is often thwarted.

Construction of utilities that are essential to the people and businesses in the region are handicapped. In the town where I live, there is no cell phone service, although the town is not in an isolated part of the mountains. Towers to provide communications for emergency services are also stymied, under the rubric of "visibility."

Water service for a small village may take years to construct, if at all, because the land surrounding the village may be state-owned, and cannot theoretically be used to drill a well. Or an electric line that is essential for reliable service to a central Adirondack town may be stymied because a short stretch of the line is along a highway built through state-owned land. The law is interpreted so that it takes constitutional amendments passed by statewide referendum to deal with these conundrums related to using state-owned land for essential purposes.

At the same time, the state keeps buying up land, so that the amount of privately owned land keeps shrinking. The people residing in the area are confined to ever-smaller pockets of highly regulated land surrounded by a socialist structure of government-owned land that is managed for radically conceived environmental purposes.

Tactics to obtain land for the state can be disreputable. The New York Post ran a page one story on April 5 that The Nature Conservancy, the world's wealthiest environmental group, recently flipped a 20,000-acre parcel that it acquired from Domtar timber company in Clinton County for $6.3 million to the state for $10,000 million, a markup of $3.7 million, or 57 percent.

At the direction of the governor, the state attorney general is investigating.

The public is hearing in the press this year about the trials of John Mayes, a property owner in the town of Black Brook. After he refused to sell an access easement to The Nature Conservancy so that it could sell a tract of land to the state, the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) coincidentally imposed a fine of $2.96 million for his supposed violations of APA law. The citations and fine were suddenly dropped after the Black Brook Town Board told the APA that it was looking into the matter.

In March, a different property owner in Black Brook, Leroy Douglas, sued the APA and the Elizabethtown-based Adirondack Council, one of New York's largest and most influential environmental organizations, in federal court for $67.1 million because the agency began an enforcement action against his non-jurisdictional project at the behest of a "conspiracy" documented in e-mails between the agency and the environmental group.

The state environmental agency, which is called the Department of Environmental Conservation, or DEC, regulates the state-owned land in the twelve-county area, in parallel with the APA. The two agencies work in concert to decide down to the last dot on the "i" what will be allowed on the state land.

Their decisions affecting access to the state-owned land have profound effects on the local economy and communities. For instance, seaplanes have historically provided transport of visiting sportsmen to remote lakes, but the agencies have closed 41 lakes to motorized use, foreclosing seaplane access. Environmental organizations, including the Lake George-based Adirondack Mountain Club sued to eliminate seaplane access to Lows Lake, a three-mile long lake on the border of St. Lawrence and Hamilton Counties. The DEC complied with the lawsuit and issued a regulation scheduling the elimination of seaplane landings. The "big four" Adirondack environmental organizations kept a lawsuit alive in 2009 to enforce the "no seaplane" schedule.

Last fall, after the DEC and the APA arrived at final rules to phase out seaplanes, the APA deliberated at two meetings about whether to classify Lows Lake as "wilderness." In November, the APA did an about-face, and decided not to classify the lake, which infuriated two of the environmental groups at the meeting. In January, the Adirondack Mountain Club, representing the canoe-kayaking interests, and the newly formed Protect the Adirondacks (a union of the Residents Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, which specialized in environmental lawsuits, and the old-line Association to Protect the Adirondacks) carried out their threat to sue the APA to demand the classification of the lake as "wilderness."

The pattern of lawsuits brought by environmental groups being settled by the Adirondack Park Agency is well established. The question of whether these are simply efficient tools to accomplish in court what could not be effectuated with regulation has never been answered, but the lawsuits look like "sweetheart lawsuits" to some outsiders.

The environmental lawsuits continue apace. In January, the Adirondack Council went to court to undo a plan for modifying snowmobile trail routes over the state-owned land that was years in the making, involving the APA, DEC, environmental organizations, and local communities. To please environmental interests, the plan eliminated trails through the interior areas of state-owned land and moved them to locations generally within two miles of highways. But the profound change in trail location was not good enough for the environment extremists that have such power in the North Country, who want still more concessions.

Three-plus decades of measures and decisions such as these, multiplied many times, have predictable results. The policies reduce private property rights and eliminate access to the land. Few new homes are built. Local people cannot afford to live in the area of their heritage. Sportsmen and traditional recreationists have less opportunity to enjoy the land. The local economy is pitiful and the youthful population is constantly declining.

The fact of the Adirondack Park Agency's existence hangs like a pall over people's heads.

The APA is relentless. Currently it is mailing out a slew of settlement agreements for decades-old violations that people did not know they had committed. This is possible because of their GIS system, which is harmonized to the records of local town assessors who enter their digitalized tax parcels into the state computer base. The message generally is that the owners should sign the agreement, which restricts their rights into the future because they (unknowingly) built their house on a parcel that was not divided according to the APA law. Unfortunately for the property owners, when they got proper building permits, they did not learn that the APA also had jurisdiction. (It often does not, but the law is far too complicated for the ordinary property owner to figure this out.)

Twenty-odd years or more ago the APA was not equipped to systematically track down such violations.

This brings us to the final point in this letter. For a number of years, local people have asked for a statute of limitations on violations of the APA law. However, the best that ever got into the legislature was a bill for a statute of limitations from the time the violation was discovered, and the bill never went anywhere, anyway.

Local legislative leadership seems to value compromise to the point of detriment. This is also a national pattern.

Here's an Adirondack example. A member of the Assembly who is deeply dedicated to the
future of the people of the North County convened a meeting this month to hear about people's concerns, in the context of a study completed last year by a consortium of local towns with state, local government, and business funding that pointed to the dire condition of the local economy and the local population's ability to grow and prosper.

An article this month in the Hamilton County Express summarized the study, the Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Report, with these conclusions:

• The nineteenth century boundaries of the original "Blue Line" enclosing all Adirondack Forest Preserve land interspersed with private land, which became the boundaries of the Adirondack "Park" in 1973, have increased so as to double the original area inside the Blue Line to today's 9,000 square miles, or one fifth of the state.

• The year-round population is about 132,000, seven percent of the state.

• People with mailing addresses outside the Adirondack Park own about forty percent of the residential parcels.

• The average age of full-time residents is 43, the oldest in the state.

• The population of school age children has decreased by 31 percent between 1970 and 2007.

The Assembly member who called the meeting warned:

"Nothing is going to happen if we start the blame game. The number one goal of the caucus is to create an Empire Zone for the whole park…We have a lot of infrastructure needs, and this will take money the towns and villages can't raise through property taxes."

Yet the reporter noted the frequent public comments that aroused applause were by those expressing a need for a moratorium on the purchase of land by the state and a suggestion to consolidate school administrators as a first step in controlling school taxes.

The idea that a state economic development zone will alleviate the economic malaise in the North Country without the legislature facing up to the need for relief from the onerous regulation by the state's Adirondack Park Agency and without eliminating further state land acquisition is preposterous.

Right now, the legislature has before it, hopefully in limbo because of the state's economic crunch, the acquisition of conservation easements on 90,000 acres of land formerly owned by the paper manufacturer Finch, Pruyn & Co. of Glens Falls.

In addition, if it weren't for the state budget crunch, the legislature would have under consideration the acquisition of 70,000 acres—one hundred square miles—of prime, productive timber land formerly owned by Finch Pruyn for the Forest Preserve, to become "forever wild," never to be logged again, and where all the traces of humanity will ultimately be eradicated, including hunting camps on leases, high quality logging roads, a bridge over the Hudson River and other crossings.

It is wrong to admonish people not to "start the blame game." The economic malaise has causes, which must be recognized before they can be tackled.

At the meeting one state senator said, "We need to speak as a group."

That is correct. But not just to ask the legislature for a development zone. Not only in New York, but all across the country, rural people will be well served to preserve their communities and way of life if they and their elected representation stand for private property rights and for private property ownership, for access to government land, and for the future of their communities against an environmentalist assault.

It is wrong to pretend that there is "common" ground with environmental extremists. The same environmental organization that organizes the "common ground" coalition is one of the cadre of (formerly four, now three after consolidation) environmental groups bringing a constant stream of lawsuits to stand in the way of the future of the Adirondack people.

We need to be informed and to share information about what our rural communities are up against because they are targeted by environmental extremism.

With good information, people like those who called for a moratorium on state land acquisition at that meeting north of here several days ago will be able to speak with power to their representatives. Our hope is that hearing the people call consistently for private property rights and access to government land will force the legislators to place blame where it belongs, to give up the "common ground" charade, and to follow the people's leadership for the future of local communities.

As you read this letter, if you agree with the urgent need for a change of state policy here in New York and see the relevance of our thinking to the community where you live or to other parts of the country, I'd like to ask you to contribute to the future of private property rights and local communities by supporting the Property Rights Foundation of America.

PRFA had been granted a 501.c.3 tax-exempt status by the IRS, for tax deductible private donations. We accept no government funding. A great part of our work is volunteered, but our financial needs challenge the ability to carry out the programs to fulfill our mission.

We need your financial generosity. Our influence and record of success, sometimes against "insurmountable" odds, point to the value of your support. Your contribution is tremendously appreciated and goes a long way when you donate to the work of the Property Rights Foundation of America.

With very best wishes,

Sincerely,

Carol W. LaGrasse
President

 

A copy of the latest annual financial report of the Property Rights Foundation of America, Inc. may be obtained from the organization or from the Office of the Attorney General, Charities Bureau, 120 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10271.

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