Property Rights Foundation of America®

Carol W. LaGrasse, from Positions on Property, Vol. 5, No. 1 July 2000

The State Failed to Abide by its Own Rules

Lawsuit Challenges New York State's Largest Land Acquisition

110,000 acres in Conservation Easements and 29,000 acres Fee Simple Acquired from Champion International

The Property Rights Foundation of America has brought together a group of individuals, hunting clubs, and St. Lawrence County to challenge the State's largest-ever preservation land purchase, a giant acquisition of 139,000 acres of working forest in the northwestern part of the Adirondack Park in July 1999 from the Champion International Corporation.

The lawsuit, Howard Aubin, et al., v. New York State, et al., addresses a complicated deal involving several parties and intermediaries, including a southern timber investment corporation called The Forestland Group and a major nationwide land trust, the Conservation Fund.

The law establishing the Adirondack Park in 1973 envisioned a balance of government-owned and private land, but the State has kept acquiring the private land and tipping the balance toward government ownership, resulting in economic depression and depopulation.

Carol W. LaGrasse, the president of the Property Rights Foundation, has been pointing out that when the State acquired the Champion International tracts, it failed to abide by its own rules. Important allegations in the lawsuit have two common threads: that key laws to protect the rural communities from negative effects of land acquisition have been swept aside and that laws to open up government to public scrutiny have been violated.

When acquiring the land in St. Lawrence, Franklin, Herkimer, and Lewis Counties, the State skipped over mandated review of social and economic impacts which is required by the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA. The State sidestepped review of economic and tax impact on localities that will result from the ending of timber harvest on 29,000 acres of land acquired in full title. It also failed to account for the local impact of lost business that will result when the State carries out its plan to demolish every hunting camp on the acreage, even on the conservation easement lands.

Three hundred camps will be burned down or bulldozed, but the State never looked at the social and cultural impact on the families who have used the camps for up to 100 years.

The lawsuit also contends that clauses crucial to the passage of New York's 1993 Environmental Trust Fund and its 1996 Clean Water, Clean Air Bond Act require that the State obtain local approval for each part of the huge acquisition. This was never done. Over 25 resolutions of opposition were passed by local towns, counties and even the New York State Association of Counties.

Logging under strict State supervision will be allowed on the 110,000 acres of conservation easements. The lawsuit, however, asserts that it is unconstitutional to allow logging on land to which the State is deeded any title, because of the "Forever Wild" clause applying to the Forest Preserve in Article 14 of the State Constitution. The State provided for such a lawsuit, perhaps from environmental groups, by having a third party intermediary in case the court ruled that the land had to revert back.

The lawsuit points to the State's violation of law by avoiding public scrutiny by using third party intermediaries for the acquisition and keeping the terms of the conservation easements secret. The lawsuit asks that the State be prohibited from using third party intermediaries.

Furthermore, the State has violated the land acquisition law because the State's "Open Space Plan" is worded so vaguely and lists so many large territories that the real plan for land acquisition is indeterminate.

In addition, by acquiring title to so much land in the effected counties, the State is violating the constitutional home-rule power of local municipalities by taking control of their power to tax.

Because the property is located in a depressed, backwater area where development rights are currently worth little or nothing, the taxpayer plaintiffs argue that the State has unconstitutionally bestowed a gift of State funds by purchasing the conservation easements. The State has also failed to fulfill its public trust and committed fiscal improprieties in the handling of bond funds.

The attorneys are James E. Morgan and Madeline Sheila Galvin of Galvin and Morgan, Delmar.

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