Property Rights Foundation of America®
Founded 1994

Sixteen Years:
New York State Awards Clear Title to 216 Long-time Raquette Lake Property Owners

Carolyn Gerdin,
Albany, N.Y.

Twenty-first Annual National Conference on
Private Property Rights
October 21, 2017
The Century House, Latham, N.Y

Thank you very, very much. I feel a little guilty taking this [award] after watching Willets Point and, in fact, as I go through my saga here, I kind of feel like they're a ten and maybe I got to be one. I'm extremely impressed with that video. It does that human part that is so important.

Anyway, let me skip to this. Township 40. The first time I ever heard about "contested property" was when I was thirteen and my parents had purchased a camp on Raquette Lake. My father sat me down that summer and he said to me very, very seriously, "Do not ever, ever mention contested property in public." Now, you see what a good child I was, how I adhered to that advice over the years. My parents had purchased a piece of property, a camp, that was contested. They knew it. They researched it. They thought they had very good title but it was contested. What that meant in Raquette Lake, in Township 40, was that the state claimed the property. That was the Department of Environmental Conservation [DEC] and also, of course, the attorney general's office. There was nothing in the deeds up there that showed your property was contested. Properties had been bought, sold, taxes paid for years and years. All of that, no abstract ever showed a problem. So, you didn't know, necessarily, if you had contested property. Frankly, when we started this, and I'll get into why we did, we had people who came to our first owners' meeting and said, "I didn't know my property was contested. Nobody said anything. There's no way of knowing." The first time any of us saw the extent of the problem was at a Unit Management Plan meeting in the Indian Lake in 2001. At that time DEC brought in a large map. It looked enormous to us. It's probably only about that big. That showed the areas that were contested, that the state was claiming.

There were 216 parcels with an average, roughly, of 800 acres. That's out of 24,000 acres in the whole township to give you an idea. I imagine you'd like to know how in the world did this happen? Whether you want to or not, you're going to hear. The Adirondacks were divided into townships. Ours were Township 40. There was an unusual piece to Township 40. It, at one time, was owned by Farrand Benedict who was a surveyor and well known for that and they never surveyed the township. So, there were no lots. I think one of my favorite deeds, I think it was around 1850 or so, Abner Benedict, Farrand's brother, sold 8,000 acres. 2,000 to each of four gentlemen, with no definition of where the land was. There were a few exceptions: it can't be here; it can't be there; but other than that, you, and you, and you, and you, had your 2,000 acres, but each one of you and no one else knew where it was. Also, compounding it and probably the biggest problem was in the 1870s and '80s, New York State held a series of tax sales.

They put the entire township up for sale with very small exception. They ignored the fact people were on the land and paying taxes. They sold the entire township and they bought the entire township. And when they bought the township, they recorded it in the Forest Preserve.

Well, even in 1898, the Superintendent of Forests wrote in the Forest Fish and Game Commission book, "We've recorded property in the Forest Preserve as a result of tax sales that were not legal. He says in the book, "You may wonder why we don't take them out." And that's because you can only remove them through a court case or a constitutional amendment. That's it.

Well, over the course of the years the state sued the people on the land, the rightful owners, three times: 1901; 1917; and approximately 1954. Just to give you an idea of — unfortunately I use the word stupidity for this situation — in the 1900 or '01 Forest Fish and Game Commission's annual report, they comment on the fact that they have stored their expensive surveying material in Anderson's boathouse because he is such a trustworthy individual. And the next year they sued him and claimed that they owned his property.

There's been a few court cases over the years with one exception — which was based on adverse possession in that case — the owners, the rightful owners, the people on the land, won. The rest of the folks that were sued, and this was true in our case, open cases. The court sued, in our particular personal situation, in 1917. Depositions taken, all of this, all of that, meetings, discussions, everything. 1933 it's the last any kind of action. It sat there as an open case. No decisions.

Then in the 1990s, the state began to take action against people once more. One person who was replacing the family homestead was told to cease and desist. The state owned the land. One person who had a sign erected, the property was for sale, was told by the state to remove the sign because they owned the property. Obviously, and not surprisingly, concern grew and a very small group of us got together and we decided that we had to do something. There were five of us in our small group. I was the only person who was not born or living there full-time. The rest of the folks — it was actually guys — were either born there or had lived their entire lives there. I got designated spokesperson for a couple of reasons. One, I had begun to do some research, but mostly because I lived in Albany and could get to the meetings and was retired. It was just kind of convenient, if you will.

In 2003, we contacted a newly elected assemblyperson. Her name was Teresa Sayward. She was out of Willsboro, New York. And you who know that area might have heard of her. We invited her in. We sat down and we explained the state had done a chart, which showed, supposedly, how they had gotten possession. They didn't mention the tax sales. We sat with Teresa and we said, "Teresa, we need your help." She said, "I'll help you." And she did.

Our goal was to secure a release of the state's claim for every single one of those parcels. We worked with local officials. We worked with county officials. We worked with Assemblywoman Sayward. We worked with Senator Little, who was our senator at the time. We worked with people from the Department of Environmental Conservation. We worked with people from the attorney general's office. Occasionally, we had someone from the governor's office sit in at a meeting. And we also worked with the four environmental groups.

Everyone agreed the problem should be solved but then, you know, the devil's in the details. I also discovered — I was so naïve when I went into this, but what's right is right — I discovered as we got closer to the situation, it got harder to solve the situation. It was very simple when we talked about it over here, kind of. For instance, we had one individual, who is not an elected individual who wanted us to pay whatever our place was assessed for. So, if you were assessed for $250,000, she would agree you can have good title if you paid $250,000. Then there were people who wanted restrictions on building. If you get good title, then you shouldn't be able to build anything on the property. There was a laundry list.

Ultimately, we decided that a constitutional amendment rather than any kind of court case was the route to go. One of the smarter things that we did, and I think it's the first time it's ever been done, was we insisted that the enabling legislation, the legislation that explained how this was going to happen if the constitutional amendment was passed, how then this would all work out. I don't think if we hadn't passed that before the constitutional amendment passed, I don't think I'd be standing here today. We would still be fighting in the legislature about getting some kind of process through. I have to say that there was a little bit of panic at one point. You know, people were risking their homes, businesses. We had a family that's been in their camp since 1896. Same family. Down through the years. There was a lot of history here but here's this little tiny place trying to get a constitutional amendment passed.

Some of the things we did, and probably the biggest thing that we did was the fact that we did a lot of Facebook stuff. If you were a member of any kind of a group your neighbors, we said, "Please vote yes and ask your relatives to vote yes. Ask your friends to vote yes." We put signs up across the state driving to Rochester or live out near there… we had road signs.

Another little thing that we did do that I think really worked well and they got passed out in New York City is, we did business cards. They're really cheap. Because we had no money. Literally. We never asked anybody for any money through this whole thing. And this was "Vote for Prop 4" and a little reason why you should. We passed these out on corners in New York City at one time. Just kind of strange ideas.

The settlement that we agreed to was that everyone had to either opt in or opt out. Everyone opted in. You could donate land to the state if you wanted to. Two people did. One of them was a very significant donation. Everyone had to pay a fee. Every parcel was billed $2,000 plus a percentage of the assessment. It worked out to, I think it was just under $3,000 average per parcel. So, although there was a cost, it wasn't horrendous.

We passed. We had help from a lot of the people that we had worked with over the years. Adirondack Council was extremely helpful. They went to a lot of the editorial boards for us. That was something I had no idea how to do and couldn't get in, probably, some of the doors that they could, which is always nice to have a contact person like that. The constitutional amendment was approved by 72.6%. It was the second highest Forest Preserve amendment that's ever been passed. Actually, I didn't believe it that night. One of the guys on the committee called me and said, "Carolyn, it looks as though it passed. New York City's coming in." I said, "No, no, no, no, that's just one little county somewhere. That's not the whole borough." I got off the phone and heard on the TV that it had passed. It was quite an emotional moment, as you can imagine.

Last June, because the other thing that had to be done was the legislature had to agree. By the way, the money that we collected went toward replacement land, which was necessary to do this. The legislature had to approve that the replacement land was of "net benefit" to the state of New York. Last June, 2016, the legislature passed that legislation that said, indeed, the replacement lands were of net benefit. And this August we got our letters releasing the state's claim.

This sounds very simple in this abbreviated form but I want you to know that it wasn't. We called Township 40 a roller coaster. Ups? Oh, yeah, and then immediately followed with downs and setbacks I can relate to Willetts Point. It's so frustrating to do something like this but we'd gone that far and there wasn't any going back. You can't suddenly slam the door. Pandora's box was open.

I could stand here and say things from my point of view but I'm sure all of you have a lot more experience than I do with this. So, I think I'm going to skip trying to tell you anything about how you should be doing this. But I will say that we did our homework. I can honestly say I have no legal background whatsoever. I was an elementary school principal for most of my life and luckily we don't get into a lot of law cases. But I did spend an enormous amount of time studying all of the cases in Township 40. Hours and hours and hours, so that I honestly can say that I knew more about those cases than anybody else did. I think that's something that's extremely important.

Are we out of time?

Carol LaGrasse: I'm sorry.

Ms. Gerdin: That's quite all right. I do want to close just with Margaret Mead's quote who said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Thank you so much for your time.

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