A ruling in the State Supreme Court in Chautauqua County in western New York threatens the tax base and future of many communities in the Adirondacks and Catskills. Justice Timothy J. Walker ruled on November 14 that the State's real estate tax payments to municipalities such as those with Forest Preserve land were an "unconstitutional disbursement of funds," because taxes were not paid to all municipalities in New York where the State owns land. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit by John Dillenburg of the small town of Arkwright, who complained that the State does not pay real estate taxes on the land that the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) owns in the 2,265-acre Canadaway Creek Game Management Area in western New York.
The ruling potentially affects a wide range of municipalities, such as the City of Albany, which receives payments because of the large area of taxable properties taken to make way for the Empire State Plaza. According to the Times Union of Albany in December, the State pays nearly $200 million annually to municipalities in taxes and payments in lieu of taxes. Judge Walker ordered the State to cease its practice of paying some municipalities without paying all others that contain State-owned property.
Taxpayers in areas of New York with significant DEC land ownership have complained about what they perceive as unequal treatment for years. However, their sense of injustice is based on lack of information about the vastness and nature of the land holdings in the North Country, where the State pays taxes on the three million acres of Forest Preserve land it owns in over one hundred towns and villages in the six million-acre Adirondack Park. In addition, the State has begun paying taxes on its recently acquired shares of land ownership under the expanding system of conservation easements it holds on private land, which now stands at about 700,000 acres in the Adirondacks.
In the Adirondacks, the forestland owned by DEC is constitutionally restricted as "forever wild" since 1885, and none of the immense wealth of timber on the vast acreage may be cut and sold. The negative economic impact on communities that have historically relied on a timber-based economy is profound. As the twentieth century began, the State continued to expand the original bounds of the "Blue Line," a kind of boundary enclosing both the Forest Preserve and private land, in one great swath of villages and towns. The State-owned Adirondack Forest Preserve grew from 681,374 acres in 1885 to the current acreage approaching one and one-half that of Yellowstone National Park's 2,219,772 acres. The State's appetite is voracious
In Stony Creek, where I reside, the State owns fully one-half the land, effectively cutting off use of the forests, reducing settlements and camps to lonely wilderness, and dead-ending town highways. In Hamilton County to the west of Stony Creek, the State owns over 70 percent of the land. Year-round families with children are fewer and fewer.
In addition, since 1973, a State-level zoning agency appointed by the governor rides herd on the private land. About 47 percent of the private land is zoned for 42 acres per dwelling, with another thirty percent zoned for over eight acres per dwelling, leaving only thirteen percent of the land for theoretically affordable lots, these being rapidly eliminated with conservation easements. Moreover, all the land has many additional state restrictions, such as special wetland rules for the Adirondacks.
In 1886, the year after the Adirondack Forest Preserve was protected, the legislature established the policy that the State would pay taxes on the lands that it owned. This legislation followed the 1885 recommendation of the Forestry Commission appointed by New York State Comptroller Alfred C. Chapin at the behest of the legislature.
Known as the "Sargent Commission" because it was headed Professor Charles S. Sargent of Harvard University, the commission recommended, "It is only after the most careful and prolonged consideration that the Commissioners have concluded to recommend that the State hereafter bear taxes upon its lands in the Adirondack region."
This legislative commission as well as others discussed at great length the fact that the Forest Preserve was to provide benefits for the people of the entire state. The statewide benefits were created as a result of restrictions that were to the detriment of the people of the local area.
Watershed protection loomed large in the minds of state leaders in the field of forestry and commerce. In 1885, according to testimony to the Sargent Commission, summer flow of the Adirondack rivers had decreased, within the memory of men then living, from thirty to fifty percent, as a result of forest destruction. Reduction in flow in the Hudson River was causing the salt front to migrate upstream.
Carrying commerce from the mid-west across central New York to the Hudson River, the Erie Canal played a premier role in New York City's becoming the greatest city in America. However, during the late eighteenth century, the Erie Canal ran so low during some summers that additional flow was needed. Management of the watershed of the forested slopes of the southern and western Adirondacks was necessary to provide that flow. Radical cutting and forest fires had to be stopped; this was done by State prohibition through land acquisition. In the Forest Preserve, the mulch on the forest floor was to be preserved because it acted like a great sponge, or reservoir, and released the flow gradually over the entire year, diminishing the loss of water during spring flows and preserving water for the summer. The Black River in the western slopes of the Adirondacks was re-routed from its northerly direction to flow instead to the Erie Canal.
Commercial leaders of the New York Metropolitan Area looked ahead at the turn of the twentieth century for further benefit from the Adirondacks. After the Catskill Aqueduct was completed, Charles N. Chadwick, one of the most active members of the Board of Water Supply, which was in charge of harvesting the waters of the Catskills, was quoted in a report to the legislature in 1918 that "in the orderly development of an increasing water supply for such a great body of people, the final step will of necessity be the Adirondacks."
For nearly 125 years, the New York metropolitan area has looked to the Adirondacks for sacrifice to fulfill, first its commercial goals, and now, with more radical measures, to achieve its vision for nature preservation. New York courts have long approved differing treatment of classes of property for legitimate tax purposes. Certainly, the State's reliance on the sacrifice by the localities in twelve counties to provide state-wide benefits justifies what has been a sound, consistent policy of State payment of taxes on its land in the Adirondack Forest Preserve.