A proposal may come up for a vote in the State Legislature this year that would amend Article 14, Section 1 of the NYS Constitution, ‘the Forever Wild” clause which safeguards our New York State Forest Preserve. The amendment and implementing legislation addresses land titles on the shoreline of Raquette Lake in Hamilton County.
Each time the Legislature and the People of the State are asked to consider an exception to Article 14 represents a new opportunity to affirm the Article’s fundamental principle and mandate that “the lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve… shall be forever kept as wild forest lands.” No other state in the country has such a large (now about three million acres in both Adirondack and Catskill Parks) Forest Preserve, much less one embedded in its State Constitution.In keeping with a long and respected tradition of public concern for “Forever Wild” that dates to 1894, amendments to Article 14, Section 1 should be specific in terms of location, limited in terms of scope, and clear and compelling about the overall public benefits and purposes to be achieved.
Township 40: Some years ago I flipped through an annual report from the State’s Fisheries, Game and Forest Commission published in the late 19th century, and came upon a report about litigation the State had initiated at Raquette Lake. It was about Forest Preserve land the State claimed to own on behalf of the people of the State. The article caught my interest, but I really didn’t have a clue until approximately 2006 when I attended my first “Township 40” meeting in Hamilton County. Raquette Lake is part of Township 40 from the Totten and Crossfield Purchase.
It was only then that I realized how many people and parcels of land were impacted by these land title disputes dating back 120 years. The potential title disputes involve more than 200 land parcels, more than 1000 acres, affecting dozens if not hundreds of people and, of course, the State of New York along the shore of Raquette Lake. In some cases, the State had a stronger case for asserting title than in others, which was demonstrated by recent victories in court, one of which went in favor of the State and one going against.
Since that first meeting five years ago, Legislative attempts to address these longstanding title disputes brought in the Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Environmental Conservation, as well as citizen organizations. Proposals ran into valid questions. Was it wise, or proper for the state to give up its claims even on those parcels where its case was strongest? How should claims be expeditiously adjudicated or determined? Would the relatively undeveloped Raquette Lake shoreline be marred by more intensive housing development if private owners gained undisputed title on 1000 acres, and how could that be prevented? What would constitute equal or greater value for the state in exchange for the shoreline it no longer claimed for the public? In fact, could such an exchange of equal value be achieved? Where would the funds come from to arrive at a fair exchange? Who would determine the location and the public values of the exchange land? How many shoreland owners would participate in a legislative solution? How many would trust that a legislative process gave them greater assurance of eventually gaining clear title than a court of law?
Over the five years of discussion, greater trust has been established and facts have been unearthed which would ease some of these concerns. Quoting from this year’s draft proposal, the State Legislature will consider a bill “to resolve longstanding and competing claims of title between the state and private parties…. In the last several decades, the state and some private parties have commenced litigation, at significant expense and with limited success, to establish their respective claims over disputed parcels. As a result… the free transfer of the parcels has been inhibited, thereby creating economic and social hardship in the township which, in turn, has prevented both state and private parties from the full use and enjoyment of the parcels.”
The proposal will probably undergo more changes before it is printed as legislation and reaches the Assembly and Senate for a vote. If approved in two separately elected legislatures and by the people it gives all willing landowners an opportunity to gain undisputed ownership of their parcels on Raquette Lake by having the state and private parties undertake a process over time by which:
1. NYS forgoes forever any claim of ownership of specified parcels of shoreline;
2. In exchange, affected landowners would provide funds to administer the process and which in the aggregate would be used to acquire land elsewhere for the Forest Preserve – in exchange for the state’s stopping of any claim to specific parcels of shoreline;
3. Affected landowners would have the chance to grant all or a portion of their disputed parcels, or certain prescribed rights to those lands as a gift of land to the Town as a conservation easement or in full fee title to the State as Forest Preserve. Doing so would reduce their out of pocket costs of resolving disputed title;
4. A landowner is free not to participate in the process, and take their chances gaining free and clear title in the courts.
Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve has studied the proposal. While there is no guarantee that practical difficulties still won’t arise, it appears to be specific in terms of location, limited in scope, and clear and compelling about the public benefits and purposes to be achieved.
In short, it appears this amendment to Article 14 meets critical tests for obtaining public support. The legislative arrangement would provide this and future generations of shoreland owners free and clear title to their properties, a significant and enduring benefit to them, their children, the Village of Raquette Lake, Town of Long Lake and Hamilton County. It would remove for all time the threat, the uncertainty and the costs involved in a challenge from the State.
The State of New York, meaning the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, would finally know what it owns and does not own along the shoreline, and what its management responsibilities are. Through an exchange, the public stands to gain some significant new addition to the Forest Preserve in the vicinity of Raquette Lake. Moreover, some of the lakeshore itself could become even wilder; some shoreline owners have expressed a desire to forever conserve their shoreline in exchange for obtaining clear title.
We expect a bill based upon this proposal to be printed this session, and will watch its progress. If the amendment succeeds in the Legislature this year, it faces second passage in a separately elected Legislature next year. If it succeeds then, it would come up for a vote at the polls in November of 2013.
Photo: Raquette Lake (Courtesy Dave Gibson – Adirondack Wild)