Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Dave Gibson: A New Proposal for Township 40

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)

Dave Gibson

Dave Gibson

Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for nearly 25 years, much of that time as Executive Director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks and then as first Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks.

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is a partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

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11 Responses

  1. Mick says:

    Dave, do I understand this correctly? A homeowner / landowner’s title is being disputed by the state. The owner can give their land to the state, or pay the state, then the harassment will stop. Is this about right?

    Has a title search ever been performed? Does anyone have title insurance?

    Like or Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    • Dave Gibson Dave Gibson says:

      Mick,
      No. As I understand it, NYS has a legitimate claim to these parcels dating way back, some being stronger than others. It plans to forgo making any future claims in exchange for an administrative and land fund that private land claimants pay into based on their assessed land value in proportion to the total assessed value on the lake. Some of these claimants want to preserve their shoreline, not build. They can reduce their costs by gifting an easement or land, entirely voluntary. I can’t answer your good questions about title searches and insurance.

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  2. Solidago says:

    I too would love to hear a bit more of the back story on Township 40.

    This isn’t a silver bullet, but it seems like a good step in the right direction. While reading the article I was expecting to hear that the author and Adirondack Wild were against it, but was pleasantly surprised! Although I’m sure the impression isn’t entirely correct, sometimes it seems like Adirondack Wild and Protect! are always fighting and opposing the work of others, rather than offering their support. It’s nice to have this impression challenged from time-to-time.

    Like or Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

    • Dave Gibson Dave Gibson says:

      Solidago,
      Thanks. I see these six years as a legitimate effort to resolve a difficult gordion’s knot. Credit for progress made to date is due the diligence of landowners involved at Raquette, DEC and Legislators.

      Like or Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

      • Paul says:

        This is a wild story. I considered buying land there. Not to develop it beyond what was there but to enjoy and protect it. These title issues made it a non-starter. They need to fix this.

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  3. Jim Blanchard says:

    For background, one can check http://www.twp40.com

    Thank you,

    JB

    Like or Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. John Warren John Warren says:

    You can read more about Township 40 in this piece from the Almanack in 2009.

    http://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2009/07/township-40-dispute-resolution-in-the-works.html

    Unfortunately, we’re still experiencing problems with our bylines related to the move to the new site, so I’m not sure who wrote it. (We’re working on it!)

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  5. Pete Klein says:

    It is about time for this nonsense to end. The state has been bullying these people (who have been paying taxes) for 120 years.

    Like or Dislike this comment: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

    • Jaws says:

      The whole crux of this issue is that people have been paying taxes on land that they don’t clearly own. You can’t claim adverse possession on state land, so paying taxes on these properties for decades doesn’t automatically remove the state’s ownership.

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  6. Mary Henry says:

    I’m not claiming adverse possession. I’m living in the family homestead. I do not want to sell or subdivide. I am surrounded by a lake, wetlands, and a state highway. There are generous setbacks on these boundaries, so in effect I am already being assessed on land I cannot build on. I will probably turn these areas over to the state because I am struggling to pay taxes now and an additional assessment to benefit others is out of my reach.
    People who bought property here knew they weren’t getting a clear title. If they wanted a clear title, they should have bought property in the Catskills.
    Incidentally, my father’s family has been in what we now call New York State since the late 1600’s. No one questioned their title or deeds until Township 40!

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  7. Rebecca says:

    In addition to what my mother Mary said, our home has been in the family since the 1950s. The land has been occupied since the late 1880s, and has changed hands at least twice without any problems with the transaction being recorded. Someone somewhere made a mistake (like maybe Route 28 was built in the wrong place, because we own property on both sides of the road, which is strange), and we should not have to pay for that. If my family has been paying taxes on state land for the past 60 years, I expect a refund, plus interest. We are not squatters. Were the original people who occupied the land squatters? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. We have no intention of selling our land, so it really doesn’t matter to me. I’d rather not stir things up.

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