At the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) monthly meeting in September, Fred Monroe of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board made some very confusing statements about transferable development rights, or TDR.
He expressed the notion that annually leased hunting and fishing cabins on the former Finch Pryun lands constitute a guaranteed building right which can be transferred elsewhere “for affordable housing and for facilities needed for tourism.” The state’s acquisition of these lands for the public implies a loss of forestry jobs and taxes, he argued, which should be compensated by transferring building “density” to help the local tax base somewhere else. He further confused matters by stating that eventual loss of some of these camps would deprive Newcomb, for example, of places to stay overnight.
First, all of these hunting camps exist as leases with the landowner, The Nature Conservancy, formerly Finch Pruyn. They’ve been forever closed to non-club members, so their closure after their lease agreements expire will not make one bit of difference to the average overnight visitor to the central Adirondacks. While new overnight lodging for recreational tourists may be needed here, that need is unrelated to forestry leases.
Furthermore, every lease club was given the opportunity by the Conservancy to move their camps off of the lands headed to the Forest Preserve, and onto the more than 90,000 acres of conservation easement land. Some leaseholders agreed to move, others did not. Any failure for not “transferring” some of these camps elsewhere lies with the clubs themselves, a fact Monroe fails to mention.
But, here’s what’s fundamentally confusing about Monroe’s notion of transferable development rights off of the former Finch Pruyn lands: once the state acquires the land, the development rights will not exist. The state will acquire the former Finch Pruyn lands using public funds through transaction with The Nature Conservancy, the landowner compensated according to terms of a legal contract. Once transacted, all of the bundle of rights that come with full fee landownership, including the right to develop the land, are sold to us, the people of New York State. As soon as title passes to the state, the land becomes Forest Preserve, forever to be kept as wild forest land under the terms of Article 14, Section 1 of the New York State Constitution. All development rights are purchased and extinguished at that moment; thus, to imply that such rights still exist and can be transferred elsewhere is to ignore the law. Thanks to a longstanding but separate statute, the lands of the state remain taxable for all purposes.
To be clear, the camps under a certain size are not defined as principal buildings by the APA Act, and in some cases are not even calculated in the APA’s overall intensity guidelines (OIG). Even if their size qualifies them as principal buildings, under the APA’s Land Use and Development Plan there is no legal right to develop, but an opportunity to develop up to an overall intensity of land use, for example 15 principal buildings per square mile on Resource Management, or 75 principal buildings per square mile on Rural Use. The Act and the implementing regulations state that developing up to this threshold on a given tract of land is not a guarantee and the Agency must take into account a number of other considerations and potential constraints on development.
The next time Fred Monroe, or anyone sitting at the APA’s table, speaks of transferable development rights, I hope it will be a substantive, lawful, pragmatic and comprehensive discussion about how to better protect backcountry lands in Resource Management and Rural Use by transferring some of the building opportunities off of these lands and onto available and better-suited Moderate or Low Intensity lands where the Act intended to concentrate development in the first place; and how to fairly and pragmatically treat landowners, local planning boards and communities who wish to engage in such a program.
Adding this land use and conservation planning tool called TDR on a regional scale could be of great benefit to the Adirondack Park’s built and unbuilt landscapes, but it requires careful thought, planning preparation, and comprehensive legislation discussed by all parties well in advance of any bill drafting.