On Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 New York State voters will have an opportunity to vote on several state-wide propositions. Proposition #4 (Prop 4), is one of two Constitutional Amendments affecting the Adirondacks. It’s the result of long-standing title disputes between the State of New York and property owners on Raquette Lake in the old Township 40 of the Totten and Crossfield Purchase.
A positive vote will correct an injustice that has been perpetuated for over 100 years.
I write as an interested party, but I’m not directly involved in any aspect of the controversy that gives rise to Prop 4. I don’t own property on or near Raquette Lake. I’m not one of the contested property holders. But, for nearly 35 years I have paddled the waters of this lake starting with a group of high school students, canoeing, camping, and learning about the outdoors. I’ve paddled the lake with my wife, with friends, and with clients as an Adirondack guide. In 2005, I paddled Raquette Lake recreating the 1883 paddle of George Washington Sears (a.k.a. Nessmuk) and many times since as a trail steward for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.
Township 40 comprises most of Raquette Lake within the present Town of Long Lake in Hamilton County. In the late 1700’s this area was part of the Totten and Crossfield Purchase. Township 40 contains about 24,000 acres of which a little more than 1,000 acres are contested between private parties and the State Of New York. (There is no relationship between the townships of the Totten and Crossfield Purchase and the present day county and town lines.) On a map provided in the Sixth Annual Report of the Forest, Fish, and Game Commission (1900, at right), Township 40 is shaded very dark, just left of center.
The problem began in 1848 when Farrand N. Benedict purchased all 24,000 acres of Township 40 from the State of New York. During the 1850’s Benedict subdivided and sold off parcels to his friends and acquaintances. Most of the new owners paid their taxes, but some did not. In those days property with delinquent taxes reverted back to the State. The State then held an auction and resold the property. During the 1870’s and 80’s the laws for disposing of property for delinquent taxes changed several times. Finally, in 1885 the Forest Preserve was created and all lands with unpaid taxes became part of the new Preserve.
However by this time much of Township 40 was claimed by both private landowners and the State of New York. Inadequate surveying, poor record keeping, clerical errors and lost documents combined with ignorance, fear, and distrust on all sides led to conflicting claims. The State recognized the problem back in 1898 and in the Fourth Annual Report of the Commissioners of Fisheries, Game, and Forests issued the following statement: “ . . . very often, through clerical errors, lands were sold on which taxes had been paid, and from which the owners held and still hold, receipts for the payment of every tax that was ever levied.” But such a statement did not solve the problem. From 1901 through 1924 the State tried to eject the Raquette Lake property owners. The lawsuits were very slow in going through the courts. In 1924 the Court of Appeals reviewed the Ladew case (property owner) and found that at least three of the prior tax sales were faulty due to poor record keeping, and declared these three sales (1875, 1881, 1884) to be null and void.
But that was still not the end of the conflict. The State did “back off” and little action was taken by either side until the 1940’s when the State won its case against St. Williams Church. But then the State lost two cases in the 1990’s, and won a case in 2002. In the 10 cases actually tried, the State won 2 cases and lost 8, for a gain of 14 acres and a loss of 400 acres.
At present there are 216 parcels of property where there are conflicts between the State and private landholders (including businesses, the school, fire department, and the waste transfer station). Passage of Proposition #4 would allow for clear title for all of these property holders.
The question is often raised as to why a constitutional amendment is needed. According to the provisions of the New York State Constitution (1885, Article 7, Section 7, renumbered in 1930 to Article 14) “The lands of the State, now owned or hereby acquired, constituting the Forest Preserve as now fixed by law, shall be kept forever as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold, or exchanged or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the lumber be sold, removed, or destroyed”.
Because resolution of the title conflicts will involve the transfer of some contested Forest Preserve lands to private ownership, only a constitutional amendment, voted upon by two successive legislatures and the people of New York in a general election, can effect transfer. Having gone through all but the last step in the amendment process, Proposition #4 is the opportunity for the people to speak to the issue.
Proposition #4 will require each affected property holder to contribute from $2,000 to $7,900 to be used to assist the State in acquiring lands that will benefit the Forest Preserve. In exchange the State will give up its claim to these contested holdings (the “transfer of state lands” in the context of the NYS Constitution). The property owners will receive clear title to their lands and the State will acquire valuable new lands for the Forest Preserve.
The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is expected to recommend to the State Legislature that this new land be the 285-acre Marion River parcel (a carry trail between Utowana Lake and the Marion River, which connects to Raquette Lake). This carry trail has been used for centuries and passes through private property currently owned by the Open Space Institute. The purchase of the Marion River parcel would add to the publicly owned Forest Preserve and ensure permanent public access to this historic and important route through the Eckford Chain of Lakes in the central Adirondacks.
Passage of Proposition #4 will not result in extensive development on Raquette Lake. Most of the land is already developed and new development is limited, by the mere fact that there are few roadways near most of the contested property. Township 40 is virtually surrounded by existing state lands, making construction access almost impossible. And, property owners are being encouraged to agree to conservation easements that do not allow for such development. One large landowner has announced he plans to donate significant acreage to the State, thus preserving it as forever wild. In addition development is limited by the guidelines of the Adirondack Park Agency.
The alternative is further litigation by each property holder or by the State. Litigation would place a huge financial burden on the State as well as on each of the individuals involved and it would be hugely time-consuming. Some of the present cases have already been in the courts for over 80 years, and are still not resolved. All parties involved, including the State agree that litigation is not the way to solve this problem.
Proposition #4 is widely supported. The New York State Legislature has in two separate and successive sessions passed the amendment. In this last (2013) session passage was unanimous (a general election is necessary between legislative actions, part of the law established to amend the State Constitution). In addition the New York State Attorney General’s office, DEC, Hamilton County, and the Town of Long Lake have all supported the amendment, as have the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages and many others. And then there are the environmental groups that have voiced support as well: The Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club, Adirondack Wild, Protect the Adirondacks, and the Open Space Institute. And, of course, the owners of the contested property are behind Prop 4 as well.
In Summary Proposition #4 represents a win-win for all concerned.
+ There is no cost to the taxpayers of New York State
+ It resolves the over 100-year Township 40 issue
+ It adds new lands to the Forest Preserve
I urge you to vote YES, on proposition #4 (Prop 4) on Election Day, Tuesday, November 5, 2013.
A brief YouTube video on the issue can be found at https://www.yutube.com/watch?
Aerial photo of Township 40 used with permission of Carolyn Gerdin.