Tuesday, January 19, 2010

State Land Moratorium and Pending Adirondack Sales

Governor David Paterson’s budget would zero-out money for land acquisition and impose an apparent two-year moratorium on state land purchases. Other components of the Environmental Protection Fund would also be reduced (33 percent across the board), but land conservation is the only category proposed for elimination.

This would leave the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy extended on many millions of dollars worth of land that the state has agreed to buy for the Forest Preserve. The tracts involved are 65,000 acres of former Finch Pruyn land spread across 27 towns, and 14,600 acres surrounding Follensby Pond, mostly in the town of Harrietstown. State payment on an easement on 92,000 acres of former Finch land is also pending.

The value of the land to be sold to the state is still being appraised; the sale was to be gradual over several years, beginning this year.

The Conservancy has been paying property taxes, insurance, land management and other carrying costs on Finch since 2007 (purchase price $110,000 million for 161,000 acres) and on Follensby since 2008 (purchase price $16 million). The Conservancy sold 92,000 acres of Finch as easement-restricted working timberlands in 2009 to a Danish pension fund for $32.8 million. The Adirondack Chapter’s property tax payments now amount to about $600,000 annually, according to communications director Connie Prickett. She could not provide debt service costs, saying loans have been refinanced several times and are currently undergoing another refinancing.

The chapter’s 2009 annual report says the past fiscal year ended with a balanced budget. (That fiscal year also included a few staff layoffs.) The report also says that even with the sale to the Danish pension fund and pending sales to the state, those transactions would cover only a portion of the projects’ expenses. The group reported it had raised $16 million toward a fundraising goal of $35 million for Finch and Follensby.

“We obviously entered into these projects in partnership with the State of New York,” said Paul Hartman, the Conservancy’s director of government relations in New York State. “Obviously if a moratorium is adopted by the legislature and put into effect it’s going to have significant effects on our organization and partners.”

Here’s what the governor’s budget says about the Environmental Protection Fund:

“The Executive Budget recommends EPF appropriations of $143 million – a cumulative reduction of $79 million from the 2009-10 Enacted Budget level. Recommendations include a moratorium on forest preserve and open space land acquisition. EPF resources would focus on maintaining the State’s existing facilities, protecting water resources, continuing to revitalize waterfronts and municipal parks, and maintaining a quality agricultural system through farmland protection.

“History/Context: The State has protected more than 750,000 acres of open space since 2003 and more than 29,000 acres of farmland since 1996. From 1992 to 2006, the State parks system expanded by more than 25 percent, with 66,000 acres and 28 new parks added. These actions have been financed primarily through the expansion of the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF). . . .

“The primary source of revenue for the EPF is the State’s Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT). Consistent with the reduction in appropriations, RETT deposits to the EPF would be reduced by $67 million to $132.3 million. This deposit level, along with funding from other EPF revenue sources, would ensure that EPF appropriations are fully supported by projected revenues. The RETT reduction combined with other EPF actions would provide total financial plan savings of $77 million. (2010-11 Savings: $77 million; 2011-12 Savings: $77 million).”

Finally: I worked for the Conservancy a decade ago, and I am also a resident and taxpayer in the Town of Harrietstown. My intent for this post is to get more numbers out. One last figure: private lands in the Adirondack Park under timber-tax exemption are [this sentence has been corrected] assessed at about $80 per acre while Forest Preserve lands are assessed at about $500 per acre, according to assessor Doug Tichenor. Harrietstown stands to gain annually from the transfer of Follensby, which is under timber-tax exemption. All of the proposed transactions have been approved by the governments of the towns they would affect. Undoubtedly we’ll hear about other dimensions of Paterson’s proposal in weeks to come.

Map of Follensby Pond tract

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Mary Thill lives in Saranac Lake and has worked alternately in journalism and Adirondack conservation for three decades.

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