Perhaps I first heard of the Township 40 disputed land titles during the Adirondack Park Centennial year, 1992. It was probably that fall during a Raquette Lake cruise on the WW Durant with Capt. Dean Pohl. I recalled the issues when canoeing on the lake later that decade. My friend Dan and I paddled Raquette Lake, took the Marion River Carry en route through the Eckford Chain of Lakes. I was back paddling on Raquette Lake through some high winds and waves when our mentor Paul Schaefer died in July, 1996.
I felt terribly that I was not with Paul when he died, but consoled myself with the knowledge that he would have certainly approved of where I was at the time he died, paddling into the teeth of the wind to reach a quiet bay on this great Adirondack lake. Paul was fond of showing us an early 20th century map of Township 40 to make the point that before becoming the famous first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot had (in about 1900) proposed lumbering thousands of acres east and south of Raquette Lake, a threat which had energized the organization of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, the citizen and advocacy organization Paul served for 50 years and which I had the privilege of working for.
However, the lake’s land disputes did not really penetrate my consciousness until about 2005. I think that was the spring that NYS Senator Betty Little, Assemblywoman Theresa Sayward and NYS DEC hosted an initial stakeholders meeting at the Hamilton County office in Indian Lake. There I met a remarkable individual, Carolyn Gerdin, who spent the next 40 minutes telling all of us the history of many of the 216 disputed parcels around Raquette Lake. She had certainly done her research, but that’s stating the obvious. She was also speaking personally and with first-hand knowledge about finding a solution to a legal morass which had caused her family and so many other families years of heartache and worry. Worrying about having clear title to shoreline that she and others had cared for all these years had taken an individual and community toll. Even the Raquette Lake fire company was on disputed land.
After she had finished, DEC legal staff confirmed that the state could not legally forgo its claim to these parcels regardless of whether those claims would ever stand up in court. Some of their claims were quite strong, but many others were correspondingly weak, the staff admitted. Therefore, DEC had been interested in a unique legislative and constitutional solution that would allow DEC to forever forgo the state’s claims on certain specified parcels, while compensating the public with meaningful lands to go into the Forest Preserve. DEC Lands and Forests attorney Ken Hamm had already drafted a potential solution. The stakeholders had been called together to dissect that draft and the problems it raised in hopes of gaining consensus on a proposal that could win approval not just in the State Senate but in the Attorney General’s office and in the NYS Assembly.
Since then, Ken Hamm has worked on many more drafts of the legislation. Many meetings have been held in Raquette Lake and in Albany, questions raised and doubts aired about the wisdom of aspects of the legislation. On the environmental side there was plenty of discomfort with the state’s forgoing any future claim on these disputed parcels and with the process for settling claims out of court. What would the state receive in exchange and would the public receive equal or greater value? How would it be paid for and would there be enough money? Would the lakeshore be better protected as a result of this grand bargain, or not? Ultimately, we felt it would be better protected. For the shoreowners, I am certain there was an initial lack of trust about the entire process, and some undoubtedly felt they should continue to take their chances in the courts.
In the end, the parties continued to come back to the table because of the energetic efforts of Carolyn Gerdin, Ken Hamm, Assemblywoman Sayward, and because we began to trust each other. We all knew we had a chance to lighten a heavy load of historic uncertainty and mistrust, and make things better along Raquette Lake. At the foundation of this constitutional and legislative untying of the gordion knot in Township 40 were genuine public benefits:
1. a clear, time-limited process by which private parties may gain title to their shoreline properties, and by which the state would relinquish all claims;
2. a local fund which would help pay for land to be acquired for the Forest Preserve nearby and for all administrative costs;
3. The parcel to be acquired for the state through this funding mechanism is likely to be a 200+ acre parcel along the historic Marion River Carry between Raquette Lake and the Eckford Chain of Lakes leading to Blue Mountain Lake. This is an important new acquisition for the forest preserve;
4. Private parties along the shoreline may reduce their monetary contribution to the fund by donating a portion of their shoreline as a conservation easement to the Town of Long Lake, or as Forest Preserve to the State of New York. Conservation-minded people will thus have an incentive to better protect the shores of Raquette Lake then they have today, lacking certainty about their ownership.
NYS Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee Chairman Sweeney and his colleagues agreed to the constitutional amendment and to implementing legislation this past spring, which passed both chambers.
When she was interviewed recently on the lake by the WMHT-TV’s “New York Now,” Carolyn Gerdin said that her father had forbidden any family discussion of the historic problem of uncertain title along Raquette Lake. Discussing it never brought resolution, only more worry, so why bring it up? For me, that struck a chord. I reminded myself that due to redistricting I am part of the same State Senate District as Carolyn, District 49. I had participated in a seven or eight year dispute resolution process which had finally brought something hidden and unwelcome at Raquette Lake into the sunlight, and a negotiated solution was in sight. Carolyn reminded viewers that the solution would not cost the state’s taxpayers a dime.
Now, it is up to the voters as Proposition 4 on tomorrow’s ballot. Vote yes.
Photo: Raquette Lake by Dave Gibson.