Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Dave Gibson On The State Forest Preserve’s Camp Gabriels

Article 14, Section 1 New York State Constitution Forever Wild clauseLegislation in the form of a constitutional amendment has been introduced in Albany this session which would “convey certain Forest Preserve that was never intended to be included in the Forest Preserve.”  That land is the 92-acre former Camp Gabriels prison in the Town of Brighton, formerly part of Paul Smith’s College, and before that a tubercular sanitarium. How this property and those interested in its conversion from a prison to another use came to this stage is a bit of a long story.

Given that this legislative session has just five days remaining, this 11th hour introduction of a constitutional amendment to Article XIV, the forever wild clause, should be viewed as both very surprising and controversial. It is neither. It’s a lesson learned, I trust, for the State of New York which turned a deaf ear in 2011 to the warning and recommendation of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, Protect the Adirondacks and the Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club.

In 2011 we watched with mounting concern efforts of the State Office of General Services (OGS) to sell 92-acre Camp Gabriels as surplus State property, through a bidding process. What concerned us was the fact that three state agencies, OGS, APA and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) failed to identify, or acknowledge the Forest Preserve status of this State-owned property. It became Forest Preserve the instant that the State Corrections Department bought the land in 1987 from Paul Smiths College, regardless of the purpose for which it was purchased and regardless of its intensively developed character.

State-owned land in Adirondack Forest Preserve counties and the Catskill Forest Preserve counties cannot be treated like surplus State-owned land in the rest of the state. In 2011 our organizations offered this opinion to OGS, with copies to DEC, APA and the Governor. The letters reminded these agencies that State law provides that all State-owned land in twelve Adirondack and four Catskill Forest Preserve counties, (which are named in law ECL 9-0101(6)), is Forest Preserve land protected by Section 1 of Article 14 – the “forever wild” provision –  of the New York State Constitution. There are exceptions in the law that exclude State-owned parcels from the Forest Preserve which are within the limits of a village or city, and lands, not wild lands, acquired by the State on foreclosure of certain mortgages. Neither exception applied to Camp Gabriels.

As to the already developed condition of Camp Gabriels, the three groups reminded the agencies that an Appellate Division decision in People v. Patenaude (286 App. Div. 140, Third Dept., 1955) addressed the fact that even developed State land may be Forest Preserve.

We concluded our reply to OGS this way:

“Given that the entire acreage of Camp Gabriels, including the land under its buildings, is ‘forever wild’ Forest Preserve and it cannot be alienated from that status without amending Article 14 , the ongoing efforts by OGS to auction Camp Gabriels are clearly unconstitutional. Because the land is Forest Preserve, the Town of Brighton is eligible under State law, and has been eligible all along, to receive annual tax payments from the State. Under the law, DEC has custodial responsibility for the Forest Preserve and APA has planning and oversight responsibility for it within the Adirondack Park. To our knowledge they have not yet responded in any way to the issue at hand nor has OGS asked them to do so. To summarize our position, the land on which Camp Gabriels has been constructed – all of the land – is Forest Preserve as defined in State law.  Forest Preserve land cannot be auctioned. It cannot be “leased, sold, or exchanged” except by first amending Article 14 to allow it. There is a process for doing that which we are willing to discuss with you, a process with which DEC and APA also are familiar.”

OGS ignored our advice. They continued with efforts to auction Camp Gabriels. APA cooperated by reclassifying this parcel of State Land to a private land classification, Moderate Intensity Use, for redevelopment purposes. APA had no authority to do this, since the auction of State Land in a Forest Preserve county meeting none of the legal exceptions to Forest Preserve violates Article XIV.

For many months Camp Gabriels sat with no successful bidder. Then we received a phone call. The caller was a potential bidder and interested future operator of the property. He could not obtain title insurance since the State could not ensure him clear title. What was he to do? The State was not forthcoming. I listened sympathetically. The property sat again with a potential and enthusiastic future operator who could not proceed with his bid because of the legal miscalculation of three state agencies and the Governor’s office.

Adirondack Wild hopes the lesson is finally learned. The State should not auction off State Land in either the Catskill or Adirondack Parks. If there is any doubt about Forest Preserve status or constitutionality of an action, an opinion of the State Attorney General should be sought.

As for the constitutional amendment now introduced in the State Senate, it finally represents a path forward. The earliest voters could act on it would be 2017, assuming it gains first passage next week or at a special fall session. If not, the amendment would have to wait until 2019. I would only suggest to the sponsors that the words “never intended to be included in the Forest Preserve” be stricken. Whatever the intent and however much after-the-fact, the land is Forest Preserve. An amendment should seek the approval of two separate State Legislatures and of the voters to convey the land out of the Forest Preserve.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring 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 managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

30 Responses

  1. Scott says:

    Aside from the cluster of buildings, the roads and parking lot, and the water tower, the rest of the property is wooded. This property also borders forest preserve. I can understand saying the buildings don’t need to be forest preserve but the remaining woods should not be sold or leased and should be kept as forest preserve lands. Or demolish and bury the buildings and keep the whole thing.

  2. Tony Goodwin says:

    The sale of Camp Gabriels because it is no longer needed as a prison (yay!) is clearly not a precedent-setting case like the legendary and justified battles over Panther Mountain and Gooley dams. Maybe we need not a specific amendment for this sale but instead an amendment that allows for these essentially trivial sales to take place with nothing more than APA approval. APA approval would include public hearings and a vote by the APA commissioners as a check on any DEC desire to shed some small piece of unwanted and developed property.

  3. Tim-Brunswick says:

    I agree with Tony Goodwin. Enough of the legal fights and entanglement for every minor situation similar to the above.

  4. Curt Austin says:

    It certainly seems crystal clear that the law is contrary to the state’s attempt to sell this parcel. There’s no provision for discretion.

    The hard edge of Article 14 is comforting to those feeling the preserve is otherwise fragile. But it is seriously inconvenient at times, when Good Things are hindered or thwarted, like better routing of utility lines or relocating a bridge a short distance.

    I like Tony’s idea, or others that accomplish similar goals. One of them – oriented towards utility use – features a cap on acreage so serious abuse is not possible. The Forever Wild concept is immensely popular, not fragile, so the hard edge can be softened a bit without much risk. [Cue the slippery slope arguments….]

    • Smitty says:

      Great suggestion. Going through such a difficult process for minor adjustments is unnecessarily costly, divisive, and time consuming.

  5. Boreasfisher says:

    Thanks to Dave for this post and its reminder of the importance of adhering to the stipulations of Article 14. Past history certainly does NOT support an amendment to give these agencies more latitude to ignore the protections already set in place.

  6. Paul says:

    This would have been a summer camp for kids from NYC. A great opportunity for kids from the city to come up and see all the rest of the real Forest Preserve they could be voting for in the future to preserve. Environmental groups fighting for something as trivial as this runs counter to what is supposed to be their cause.

    • John Warren says:

      A former prison is not a suitable “summer camp for kids from the city.”

      • Cranberry Bill says:

        It would be for the kids from our city.

      • Paul says:

        The redevelopment plan that they had for the place looked pretty good. It would take some renovation but what they wanted to do seemed like a good use for that spot. John, have you ever been there? It isn’t what you expect when you hear prison. It was originally a sanatorium for TB patients. They did say it would need a pool. Green houses, pheasant farm…. it looks better than lots of summer camps even before renovating:

      • M.P. Heller says:


        So altruistic John. I’m sure plenty of city kids would leap at the chance to go to Camp Gabriels for the summer. It’s actually less of a prison than some of their neighborhoods. Ever been to the West Bronx in July? Yeh. I didn’t think so….

  7. Brighton says:

    Yes, there should be an administrative way to do these sorts of things. Everyone agrees on this sale. It does not have the gravity of a constitutional question. Most voters will wonder why they need to vote on such a question. Maybe this will become the case example that helps change how such things get handled.

    Beyond writing the letter Dave describes, did the green groups take any steps to help write and organize passage of this simple amendment? Helping would have been a positive step. It seems like all Brighton is left with is this “I told you so” message and waiting for years to come while the buildings degrade.

    Left w/o maintenance for so many years the property may become worthless.

    • John Warren says:

      Let’s keep the responsibility placed where it should be.

      The people who built this prison and sited it (while others protested it’s construction) have even more responsibility to deal the the impact it has had and continues to have on Brighton. I wonder what they’ve done? They seem to have simply walked away and – apparently – left the accountability to others.

      It’s hardly the responsibility of Forest Preserve advocates to fix what they opposed (albeit quietly) to begin with.

      • M.P. Heller says:

        The people who built this prison were The People of the State of New York.

        What’s wrong with asking them how they think the situation should be dealt with???

        • George L. says:

          Mr. Heller – In grade school, most of us learned about the different branches of government. The Executive branch (e.g. Mario Cuomo), proposes and builds prisons. The Legislative approves funding. The Judicial resolves legal challenges. The “People” write comments to articles such as these.

      • Tony Goodwin says:

        I don’t remember any protests regarding this prison. It was built many years ago as a TB sanatorium. No longer being needed for that purpose, a fence was erected around the facility to make it into a minimum security prison. Now that it is no longer needed as a prison, simply remove the fence and it can become a nice retreat for city children during the summer. This was never anything like Dannemora, Bare Hill, or the somewhat controversial “Olympic” prison. No matter what your political or environmental persuasion might be, everyone should be helping to make good use of this currently unused facility.

        • Boreas says:

          Another use option would be for a retreat for NYS veterans with severe PTSD or similar ailments.

        • John Warren says:


          There was plenty of outrage and protests over the prison construction boom that this facility was a part of beginning about 1981. I know, because I was one of those who rallied against more prisons, siting them in remote locations like this, and the racists and authoritarians who described these facilities as economic engines. It doesn’t surprise me that the local media would have ignored those details, because even in NYC and Albany they were ignored at the time. However, claiming that those of us who opposed those policies have some duty to those who promoted them and benefited from them, and now seek MORE benefits, is way off the mark.

          BTW, I’m familiar with the Camp Gabriels facility and its history, but I’m not one to pile bad ideas on top of bad ideas and I find it amazingly tone deaf to now promote the facility as “a nice retreat for city children”.

          Perpetrating the myth that these lands are not Forest Preserve is another matter altogether, which, aside from a few forest preserve advocates, everyone just seems fine with ignoring – just like they now want to ignore the prison-industrial history that Camp Gabriels was a part of.

          Personally, as a historian, I think it should sit and rot as a symbol of the ignorance and racism that created it.

          • Boreas says:


            If we assume the state isn’t going to let it rot, what would you suggest be done with the property? You see no potential useful purpose for it given its proximity to the hamlet?

            • John Warren says:

              I’m not sure its safe to assume the state isn’t going to let it rot. It failed twice to find a bidder and the bidder on the last go round apparently can’t get title insurance.

              The state has a long history of letting places like this rot. I think it’s safe to say if they didn’t let it rot, that would be out of the ordinary.

              I don’t think anything can be done with it. Install a biodigester maybe, it’s right on the powerline.

              • Boreas says:

                I didn’t realize it was in that bad of shape. Perhaps raze it and put up a solar farm for the village.

                • John Warren says:

                  I’m not sure it is in bad shape (yet). I think a digester (like they are building in Keene) and a solar farm would be an excellent use. And use part of it as an outdoor educational facility / farm / forest products production education center. I think there are some opportunities, but I think it looks highly unlikely that any of that would come to fruition with the current legal morass.

                  The whole thing was a boondoggle.

  8. Mole58 says:

    How does this situation differ from the state’s sale of Topridge camp to Roger Jakubowski a few decades ago?

  9. Dave Gibson says:

    The question of how this situation differs from the state’s sale of Topridge camp on U. St. Regis to Roger Jakubowski has come up and it is indeed a good one. The State has made many acquisitions based on expedient 20th century statutes inconsistent with Article XIV Section 1. Topridge, I believe acquired in the early 80s, may have been on the basis of part of the Environmental Conservation Law which statute allows the State to keep and maintain within the Forest Preserve certain “historic buildings” listed on the State and National Register (check)but acquired by the State on or before the bill’s enactment in 1983 (check), and which the DEC Commissioner must certify as serving a vital department function. Topridge was the square peg in the round hole, and clearly never served any such function. Its sale was probably unconstitutional. Other than relying on the ECL, this is a distinction without much of a difference.

  10. common sense says:

    Thanks for the article Dave. I have come across several deeds where private parties granted lands to the state and on the deed was “Not to be included in the Forest Preserve” or “to be maintained as open field or meadow”. These deeds came before modern conservation easements. I wonder if you have come across this in your research. Does the legal language make the transaction void. Is it poor judgement for the state to accept? The parcel of state land at the bottom of spruce hill in Keene that has the rotting red barn has this interesting history.

  11. adkDreamer says:

    I’m with Dave Gibson on this. Simple: Follow the law and return the land to the forest preserve. Although I do like summer camps and Warren’s bio ideas, they needs to be vetted as business enterprises of their own merit – not co-mingled with an existing infrastructure reuse – especially one in Forest Preserve. I just wish folks would stop dreaming up reuse or historical precedence mashups. It’s Forest Preserve. Its over. It is so over.

  12. Jason smith says:

    I would like to see the actual plans for the property. A simple land separation of the developed portion would work. Sell the old development while keeping the wooded portion as state land it could then be used by the people at the camp for education while still remaining protected.

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