Saturday, December 16, 2017

John Sheehan: Adirondack Land Bank Amendment Results

Article 14, Section 1 New York State Constitution Forever Wild clauseAdirondack Park local government officials and conservation organizations both spent a nervous few hours after the polls closed on Election Day this year, worrying that Proposal Three – the community health and safety land bank – would be defeated. It passed by a slim 52 percent to 47 percent margin (about 100,000 votes out of 3.1 million cast).

As Adirondackers from across the political spectrum look towards working together in 2018 and beyond, there are important lessons to learn from this close vote. The park’s continued success depends on our understanding the state’s voters.

And while closeness of the vote was uncomfortable for supporters of the Constitutional amendment, it was also a reminder of the public’s overwhelming support for the “Forever Wild” clause of the Constitution. Those who educated themselves on the merits of the amendment overwhelmingly supported it. They understood that the amendment would strengthen support for Forever Wild by eliminating many of the minor conflicts over roadside services and road safety that frustrate local officials.

Meanwhile, voters who were uncertain about the merits of the land bank voted against the amendment in an effort to keep “Forever Wild” intact. Polling done prior to Election Day also showed that supporters of the amendment were interested in helping communities in the park, but were much more concerned with the integrity of Forever Wild. They said fairness was a good goal, but Forever Wild protections for the Forest Preserve were far more essential.

Support grew steadily as people learned what Proposal Three was about. The first polls conducted by labor unions early in 2017 showed a large number of undecided voters and insufficient support to win a majority in November.

Early October polling sponsored by The Nature Conservancy showed support had grown, but was still weaker than desired. Voters said they perceived it as a gift to Adirondack and Catskill communities, while they instead were seeking an environmental benefit from any change to Forever Wild or the composition of the Forest Preserve. They language of the ballot proposal didn’t express one. We had a month to tell them about the benefits.

A month later, the Nov. 1 Siena College Poll showed support had grown, with 46 percent in favor and only 35 percent opposed. But that still left 19 percent undecided and unpredictable, just a week from Election Day.

There were reasons to worry that a lack of explicit environmental benefit would hurt the Proposal’s chances. One of Siena’s poll questions asked voters if they would support revising “current state policies that limit development in the Adirondacks” to “allow for increased economic development.” An impressive 55 percent said no, while only 37 percent supported the idea. Only 8 percent were undecided.

Still, it was clear that both opponents and supporters of the amendment were motivated by support for Forever Wild. That support was something to celebrate. But if the amendment didn’t pass, we wouldn’t feel much like celebrating.

The Adirondack Council and all other Adirondack conservation organizations supported Proposal Three. We understood that a modest land bank could create the flexibility communities need to complete simple projects involving very small pieces of land. It would also relieve political pressure placed on state officials, who were frequently urged to authorize or ignore “minor” encroachments. Over time, that would undermine protection for the entire Forest Preserve.

Proposal Three authorized a modest land bank that could be used for roadside community projects such as road-straightening, new drainage, bridges and utilities including broadband and electric lines. In the Adirondack Park, Public and private lands sit side-by- side, often in a patchwork pattern. A little less than half of the park is Forever Wild public Forest Preserve, while the remainder is private land and communities.

When Adirondack communities attempt to install new water, sewer or electric lines, they sometimes encounter town or county roadsides where a small patch of Forest Preserve beneath the road prevents them from completing the project. No one is allowed to build on Forest Preserve, so the only way to build something on the land in question is to remove it from the Forest Preserve. Only the voters can authorize that, by amending the Constitution.

At this point, the community must decide whether to spend time and money on seeking statewide approval for a Constitutional Amendment. The process takes about three years and requires a statewide voter education campaign to be successful.

Most Adirondack towns and counties would find it hard to afford a statewide political campaign. Instead, officials often added the impediment to the list of complaints they expressed to state government about the Forest Preserve and Forever Wild.

In the past, communities have succeeded in overcoming financial impediments by partnering with the Adirondack Council, which carried out the education campaign in consultation with town officials, at the Council’s expense. This year, the Council again provided these services to park communities, working with a coalition that included the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages, the Adirondack Landowners Association and the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board.

In fact, the Council took the unprecedented step of creating a Ballot Issues Committee with the NYS Board of Elections, known as the Committee to Defend Forever Wild. In past Constitutional Amendment approval efforts, the Council simply educated voters about the features of the proposed amendments. The new committee allowed us to endorse and promote the amendment, by giving us a way to report our spending and comply with election law requirements. We also used the new committee to oppose a Constitutional Convention (Proposal 1), where wholesale changes to Forever Wild could have been proposed.

In September and October, the Adirondack Council teamed up with local officials and visited editorial writers as a team. For example, I had the pleasure of visiting the editorial board of the Watertown Daily Times alongside Mark Hall, Supervisor of the Town of Fine. Matt Simpson, Supervisor of Horicon, worked with me to explain how the amendment would affect his town to reporters from an Albany television station, both before and after the vote. Together, we gained media support from every area of the state we visited, from Long Island to Buffalo.

But we didn’t do as well in places where we didn’t get an appointment to see the local newspaper or TV station. We lost in Jamestown, for example, the city farthest from the Adirondacks. We also lost in Sullivan County, but for a different reason. There, a group of Forest Preserve supporters mistakenly reached the conclusion that the amendment would encourage gas pipelines and hydraulic fracturing (fracking). This false rumor spread too far before we could counteract it with the truth.

Proposal Three also fared poorly in the outer boroughs of New York City, where the editorial support of the New York Times seemed to have less influence than it had in Manhattan, where the majority supported the amendment. NYC radio and television stations virtually ignored the proposal, incorrectly assuming their viewers and listeners didn’t care.

Some confusion over Proposal Three was inevitable as well. There was a considerable effort mounted to oppose Proposal One, which would have authorized a Constitutional Convention. Opposition to Proposal One included those – like us at the Adirondack Council – who worried that Forever Wild could be weakened or repealed at a convention. Since Proposal Three also dealt with the Forever Wild clause, some folks got confused and voted “no” on both. Again, when they were unsure what the amendment would do, the voters chose to preserve Forever Wild and the Forest Preserve it protects.

letter to adk council

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Proposal Three was weaker than it needed to be in one important way. It was the only proposed land swap presented to the voters in the past 30 years that didn’t include an overwhelming benefit to the Forest Preserve in terms of a new lands acquired. Conversely, the 1995 Keene cemetery amendment and the 2009 Tupper Lake power line amendments gave significant new lands to the preserve. Voters gave up 6 acres in the Tupper Lake swap and received more than 20 in return. In Keene, voters gave up 12 acres and received 144 acres in compensation. Proposal Three called only for replacing the 250 acres needed for the land bank right away, and some additional purchases as the bank is used. Offering greater compensation to the voters could have helped boost the approval rate.

Finally, we should not discount the impact of current tension over the fate of the park’s most famous recent Forest Preserve additions. Voter anxiety has been heightened recently due to the uncertain fate of yet-to-be classified lands such as Boreas Ponds, MacIntyre East, MacIntyre West, the OSI parcel, Casey Brook and

others. Another Siena College poll in 2017 showed three-quarters of the state’s voters support a motor-free wilderness classification for Boreas Ponds (an article on that topic appeared on the Adirondack Almanack). We all continue to await the Adirondack Park Agency’s final recommendation to the Governor.

It’s encouraging that so many New York voters are determined to protect the integrity of Forever Wild. Voters support a larger and wilder Adirondack Forest Preserve to protect our shared legacy of wilderness and pure waters for future generations.

Photos: Above, the forever wild clause; and below, a 2007 letter from Long Lake Supervisor Gregg Wallace sent the Adirondack Council as thanks for promoting of the Constitutional Amendment that made the Raquette Lake water project land swap possible.

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Before John Sheehan joined the Adirondack Council's staff in 1990, he was the managing editor of the Malone Evening Telegram, and previously worked as a journalist for the Troy Record, (Schenectady) Daily Gazette, Watertown Daily Times and Newsday. For the past 20 years, John has been the voice of the Adirondack Council on radio and television, and on the pages of local, regional and national media.

15 Responses

  1. Jim S. says:

    It is wonderful to see the commitment that the citizens of New York have for forever wild. Hopefully somedsy we can elect a governor who shares that same commitment.

    • Joe Hansen says:

      Don’t loose sight of the big picture. Much land has been added to the public domain during the governor’s tenure.

      • Jim S. says:

        The main purpose of those additions appears to be an economic engine. There are snowmobile thruways in the works with plans for huts serving meals in areas that most people in the state are urging be designated wilderness.

    • Chuck says:

      Those that used less than sound principles to back a wilderness above all philosophy is that really a good thing even if they supports your point of view?

    • Boreas says:


      I agree in general. I think overall Gov. Cuomo’s approach to acquisition has been beneficial to Forever Wild lands. What we don’t know is if the acquisition of Finch-Pruyn lands would have been successful if the entirety would have been designated Wilderness with zero access by motorized vehicles, bicycles, etc.. Organized groups such as these demanding access to any new state lands certainly get the ear of Albany, as is their right.

      What we don’t know are the governor’s PERSONAL thoughts on how these lands should be designated. He is ultimately a politician who has to appeal to as many people as possible for any land acquisition. He lays out a general plan for the lands that appease as many groups as possible in order to make the acquisition palatable and thus likely. Then the appointed APA is tasked with sorting out the ugly political and environmental details, which is designed to remove some of any negative backlash of the final decision from his legacy. Thankfully a governor does not operate independently.

      So as Joe Hanson states, don’t lose sight of the big picture. And to quote Ms. Poppins, “A little bit of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

  2. Chuck Parker says:

    As to the comment “Meanwhile, voters who were uncertain about the merits of the land bank voted against the amendment in an effort to keep “Forever Wild” intact” I say that those mentioned as uncertain are unaware of reality and stuck in a less than desirable mindset.

    “Ideology knows the answer before the question has been asked.
    Principles are something different: a set of values that have to be adapted to circumstances but not compromised away.”
    ― George Packer

  3. No problem with the big enviro groups occasionally helping the local communities.But usually in politics you get something in return for helping groups like the AATV e.g. their stopping opposing wilderness and snowmobile highways.

    More importantly if finally after 30 years, the major enviros go and visit distant newspapers to lobby for something why wasn’t it to promote wilderness instead of helping the primary opponents of roadless wilderness.

    The purpose of Adk wilderness groups should not be to function as a junior chamber of commerce or an amateur jobs development cheering squad. We have more than enough people funded by public dollars who do that already.

    • rthan says:

      Jim I agree that the major enviro groups should not function as junior chambers of commerce.

      In this case, the towns — which certainly are often opposed to wilderness expansion — and the environmental organizations were in alignment. Should the environmental organizations NOT have acted in line with their own mission statements because foronce that mission was actually aligned with wilderness opponents’?

      John laid out an excellent case for the environmental benefits of the land bank (i.e., why it’s line with environmental interests): (1) it relieves political pressure to ignore minor encroachments on wilderness because of the difficulty of amending the Constitution for, e.g., a well or some such that no one — not even environmental groups — thinks is a bad idea. Now, such encroachments are less likely to be shoved under the rug and more likely to be properly run through the land bank in public (2) In the long run, it should ease local opposition to the Forest Preserve and Article XIV. If you’re a Park resident it is frustrating as all hell that something whose benefit is obvious to all — say running a utility line under an existing road easement, or straightening out a dangerous curve in the road slightly — has had to go through a cumbersome amendment process. I think this is the source of some local opposition — after all nowhere else in the state does a municipality need constitutional approval to fix a dangerous road condition. (3) it adds 250 acres to the Forest Preserve to offset any usage. Even if all 250 acres are eventually used, there’s no net loss of Forest Preserve!

      The Adirondack Council, I think, while hardly a “junior chamber of commerce”, recognizes that healthy local communities benefit wilderness in the long run. That means supporting policies like this one that will help the Park remain the global model (where wilderness areas and communities co-exist) that it should be.

  4. Keith Gorgas says:

    This is very informative Thank you for taking the time to write and go into so much helpful detail.

  5. Ethan says:

    John thank you for a terrific and informative piece and thanks to everyone at the Council for your hard work on behalf of the Park!

  6. Blaikie Worth says:

    Thoughtful commentary with some lessons for the future.

  7. Paul says:

    “There were reasons to worry that a lack of explicit environmental benefit would hurt the Proposal’s chances. One of Siena’s poll questions asked voters if they would support revising “current state policies that limit development in the Adirondacks” to “allow for increased economic development.” An impressive 55 percent said no, while only 37 percent supported the idea. Only 8 percent were undecided.”

    37% seems like a very surprisingly high number on support for something like that especially coming from a statewide thing.

  8. Bill says:

    First, the amendment requires NYS to buy 250 acres before the first use of the land bank. Second, it requires a town using any land to pay for it, the funds going to buy more land.

    So actually, the direct environmental benefit of the amendment is 2x the land being used in the land bank ends up forest preserve.

  9. SLMPdefender says:

    If only we had more advocates that were as thoughtful and well-written as John Sheehan… thank you John, for your continued advocacy for the Adirondack Park’s open space and communities!

    Chuck… as always… I don’t understand the intent behind your message. What are you for that you do not have? How are sports men and women disenfranchised? Perhaps… just perhaps… you are the ideologue who has the answer before the question is asked?

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