Monday, February 19, 2018

ADK To Gov: Forest Preserve Tax Proposal Unlawful

adk mountain clubWhat follows is a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo from the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Executive Director and Counsel Neil Woodworth.

Dear Governor Cuomo,

We write to ask that you amend your proposed State Budget and legislative proposals in order to restore existing provisions of Real Property Tax law 534 and 542 that annually authorize the payment of ad valorem taxes to Adirondack and Catskill taxing districts hosting the NYS Forest Preserve.

The Executive budget proposes to change the current ad valorem tax assessments on Forest Preserve lands which is currently calculated by local assessors into a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) at 2017 amounts. The Executive Budget property tax proposal imposes a tax cap on any increases in state tax payments at the lesser of the prior year’s inflation rate or two percent. In legal and practical effect, the state would be taking over the function of assessment of the value of state Forest Preserve land from local assessors and substituting a state imposed tax cap on the taxes it pays to communities.

This PILOT and tax cap proposal represents a radical and unlawful departure from the current method of determining the amount of real property taxes paid by the state for the three million acres of Forest Preserve in the 16 Forest Preserve counties. Section 542 of the real property tax law (RPTL) states that the assessment of value of state forest lands made by the town assessors was binding and conclusive on the State Board of Equalization and Assessment (SBEA) in the same way that it would be binding on private property owners. See Section 542 of the RPTL and Town of Shandaken v. State Bd. Of Equalization and Assessment (3rd Dept., 1983) 97 A.D. 2d 179, affirmed 63 N.Y. 2d 442 (Court of Appeals, 1984). Section 542 and the Shandaken decision clearly limit the “role of the SBEA in the valuation and assessment of state lands to determination that the assessment made by local assessors is in conformity with the applicable equalization rate. Authority for determination of valuation solely rests on the local assessors.” See Town of Shandaken, 63 N.Y. 2d at page 442. The Court of Appeals opined that nothing in RPTL sections 532, 534, and 542 granted initial or final valuation authority to the State Board (SBEA).” See 63 N.Y.2d at pg. 447.

The Executive tax freeze and proposed abandonment of ad valorem taxes on state forest 7 lands and the proposed “tax” cap On the PILOTS is a complete departure from current statutory and case law. We believe that only the Legislature can enact such a radical change in the way real property taxes are determined for some 5 million acres of state forest land in over 50 counties in the state. Local government leaders are unified in their belief that this will cost communities millions of dollars in state tax payments and a massive shift of property tax levies 1 on private property owners in those counties.

Since 1886, the RPTL has authorized the State to pay taxes on its Forest Preserve as if it were privately owned. Since all NYS residents benefit enormously from these “forever wild” state forests, it was thought then, as now, that all NYS taxpayers ought to share in full taxes to the hundreds of affected small towns and school districts in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains.

Your proposal to cap these taxes at current levels, to increase the payments only according to a state determined growth factor and to consider these annual payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT), not an ad valorem tax for all purposes, will short change many Adirondack and Catskill communities. Many of these communities are comprised of more than 50% Forest Preserve. Fifty percent or more of their tax payments come from the State Land. In that eventuality, private landowners will invariably be asked to make up the difference through tax shifting.

Governor, you have made great progress in gaining the confidence and support of local government leaders to accepting the even supporting the purchase of public lands as an economic benefit to their towns and counties. This very ill-considered proposal by Tax and Finance and the Division of Budget represents a great threat to all that you have accomplished.

We respectfully request that you direct the Division of Budget to delete this PILOT and Tax Cap proposal from the Executive Budget’s Article 7 language within the period of the 30 day amendments.


Neil F. Woodworth

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Neil Woodworth, Executive Director and Counsel of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) works directly with the Executive Chamber and Legislature in New York, and Congress to advocate for the acquisition, preservation and wise management of the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserves, New York’s state parks and for public lands and open space throughout New York.

Woodworth is an environmental lawyer who has served in many official capacities in conservation affairs, including service on the Congressional Northern Forest Lands Council, the Empire State Task Force for Land and Water Conservation Funding, New York Open Space Advisory committee, the New York Forest Preserve Advisory Committee, and the Governor's Task Force on the Adirondack Park Agency.

He has worked on a variety of legal cases involving wilderness protection of the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve, public navigation rights on rivers (Moose River case) and has represented ADK in lawsuits against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to successfully challenge attempts by the Bush/Cheney era EPA to the New Source Review acid deposition and MACT mercury control prevention provisions of the Clean Air Act.

With John Caffry, he represented ADK in the Balsam Lake Anglers Club, Adirondack League Club and Lows Lake cases as well as cases involving the nature and extent of snowmobiling in the Adirondack Forest Preserve. He has been involved in the analysis and advocacy of every proposed Article 14, section 1 amendment from 1982 to the present day.

Mr. Woodworth spent ten years as a trial and litigation lawyer before assuming his duties with the Adirondack Mountain Club in 1989. He is a graduate of Hobart College (1975) and Albany Law School of Union University (1978).

2 Responses

  1. Mick Finn says:

    Yes. So if the contract with the towns is breached, the lands should be returned to private ownership. The experiment is failing, especially for the local residents.

  2. Paul says:

    A bad idea? Probably. Unlawful? I don’t know. I guess the point is that the legislature should make the call. I think that if you brought this before the legislature the majority would probably welcome the idea to cap the payments. To most it would look like an easy way to cut costs. The state government paying the local government (who gets $ from the state) property taxes? It is probably viewed as taking money out of one pocket and putting it into the other.

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