Sunday, April 10, 2022

It’s Time To Work Out Cathead Mountain Amendment

Hamilton County has been trying to expand its emergency communications network for years. The county has dead spots for not only cell service but for its emergency communications system too, especially in the southern part of the county. The only viable option for the county, given the widely and most commonly used emergency communications equipment in New York State, is to expand its network of line-of-sight towers powered through utility lines, with emergency backups, and are accessible by motor vehicle for servicing. The south end of Hamilton County has limited police and EMT communications service.

On the south summit of Cathead Mountain, which is private land, there is a firetower that’s been long abandoned by the State, but which has for nearly two decades been used by the State Police as an emergency communications tower powered by a solar array affixed to the firetower and windmill. Cathead Mountain is north of the Benson Road at the end of North Road, in the Town of Benson, which if you’re driving south on Route 30, is beyond Hope. (If one is driving north from Benson, then the rest of the county is beyond Hope. Bad joke, I know, but it’s a Hamilton County thing.)

The current installation is serviced by personnel who access Cathead Mountain via a helicopter, and there is a landing pad built on the summit, or on foot, hiking the roughly 1.5 miles. These facilities have been allowed by agreement with the private landowner, the Hatch Brook Club/Thomas Gang, which owns over 800 acres in an inholding at the south end of the Silver Lake Wilderness.

There has been no public access to Cathead Mountain for two decades, which arguably has the best view in the southern Adirondacks. Cathead Mountain, which is privately owned, was once a very popular hike, but public access has been prohibited in recent years due to the emergency equipment and frustration by the club members to resolve their access issues.

Hamilton County states that creation of a new emergency communications facility on the north summit of Cathead on club lands (click here to see a map) will solve its communications problems. Hamilton County has worked with the Club, which is interested in transferring significant acreage to the state in a roughly 6-to-1 land swap, something like 480+/- acres for 80+/- acres.

This would be a complicated deal, but it’s solvable. In this way, Hamilton County would be able, through an easement with the private landowner, to complete its emergency system, by building a road on private lands to the north summit of Cathead Mountain. The private landowner would get enhanced access to its property by getting 80 acres of Forest Preserve and refurbishing an old 0.53-mile road to allow access with motor vehicles. The state would expand the Silver Lake Wilderness Area by nearly 500 acres and re-establish, and make permanent, public access to the trail and summit of Cathead Mountain, as the summit is cleared of all communications equipment and the firetower is be restored as a public recreational amenity. In this way, the summit of Cathead Mountain would be similar to the experience at Blue Mountain, where there is a public firetower and communications towers, or Spruce Mountain in Saratoga County.

The issues outlined above could only happen with a Constitutional Amendment to Article 14, Section 1. This amendment would be complicated, but as with the Township 40 Constitutional Amendment in 2016-2017, complicated amendments can be put together to resolve longstanding problems. The emergency communications situation for Hamilton County and the opportunity to re-establish public access to Cathead Mountain rise to the level of a problem that can only be solved with an amendment.

There are three principal benefits from such an amendment to the public:

  • The expansion of emergency communications in southern Hamilton County, which will also assist emergency communications in northern Fulton County.
  • Permanent public recreational access to Cathead Mountain.
  • Expansion of the Forest Preserve and Silver Lake Wilderness area.

The only viable way to accomplish this would be to involve the Hatch Brook Club in a land swap amendment to Article 14. As stated above, a possible amendment to Article 14 for Cathead Mountain would be complicated to craft, but far from impossible. Here are seven components:

  1. We understand that the Club has offered to convey 480+/- acres of its 820-acre inholding to the state, by grant, in exchange for 80+/- acres of Wilderness and Primitive lands that includes the 0.536-mile Hatch Brook Road. The 480 acres of swapped lands would presumably be classified as Wilderness and be added to the Silver Lake Wilderness Area. We understand that Hamilton County has also pledged to augment the Club’s lands with another 80-100 acres that would be added to the Forest Preserve at another location.
  2. On lands in the vicinity of North Road in Benson, owned by the Hatch Brook Club, the Club would grant a permanent easement to the DEC for a hiking trail to connect to Forest Preserve lands to access Cathead Mountain. This would include an area for a public parking lot and trailhead installations. Another consideration is that the entire public hiking trail, from parking area/trailhead to summit, should be on the Forest Preserve.
  3. The Hatch Brook Club would grant a permanent easement to the DEC for access to the summit of Cathead Mountain for public recreation and restoration of the firetower. All communications equipment would be removed from Cathead Mountain.
  4. The Club would grant an easement to Hamilton County for access by County personnel in motor vehicles and access for a power line to construct and maintain an emergency communications facility on the north summit.
  5. The Hatch Brook Club would grant a conservation easement over its remaining lands that it retains that prohibits all future development and allows Hamilton County to build a road to the north summit of Cathead Mountain through its lands and utilize the summit for an emergency communications tower. This easement would also preclude any future development of the property.
  6. This conservation easement would include a right-of-first refusal for the State of New York or its assignee.
  7. The easement would include a provision that the summit of Cathead Mountain would be cleaned up and restored and that the firetower and Rangers cabin rehabilitated and opened up for public education and interpretation.

It seems like an agreement could be worked out that meets the needs of Hamilton County, the Club, and the Forest Preserve, but such an agreement would involve a lot of give and take from all sides of this hexagon. And, of course, the devil is in the details.

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Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks. He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He was the co-founder of the Adirondack Lake Assessment Program (ALAP) in 1998, which has collected long-term water quality data on more than 75 Adirondack lakes and ponds. He has testified before the State Legislature, successfully advocated to pass legislation and budget items, authored numerous articles, op-eds, and reports such as "20% in 2023: An Assessment of the New York State 30 by 30 Act" (2023), "The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010" (2019), "The Myth of Quiet, Motor-free Waters in the Adirondack Park" (2013), and "Rutted and Ruined: ATV Damage on the Adirondack Forest Preserve" (2003) and "Growth in the Adirondack Park: Analysis of Rates and Patterns of Development" (2001). He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife, has two grown children out in the world, and enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Threads.

2 Responses

  1. Steve Stofelano JR says:

    Peter a fair assessment and evaluation of this situation. Like most deals there needs to be a willing seller and a willing buyer, which seems to be almost the case?
    We need local County and state legislative leadership to sit down with the Club and get it done!

  2. Pete Nelson says:

    Peter’s analysis of this issue and the opportunity for an amendment is on the money. Adirondack Wilderness Advocates has been talking with various parties about a way forward for several years. As far as I know, at this point in early 2022, almost all the parties who have negotiated on this are amenable to an amendment. Thus, it is a matter of legislative will to get it done.

    To sweeten the deal for the Forest Preserve, AWA has proposed that any amendment action include a reclassification of several thousand acres of the Shaker Mountain Wild Forest to Wilderness, to be added to the Silver Lake Wilderness. Currently, the Silver Lake Wilderness arbitrarily ends at the Hamilton County-Fulton County line. Land south of the line consists of pristine forests and sensitive high-elevation water bodies that are entirely appropriate for a Wilderness designation. The proposed new southern boundary of the Silver Lake Wilderness would stay north of existing recreational trails, thus avoiding any negative impact on current uses. AWA has talked with Hamilton County officials about this and their supportive stance is another sign of the good-faith willingness of parties to get something done.

    AWA circulated a petition to gather support for moving an amendment forward, and we were surprised to talk to so many long-time hikers who remember enjoying the trail to Cathead before it was closed. We will be delivering many pages of signatures to the State in a demonstration of public interest in Cathead. The time to move forward on an amendment is now.