Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Constitutional Amendment Needed To Re-Purpose The 3 Closed Prisons In The Forest Preserve

There are now three decommissioned State correctional facilities on Forest Preserve lands. Two are within the Adirondack Park and one is outside the Park on Forest Preserve lands in Saratoga County. The three closed prisons are Camp Gabriels Correctional Facility in the town of Brighton, Franklin County; Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility in the towns of Moriah and Elizabethtown, Essex County; and Mount McGregor Correctional Facility in the towns of Corinth, Moreau and Wilton, Saratoga County.

New York State’s prison population has shrunk to around 32,000 from a high of nearly 75,000 in 1999-2000. The reduction in inmates has led to the closing of more than two dozen prisons around the state. Camp Gabriels has been closed since 2009 and Mount McGregor since 2014, while Moriah Shock was shut down more recently in 2022. The State Police are temporarily using the Mount McGregor facility for training exercises, but this is short-term. As state prisons, none of these facilities pay local taxes, unlike the majority of the Forest Preserve where all local real property taxes for the lands are locally assessed and paid by the State.

The facilities could be demolished and removed by the Department of Corrections (DOC) to restore the sites to a wild forest setting, but that does not appear to be a realistic or responsible proposal for these facilities. The buildings at Moriah Shock are still in relatively good shape. Some of the dozens of buildings at Mount McGregor are massive structures made of stone and concrete. Some of the buildings at Camp Gabriels are historic structures. Demolishing the buildings would be expensive and create a tremendous amount of waste and wasted opportunity.

The facilities could be used by the State, but the State has found it challenging to repurpose closed prisons anywhere. For instance, the facilities could be taken over from DOC by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the Adirondack Park Agency or the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, or any other state agency, to be used in a way that is consistent with Forest Preserve restrictions, but neither Governor Hochul nor any other state agency has stepped forward with a plan for any of these sites.

The facilities could theoretically be conveyed to a private entity for redevelopment, but the State Constitution prohibits the leasing or sale of these facilities to a private entity without a constitutional amendment. More than a decade ago, the Office of General Services organized a series of public auctions for the Camp Gabriels facility, where the winning bid was eventually around $166,000, but the sale was never completed due to the legal requirement for a constitutional amendment to clear title to the property.

Click here to see maps of the three closed prisons.

Each of the three facilities is sprawling and contains a considerable amount of acreage and an assortment of buildings. Camp Gabriels includes roughly 92 acres and 48 buildings. Moriah Shock covers 60 acres and has around 20 buildings. Mount McGregor covers 53 acres and has around 100 buildings and structures. Camp Gabriels and Mount McGregor are linked historically to other state lands. Camp Gabriels was originally part of a much larger purchase, but the prison complex was separated from other Forest Preserve lands, which will remain as Forest Preserve, including a portion of the shoreline of Church Pond.

The Mount McGregor prison complex is located adjacent to historic sites and other state lands, such as the historic Grant Cottage, where President U.S. Grant wrote his famous memoir as he was dying of throat cancer, and beautiful Lake Bonita in Moreau Lake State Park. The Town of Brighton is interested in gaining access to the Camp Gabriels’ water system to create a new water district for local residences in the area around Route 86 where residential wells have been contaminated by road salt pollution.

Local community leaders would like the opportunity to work with the State to repurpose these facilities and bring them back onto the tax rolls if they can be successfully removed from the Forest Preserve through a constitutional amendment. If they are not removed from the Forest Preserve, then nothing will happen with them, and they will sit and deteriorate. Camp Gabriels has already experienced significant deterioration of the buildings in the more than a decade during which it has sat dormant. Local leaders talk about possibilities like community housing, makerspace, small manufacturing parks, non-profit office space, and educational facilities, among other things, although there are no specific proposals for any of the facilities.

Under state law, a constitutional amendment requires passage by two successive legislatures and approval by the voters in a general election. An amendment for the three facilities could obtain “First Passage” in 2024, and “Second Passage” in 2025 after the November 2024 legislative elections, and then be voted on by the public statewide in November 2025. Failure to act in 2024 will push the timetable back to 2027 at the earliest.

Protect the Adirondacks supports a Constitutional Amendment to Article 14, Section 1, the “Forever Wild” clause for all three facilities. Historically, Article 14 constitutional amendments are only pursued when they are needed to solve some kind of problem facing Adirondack communities or administration of the Forest Preserve. We believe that a Constitutional Amendment for the three facilities passes both tests for helping communities to provide municipal services, revitalize these sites, and to improve Forest Preserve management.

These fully developed sites could be repurposed somehow, either by one entity that purchases the facility, or by many entities, public and private, working together. The State could either sell or transfer them to local governments. While closed prisons do not have a strong track record of successful adaptive re-use in New York, the location of Mount McGregor in Saratoga County, long the fastest growing county in the state, and the good condition of all of the buildings at Moriah Shock, which functioned more like an educational campus, hold real possibilities.

The location of Camp Gabriels in the Tri-Lakes area of the Adirondacks, arguably the most dynamic neighborhood in the Adirondack Park, also holds promise. In addition to meeting any number of public needs from housing to small business space to non-profit space, repurposing could bring these facilities back onto the tax rolls, which would benefit local governments and schools. The reality, though, is that nothing can happen without a constitutional amendment to free up these facilities for future public or private use.

An amendment would also remove scores of non-conforming buildings from the Forest Preserve and remove inconsistent, incongruent uses. Replacement lands to compensate the Forest Preserve should be part of the amendment, to be managed as new wildlands and provide public recreational and outdoor experiences. The existence of closed prisons on the Forest Preserve undermines very basic Forever Wild values of wilderness, solitude, outdoor recreation, wildlife protection, and universal openness and accessibility.

A 3 Prisons Constitutional Amendment is an investment in Adirondack communities and the Forest Preserve, and, really, what could be better than that?

Photo at top provided by the author.

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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.

13 Responses

  1. Joan Grabe says:

    These properties have been closed for years and I will admit that it was a rough transition for the prison staffs but now we need to pass this Prison Constitutional Amendment. And then take a look at the State Constitution. This should not entail so much prework on this matter. Let’s pass it before these buildings terminally mold or fall down.

  2. Alan says:

    These sites should be demolished and returned to their wild state. We should not be going against the New York constitution.No exceptions!

    • Paul says:

      These amendments are part of the constitution so they are not against it. That is how a constitution works an opportunity for the people to speak and make changes when they are warranted.

      • Worth Gretter says:

        You are right, for sure. Changing the NY Constitution is intentionally made hard, to help us be sure we are doing the right thing.

  3. wash wild says:

    Regarding the Mt. McGregor site: Are state lands considered forest preserve when they are outside of the blue line? Do they come under Article 14? Be grateful if Peter could clarify the law in this situation. There have been several proposals for this property but none have come to fruition.

    • Colvin says:

      Although outside the Park boundaries, the McGregor lands nonetheless are Forest Preserve because they are in a Forest Preserve County and don’t satisfy the requirements of Article XIV, Section 3, paragraph 1 of the Constitution. That paragraph authorizes the State to acquire lands in Forest Preserve counties outside the park boundaries but only for the limited purpose of “the practice of forest or wild life conservation.” Since the McGregor lands weren’t acquired for either of these purposes, the land is part of the Forest Preserve.

  4. Susan says:

    For once, I have to totally agree with Peter.

  5. Mike says:

    Instead of destroying habitat these buildings would work our great for the Ausable River Association.

    • Boreas says:

      Perhaps, but proximity/access to the Ausable river and costs to renovate/demolish aging prison infrastructure may be prohibitive for a non-profit.

  6. Peter Shrope says:

    Camp Gabriels closed in 2009 and the State has not done a thing. It is shameful that it sits and rots. The state built wooden structures need to be bulldozed but the original Sanitarium buildings have good bones and there are historic structures on the property. The property sits along SR 86 which has Franklin County bus service and a major fiber internet line. So much potential is being wasted and argued about. Take everything out and make it forever wild or pass an amendment and put together a coalition that will move it forward. Just do something to effect a positive use.

  7. Paul says:

    “Replacement lands to compensate the Forest Preserve should be part of the amendment, to be managed as new wildlands and provide public recreational and outdoor experiences.”

    Wait, isn’t there already an amendment in the works? At least for camp gabriel’s?

  8. Lee Nellis says:

    A Question! Would it be possible to transfer these properties (or at least the one at Gabriels) to another agency of the State to develop instead of listing them for sale? Would that avoid the need for an amendment?

    If so, why not use ORDA? It has the capability (and a need of its own) to develop for workforce housing. I don’t know enough about the other sites to say, but Gabriels has excellent potential and is in a good location for workforce housing.

  9. seymour preston jr says:

    One of the sites should be used to house the Adirondack Park Agency, which seems to want to move. Given the arrogance of 11 years of APA behavior, a prison site would be most fitting!

    A housing solution also ought to be in the mix.

    Best regards, a PROTECT member forever.

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