January 22, 2010

State closing on land deals that predate moratorium



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ALBANY — The Paterson administration is completing deals to buy the last two undeveloped Finger Lakes, 1,220 acres in the Catskills and conservation rights to 89,000 acres of Adirondack timberlands while halting other purchases of wilderness and open space in New York.

The Department of Environmental Conservation said Thursday current dedicated funds will be used to buy 3-mile long Canadice Lake and 7-mile-long Hemlock Lake, which provide Rochester with water. The state will also close on the Big Indian parcel by Belleayre Ski Center in the Catskills and an easement on former Finch Pruyn timberlands mainly in the central Adirondacks.

"These projects have been in the works for years," DEC spokesman Yancey Roy said. Prices were not disclosed.

Gov. David Paterson has proposed a moratorium on land buys in his budget plan for the fiscal year starting April 1. That applies to the other projects in the pipeline, Roy said.

"During this time the DEC will not make commitments to acquire, enter into purchase agreements, or close any transactions using (Environmental Protection Fund) funding," Roy said. "There is no end date for the moratorium, but we expect that when state finances permit, the open space conservation program will resume."

Affected acquisitions include the Nature Conservancy's highlands along the Hudson River Gorge in the central Adirondacks, as well as Follensby Pond, site of Ralph Waldo Emerson's storied 1858 "Philosopher's Camp." Many others are smaller parcels scattered around the state held by dozens of conservation groups.

"It leaves a lot of us high and dry," Joe Martens of the Open Space Institute said. The group has spent $11 million on some 4,000 acres in 20 parcels bought from 2005 to 2008 with approvals by the DEC to take them.

"We did not sign contracts. Until September of '08, we felt we didn't need contracts," Martens said.

With a recession looming and growing state budget deficits, Paterson in 2008 began requiring extra Budget Division approvals before writing checks. In the current fiscal year, the administration has spent only $6.3 million of $58.9 million appropriated for land acquisition, according to the Budget Division.

For the 2010-2011 fiscal year, Paterson proposed cutting the EPF appropriation from $212 million to $143 million and imposing the moratorium on buying land.

Governors have "swept" more than $500 million from the fund, which is replenished by a real estate transfer tax, since it was established in 1993. Environmentalists say the troubling aspect now is Paterson removing more money from the start and budgeting it elsewhere.

"I assume with a zero budget for land acquisition in '10-11 they won't be buying any of those properties for the foreseeable future," Martens said. "That means we have to hold them, we have to manage them, take carrying costs on them, review whether there's another alternative."

Budget Division spokeswoman Jessica Bassett said pending projects were being reviewed, as well as prior Pataki and Spitzer administration commitments in light of the moratorium.

Paul Hartman, Nature Conservancy director of government relations, said it's apparently an administrative procedure, not a statutory moratorium. "It's at the discretion of the executive when that would be lifted. It could be one fiscal year. It could be multiples depending on the fiscal situation."

That makes it harder to figure out how to approach large-scale conservation projects, and the conservancy is trying to reduce its interest payments and expenses, Hartman said. One state estimate last year had indicated $300 million in acquisitions pending over the next two to three years, he said.

In 2007, the conservancy bought 161,000 acres long held by Finch, Pruyn & Co. for $110 million, including riverfront along the whitewater Hudson River. The state later agreed to buy 65,000 acres, though that's now affected by the moratorium.

The group later sold 92,000 acres of the timberland to ATP, the Danish pension fund committed to environmentally responsible forestry, for $32.8 million. The DEC said it will soon acquire the conservation easement, which will provide some public recreation rights and prevent development.

In 2008, the conservancy also bought 14,600 acres for $16 million, including Follensby Pond near Tupper Lake, another project affected by Paterson's cost-cutting move.

State officials said 11 smaller EPF purchases under way to expand state parks, mainly in the Palisades and Finger Lakes regions, also will be completed. Paterson proposed cutting $60 million from the coming year's budget for the Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation, with budget officials acknowledging it will further reduce operations and access to some of New York's 179 state parks and 35 historic sites.

The administration proposed closing the Adirondack Park Agency's visitor interpretive centers at Newcomb and Paul Smiths.