Press-Republican

March 9, 2013

Lewis Family Farm sells two parcels for preservation

By KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

---- — WESTPORT — The Lewis Family Farm sold two parcels of land for preservation and protection of wildlife corridors.

The $120,000 sale, completed this week, conveys 87 acres in Westport and nearly 12 acres in the Town of Essex to Champlain Area Trails, a preservation land-trust based in Westport.

Salim B. “Sandy” Lewis said the decision to sell two pieces of the farm he owns with his wife, Barbara, secures open space, preserving a route for wildlife from Lake Champlain toward the Jay Mountain Range.

The sale comes as Lewis is looking to sell other farmland he owns in Essex for use as a nonprofit teaching facility for schools.

TARGETED AREA

The deal had been in discussion since last summer, according to Chris Maron, executive director of Champlain Area Trails.

“In order to protect biological biodiversity, the habitat needs to be protected. This land purchase is a key piece of connectivity,” he said Thursday.

The Westport parcel, bounded on one side by Angier Hill Road and Lake Shore Road on the other, will provide a narrow land bridge between the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Split Rock Mountain Wild Forest and Coon Mountain Nature Preserve in Westport.

“It’s been a targeted area for preservation for 15 years,” Maron said. “It’s something we discussed since I came to work here at the Nature Conservancy.

“We’ve been talking with Sandy Lewis since probably last June. He certainly understood its importance for habitat.”

The smaller parcel in the Town of Essex provides an additional wilderness span for habitat reaching toward the Adirondack foothills. That property borders the Boquet River.

NATURAL WILDWAY

Maron discussed the importance of connectivity.

“Split Rock Wild Forest is about 4,000 acres of state-owned land along Lake Champlain. It contains the largest natural (wildlife) community along the New York side of Lake Champlain.

“Animals will be moving, and plants too, up to the Adirondack foothills and from there up to the Adirondack Mountains, so it’s important to protect that forested wildlife corridor.”

Forests and open land extend from Split Rock, across the land Lewis just sold, through Coon Mountain Preserve up through the western part of the Town of Lewis into the Jay Range.

“That area is called the Split Rock Wildway,” Maron said.

“The Sandy Lewis property was in an important part — in a narrow part — of that wildway: the shortest route between DEC land and Coon Mountain.”

TRAIL LOOP

Adding the Essex parcel will provide for a hiking-trail loop with easements on other properties, connecting two towns in the eastern Adirondack Park.

“We want to have a trail loop that connects Westport to Essex. People could hike from there to Coon Mountain and then over to Split Rock,” Maron said.

“They would go through this (Essex) property to get there. It really does secure that passageway for a trail. We want our trails to link all the communities. That’s our goal.”

The trails have not been built and will require coordination with the Nature Conservancy, which maintains Coon Mountain, Maron said.

STILL RAISING CATTLE

Lewis said the land he sold was kept organic and doesn’t adjoin the Lewis Family Farm.

“Both of these parcels are distant from us,” he said. “What we’re selling here is the Jerry Evens land.”

He said he bought the whole 220-acre farm, including that land, for $190,000 to buy from them.

“The 87-acre piece was a stump dump for creating topsoil. We’re losing that now. But it doesn’t indicate a change of strategy in farming. Our cattle operation is not affected by this transaction.”

WANTS IT OFF TAX ROLL

Lewis said they understood well the benefit of establishing a natural corridor for wildlife between the lake and the mountains.

“I was pleased to make the sale,” he said. “CATS is putting together some beautiful trails. This is a key property we sold them. It doesn’t change the (tax) argument we’re in with the Town of Essex right now.”

But Lewis said he has recommended the property — conveyed to a nonprofit land trust — come off the tax rolls.

In all, the 87 Westport acres, listed as two Angier Hill sites of 57.7 acres and 29.3 acres on the Westport tax roll, generate $569 of property tax annually.

The 11.93 acres in the Town of Essex generate $74.32 in land taxes annually.

SENSITIVE TO TAXPAYERS

But Champlain Area Trails has not lodged taxation disposition with the towns.

“We haven’t made a decision about taking it off the tax roll. We’re sensitive to landowners and towns that need the property-tax revenue,” Maron said.

“The broader question really is how do we reform our property-tax system so that it encourages landowners to protect clean waters and scenic vistas? Really, it’s sort of a vexing question.

“Somebody who wants to maintain good habitat on their land isn’t really encouraged to do that. They are encouraged to cut. That’s the part we really agree with Sandy on — that there should be responsible use of land.”

The Split Rock Wild Forest is also protected land. The 3,700-acre state park is listed in several parcels on Westport’s tax maps, according to Essex County Real Property’s database. The two largest state park parcels are measured out as 1,245 acres and 1,291 acres, both are valued at nearly $1.9 million. 

The tax database lists “no details available” for how much the state pays in property tax for those parcels.

EASEMENTS

Champlain Area Trails is not looking immediately at buying other properties to add to the land trust.

But Maron said easements are another way for landowners to secure tax breaks while ensuring long-term preservation.

“The federal and state governments do have good incentives for people to make donations of conservation easements that qualify for both income-tax deductions and property-tax credits.”

Email Kim Smith Dedam:  kdedam@pressrepublican.com