Press-Republican

January 8, 2013

New York buys Essex Chain of Lakes for $12.4 million

KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

MINERVA — New York state taxpayers now own 18,294 additional acres of timberland that once largely comprised a working forest.

The Essex Chain of Lakes was conveyed recently by the Nature Conservancy in Keene Valley to the people of New York, according to the Essex County Clerk’s Office, for $12,389,320. 

As state land, it will be reclassified from its current use of Resource Management and opened for public access, according to plans being laid out by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

DEC is working on a draft Public Access and State Land Classification proposal for the entire 69,000-acre property, DEC Director of Public Information Emily DeSantis said in an email to the Press-Republican. 

That proposal will be submitted in the near future to the Adirondack Park Agency, she said. 

“The APA plans to release a draft land classification plan for the tract in the coming months.”

Release of the draft plan will be followed by a public comment period, and public hearings will be held before the final recommendations are sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for approval.

DEC’s intention is to open access to the unleased parts of the tract in the spring, DeSantis said. 

HESITATION

This sale is the first of several in queue, transferring former Finch, Pruyn and Co. property for preservation in the Adirondack Park.

The Essex Chain is roughly a third of the total 69,000 acres targeted for addition to the Forest Preserve in a deal announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last August. These are the last parcels of the 161,000-acre land transaction made by Finch, Pruyn to the Nature Conservancy in 2007.

The Essex Chain was purchased despite a last-ditch effort by local government officials to rethink the expense.

The Local Government Review Board had been asking the state to deploy easements to the property, thus allowing timber management and recreational use to coexist.

Review Board Director Fred Monroe said they met three times with Cuomo’s staff over the summer and fall, seeking a recreational easement/purchase mix that likely would have saved taxpayers’ money.

In an easement, the state pays for recreational rights, while forests are bought from management by a timber-investment-management organization (TIMO).

WORKING FOREST

Using Warren County property maps and with the help from DEC foresters, Monroe said, they found 79 percent of the Essex Chain land is working, sustainable forest. 

The remainder of it is made up of unique land forms with features like mountains, ponds and steep terrain that “probably should be state-owned land,” Monroe said.

The Review Board sought to keep the working part of the forest working; as state land, its timber cannot be cut.

“We would have been happy with 60/40 percent easement-to-purchase solution,” Monroe said Monday.

“The state would be paying half as much for this land in easement then only half the taxes and no maintenance because the TIMO would be paying the maintenance.

“I had conversations with the head of Lyme Timber and asked if they were interested in a timber-management operation. He said, ‘Absolutely.’”

BUILDING RIGHTS

The Review Board is still looking to recoup building rights that will evaporate with the state land purchase.

“If we take 69,000 acres (for the total five-year deal) and divide by 42.7-acres (allowed per Resource Management principal-building lot), we come up with 1,600 building rights lost in those communities,” Monroe said.

“What we proposed is a map amendment to reduce the density on the land being purchased by the state and increase it in or near the hamlets to be used as an incentive for people to build lodging facilities, restaurants, outfitters, guide services and other amenities that could support economic growth. It makes so much sense.”

HUNTING CABINS

The relocation of building rights would also mitigate a somewhat more measurable loss from the pending removal of 96 private hunting cabins being phased out in the next five years. 

Two longtime sportsmen’s outfits, Gooley Club and the Polaris Club, have held private lease agreements with Finch, Pruyn for generations. The camps were built privately over the years and are on town tax rolls.

The agreement gives the clubs exclusive use of 11,600 acres, DeSantis said, that expires on Sept. 30 of this year.

Mike Carr, executive director of the Nature Conservancy, said the hunting-club leasing phase-out period ends in 2018.

But after Sept. 30, 2013, all but a 1-acre envelope surrounding each cabin will be opened for public access.

Carr believes the transitional arrangement will work.

“If everyone does a good job of communicating, I think people will, for the most part, be respectful. That is certainly our hope and our intent.”

Conservancy spokeswoman Connie Prickett said some cabin owners took an early relocation offer presented by the conservancy when the land was first purchased.

“Some of the ones we relocated were in northern Newcomb. There was one on the Boreas tract that moved because they had a fire in their camp. We have tried to innovate through some of the structure issues,” she said.

“It was an effort to have no net loss of camps,” Carr said.

CLASSIFICATION PENDING

The Nature Conservancy does not know which classification will be assigned to Essex Chain: Wildforest, Primitive or the most restrictive Wilderness designation.

And it isn’t offering any input.

“There will be a big public process, and it will be fascinating to watch,” Carr said.

Even though the land sale was put in motion five years ago, the $12.4 million expenditure now drew concern from Monroe, who said far more pressing environmental issues exist that need Environmental Protection Fund resources.

But he sees the building-rights exchange as a chance to improve the way state government oversees land use in the park.

“This is a perfect opportunity for the state to demonstrate that they care about the local economy by taking the necessary steps to salvage some of the building rights for the communities.”

Email Kim Smith: kdedam@pressrepublican.com