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In the end, we had approvals [for the Finch deal] from 27 towns. We had no opposition...

Do Adirondack towns really oppose new state land deals?

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Yesterday, we reported that the Cuomo administration appears to be moving forward with plans to buy new parcels of land in the Adirondack Park.

If that happens, the property would be added to the "forever wild" Forest Preserve.

Now one state-sponsored group called the Local Government Review Board, is urging Governor Cuomo to scrap the plan.

But as Brian Mann reports, green groups say local governments are sending mixed signals about new land deals in the Park.

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Fred Monroe head of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, says his organization has always opposed new land purchases.  But he says the timing now is worse than ever.

“We know that the state has got horrible budget problems,” Monroe said.

“The governor is talking about reducing Medicaid, which will affect the sick.  He’s talking about reducing education funding, which will affect school children.  Welfare for the poor is probably on the line.”

Monroe is also town supervisor in Chester.  But it’s as head of the Review Board that’s he’s taken a prominent role in the debate over new land deals.

The Review Board’s members are chosen by the Park’s counties.  But it’s a state sponsored group formed by the legislature in the 1970s to offer feedback to the Adirondack Park Agency.

Late last month, the Review Board passed a resolution, opposing the Finch Pruyn and Follensby deals, which could add as much as 75,000 new acres to the Park’s forest preserve.

 Monroe says he’s already taken that message to the new administration in Albany.

 “We haven’t had any response.  We had a meeting with the new acting environment secretary, provided him with a copy [of the resolution], and explained the reasoning behind it. But we have not had any feedback.”

 Monroe has had feedback from the environmental community. 

Yesterday, the Adirondack Council acused the Review Board of overstepping its boundaries by getting involved in land conservation deals, which don’t involve the APA.

“The Review Board is spending public money to attack the Department of Environmental Conservation, The Nature Conservancy and environmental protection in general,” wrote the Council’s Brian Houseal in a statement.

He added, “That is wrong.  It is a misappropriation of tax dollars.”

But speaking last night, state Senator Betty Little – also an opponent of land deals – said the Review Board was acting within its legislated authority.

“I’m comfortable with them, because they do represent local government,” Little said.

“And it’s the local governments within the Park that are seeing the fragileness of the sustainability of their communities.  The more you tie up forest land, the less land there is for logging, the less land there is for any kind of development or for any kind of use going forward.”

But local government’s opposition to new land purchases is complicated by the fact that every single town affected by the Finch, Pruyn deal passed resolutions approving the project. 

 The Nature Conservancy’s Mike Carr says that local support came after lengthy talks and negotiations and compromises.

 “Really since 2007, we’ve been working with the communities in the Park within which our ownership lies.  We had a series of very, very important public discussions with the communities and helped to understand what their aspirations were on this project.  In the end, we had approvals from 27 towns.  We had no opposition to the disposition plan.”

Carr points out that even the town of Chester, where the Review Board’s Fred Monroe is town supervisor, passed a resolution supporting the deal.

 “We had support there, for which we’re grateful,” Carr added.

 According to the Review Board’s Fred Monroe, none of the towns actually affected by the Finch, Pruyn deal voted on this latest resolution.  And he acknowledged that the land deal had support in his own town.

 “We had several hearings and I heard from the people in my town that there were some small pieces that should be in the forest preserve.  Doing what the constituents wanted, we did approve it.  And I really don’t have any problems with those purchases in the town of Chester.

 Monroe says he’s convinced that other towns that passed resolutions supporting the Finch, Pruyn land deal felt pressured during the negotiations.

 “Many of the towns that I’ve talked to that did that would have much preferred that land stay in working forest.  They were not pleased with the fee deals, but made the best deals that they could.”

 Senator Little says she doesn’t think towns passed resolutions because they felt pressured, but because they thought that they would gain more tax revenue from the land if it were added to the forest preserve.

 "Some of them thought that some of the land that was owned by Finch and all was in a lower tax bracket,” Little said.

 “So if the state were paying taxes on it they were going to get a better deal.  And I think that’s what they looked at.”

 Little says many of those towns are now worried that the state might curtail property tax payments to the Park.

But green groups also dispute other aspects of the Review Board’s resolution, including a claim that adding these lands to the forest preserve will lead to the loss of more than 200 logging jobs.

 According to the Nature Conservancy, the land actually employs only about 25 timber workers, some of them seasonally.  Mike Carr argues that those lost jobs will be off-set by new tourism opportunities.

 “The tourism base I think will be radically enhanced by the addition of these lands to the forest preserve,” he argued. 

 “These are some very special places, like the Essex Chain of lakes, miles and miles of the Hudson River and the Gorge.”

 This latest conflict suggests that land deals in the Park remain very controversial. But it’s also renewed questions about the role of the state-funded Local Government Review Board in that debate.

 The Adirondack Council has called for state officials to review whether the Review Board is spending taxpayer dollars appropriately.

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