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You know, we’re a willing partner and we remain a willing partner in the [Finch] project

Local government leaders divided over Finch conservation deal

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In his budget unveiled earlier this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo maintained the state's Environmental Protection Fund at more than $130 million. Green groups praised the decision and say they hope some of the money will be used this year to expand the Adirondack forest preserve.

The Nature Conservancy wants to sell tens of thousands of acres to the state, lands that were once part of the Finch timber property. Now one of the most prominent local government groups in the Park is trying to rally opposition to the plan.

The Adirondack Local Government Review Board passed a strongly-worded resolution last month. The resolution urges the Governor to cancel additional land purchases in the Park until the state's fiscal crisis is over. But the Review Board's campaign represents a break with the stance taken by dozens of local communities in the Park, which have supported the project for years.

In the first of a two-part special series, Brian Mann reports that some town leaders say they still want the Finch conservation project to go forward.

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CORRECTION:  Duane Ricketson's last name was misspelled, and mispronounced.

Four years ago, the Adirondack Nature Conservancy announced that it had purchased a vast expanse of timberland from the Finch Pruyn paper company in Glens Falls.

At the time, then-DEC commissioner Pete Grannis made it clear that the state wanted to add a big chunk of that land to the Park’s forever wild forest preserve.

“I think this could be considered probably the most important land preservation project in the country at this time,” Grannis said.

The state had its eye on nearly 70,000 acres of land.

In the months that followed, the state developed a new Open Space Plan, hammering out details of the Finch project.

Right from the start, half a dozen local government leaders from the Adirondacks were at the table, part of a regional advisory committee.  

 DEC spokesman David Winchell says to move forward, the Finch project needed the approval of those local leaders.

“An open space conservation project must be vetted and approved by the regional committee,” he said, “before it is listed as a priority regional open space conservation project.”

Those early meetings were followed by months of negotiations. And when the Open Space Plan was finally approved, Winchell says local officials on the committee accepted the Finch project as part of the package.

“It was moved to be included, it was seconded, and there were no objections, and there fore it was included in our regional advisory committee’s list of priority projects,” he said.

One of the people at the table during those talks was Duane Ricketson, a carpenter and former environmental activist from the town of Minerva.

Ricketson sits on his town’s planning board and says local officials on the Open Space committee didn’t object to the land purchases for one reason.

“Because the local governments gave their consents, [the land deals] were automatically accepted and then went into the open space plan,” he recalled.

 Now here’s an important point.  Under state law, any town in the Park can veto a land purchase in their community that’s paid for with the Environmental Protection Fund.

Town Resolutions re Finch project

Town of Chester

Town of Edinburg

Town of Indian Lake (re Gooley)

Town of Indian Lake (re Finch)

Town of Long Lake

Town of Newcomb

Town of North Hudson

That’s the big pool of money that’s typically used to expand the forest preserve.  Towns had that power, but in the case of the Finch project not a single community used its veto.

“Since 2007, we’ve been working with the communities in the Park,” said Mike Carr “In the end, we had approvals from 27 towns.  We had no opposition to the disposition plan.”

Carr points out that nearly a dozen towns agreed to take an additional step, passing formal board resolutions endorsing the Finch deal.

“We wanted it in writing for all the world to see,” he said.

Carr described that local support as historic.  He said that in order to win community backing his green group and state officials had to accept major concessions, including a plan to help build a new network of connector trails for snowmobile clubs.

“The first response is that there’s been a lot of hard work to try to meet our needs and it’s showing up pretty good in some areas,” said Indian Lake town supervisor Barry Hutchins in 2008.  “First blush, I like it.”

 Even many critics of past land conservation deals described the Finch project as a new model, one where the state and environmental leaders respected local community needs.

But last month, that shift in tone ran smack against a fiercely worded resolution passed by the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board.

“In my view and I think in the view of many Adirondack local government officials, it is frivolous to make a huge Park even larger at a time when we have a financial meltdown,” said Fred Monroe, the Review Board’s executive director.

He pointed out that the state’s economic crisis has occurred since the towns approved the Finch deal.

Monroe is convinced that local communities will be devastated by the Finch deal – losing timber jobs and future development potential.  

Last month, he took that message to Albany for a meeting with the Cuomo administration

“We had a meeting with the new acting environmental secretary, provided him with a copy [of the resolution] and explained the reasoning behind it,” Monroe said.

The Review Board has that kind of access because it’s a state-funded entity created by the legislature to represent local government views in the Park.  

Monrore has an advisory seat on the APA board and the group’s official status gives it a lot of clout. 

Its resolution drew widespread media attention, appearing to signal a reversal in the way communities view the Finch project.

But an investigation by North Country Public Radio found that in fact no local government leaders from any of the towns affected by the Finch deal voted on the Review Board’s new resolution.

What’s more, Monroe now acknowledges that most town leaders involved in the Finch project weren’t consulted about the resolution before it was passed.

“Did I specifically go to all the towns that voted to approve these deals?  No, that’s a valid criticism,” he said.

Still, Monroe says he’s convinced that the resolution does reflect growing local government concerns about the Finch deal. 

“We did get the pulse of the [Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages], and counties, and certainly counties on the Review Board,” he recalled.

But in interviews this week, town officials in the communities most heavily impacted by the Finch land deal said their support hasn't changed. 

“At this point in time, I don’t believe that I have any major doubts about it,” said Sue Montgomery Corey, town supervisor in Minerva where the state wants to expand the forest preserve by roughly 6,000 acres.

“I think it’s an important parcel and I know the Nature Conservancy and the state have worked with the town over the years to try to make sure that there are benefits like the snowmobile trail expansion.”

Before Montgomery-Corey was elected, her town board passed one of the resolutions supporting the project. Montgomery-Corey says she’s seen no sign that local backing for the deal has eroded.

“I have not heard any indication that we’re likely to change our perspective on that,” she said.

Montgomery Corey wasn’t consulted by the Review Board before its resolution was approved.  Neither was Barry Hutchins, town supervisor in Indian Lake, where the state wants to expand the forest preserve by roughly 4,600 acres.

“You know, we’re a willing partner and we remain a willing partner in the project,” Hutchins said.

He says he is sympathetic with those who would like to see the state use easements rather than outright land purchases as part of the Finch project.  But Hutchins says those concerns aren’t enough for his town to withdraw its support.

“We committed to the project from the get-go.  As far as I’m concerned I think we’re going to stay committed and we would support efforts to try to continue to work with leased properties versus bought in fee.  But again not to the point to kill any project.”

This apparent gap between the long history of local government support for the Finch project and the Local Government Review Board’s high-profile opposition has sparked criticism. 

“I don’t see any evidence that the Review Board is listening to the towns that signed off on this,” said John Sheehan, a spokesman for a green group called the Adirondack Council.

He said Monroe is using a state-funded entity to lobby against a land deal that many communities favor.

While they claim that they have have support from these [local government] folks, there doesn’t seem to be any particular evidence of that.  There are signed agreements from the communities themselves in terms of what should happen on the Finch property.”

 Duane Ricketson, the Open Space committee member who sits on Minerva’s town planning board says the Local Government Review Board crossed a line by not respecting the wishes of Adirondack towns. 

“In the future can each local community objectively review an open space project without a fear that the Local Review Board may be looking over our shoulder?” he said.

“We’re all different, we should be free to assess the projects on our own.”

 One additional complication here is that the Review Board’s Fred Monroe is also town supervisor in Chester.

His community which also passed a resolution supporting the project and Monroe says he too says remains comfortable with expanding the forest preserve in his town.

“Doing what the constituents wanted, we did approve it,” he recalled, adding, “I really don’t have a problem with those purchases in the town of Chester.”

Still, Monroe says he expects more local governments to join in opposing the Finch deal.   In the weeks since the Review Board’s resolution was passed, Franklin County passed a similar resolution opposing the project. 

The Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages is considering doing the same. But so far, not a single town directly affected by the massive project has reversed its support.

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