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Disputed terrain?  A photograph of the Raquette Lake Hotel taken by Seneca Ray Stoddard in 1889.  Land disputes in the area date from that era.
Disputed terrain? A photograph of the Raquette Lake Hotel taken by Seneca Ray Stoddard in 1889. Land disputes in the area date from that era.

Can Albany settle the century-old Raquette Lake land dispute?

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This weekend in the Hamilton County community of Raquette Lake, landowners will gather to hear a proposal that could change New York state's constitution.

For generations, their community has been in conflict with the state over land claims affecting more than 200 parcels. Locals and seasonal residents say the property is privately owned.

But state officials, and some environmental groups, have argued that much of the land is actually part of the state forest preserve and should be kept "forever wild."

As Brian Mann reports, this is the latest effort to sort out one of the Adirondack Park's oldest and thorniest disputes.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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So let me say first that landowners in Raquette Lake declined to be interviewed for this story.  They say they haven’t seen details yet of the new proposal and their wary of talking publicly because sorting out this problem has been so difficult for so long. 

And this is one detail that everyone agrees on.  This problem has festered for way too many decades. 

David Gibson is with the green group Adirondack Wild.  "It was long before you and I were around, Brian.  The 1880s, the state was in the forest preserve business, in 1185 and after.  The state was picking up land for back taxes, but the chain of title was very questionable," Gibson said. 

In most parts of the Park, those disputes got sorted out, but in Raquette Lake roughly 220 parcels are still in dispute. Clark Seaman, town supervisor in Long Lake, which includes the hamlet of Raquette Lake, says that’s made it difficult for people to manage or sell their land.

"It has an impact on being able to sell or purchase, get a mortgage, title insurance, things like that.  Folks over there have been living with it for well over a hundred years."

The dispute has triggered endless rounds of litigation.  Teresa Sayward says the dispute has hobbled the community for generations.

"It's the fire house, it's the old school house, it's businesses, it's family residents who have lived and owned there for hundreds of years.  So it's time to get this thing done and we think this is probably our best chance to do it," Sayward said.

A final bill hasn’t yet been drafted, but a reform plan has been worked out that looks something like this. 

Property owners on Raquette Lake would receive full and clear title to their land.  In exchange, they would pay into a fund that would be managed by the town of Long Lake. 

According to Clark Seaman, that money would eventually be used to buy a new parcel that would be added to the forest preserve.

"The town would collect those fees, put that money into an escrow account, and then those monies would be used toward the purchase of an as-yet undecided piece of property on behalf of New York state."

It’s unclear how much land owners in Raquette Lake would have to pay.  It’s also not yet certain who would decide what parcel of land should be acquired for the forest preserve.

In an email, state Conservation department spokeswoman Lisa King said the DEC is “working cooperatively…to develop an appropriate and acceptable resolution of the longstanding title issues…and ensure that the state receives a significant parcel of land as part of the settlement."

David Gibson, with Adirondack Wild, says he wants to see details of the final bill, but he thinks the broad plan would satisfy environmentalist concerns.

"No question, there is a certain amount of trust you have to have in an amendment or a legislative proposal as complicated as this.  But I think there is an advantage to the state of New York to settle these questions, know what it owns and what it doesn't own in Raquette Lake, and to have an exchange parcel that satisfies the public's need to have lands of equal value," Gibson said.

Efforts to amend the constitution are complicated.  The state legislature has to pass a bill twice and the matter then has to go to voters statewide.  That’s a big lift for a tiny Adirondack community with fewer than 200 year round residents.  A similar effort failed in 2009.

But Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, who’s retiring at the end of this year, says she thinks the proposal now on the table might go through.  "I've been working on this thing for ten years, Brian.  It's something I would love to see done," she said.

Landowners will get their first chance to look at the details of the proposal at a meeting tomorrow in Raquette Lake.

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