Measure would cut red tape on NY lands deemed ‘forever wild’
PISECO LAKE, N.Y. (AP) — This tiny mountain town in New York’s Adirondack Mountains wants to add a bike lane to a narrow lakeside road, but it would need the permission of voters from Brooklyn to Buffalo to do it.
That’s because of a provision in New York’s constitution protecting state-owned Forest Preserve lands in the Adirondacks and Catskills as “forever wild.” If one of the dozens of towns interspersed with the nearly 3-million-acre patchwork of Forest Preserve land needs so much as a sliver of state land to enlarge a culvert, widen a road or put in a new water line, it has to ask legislators and voters to amend the state constitution. That process could at least three years.
A proposal on New York’s November ballot would change that, allowing towns to use small patches of Forest Preserve land without years of delay and red tape. The measure, which has the support of Adirondack environmental groups, directs the state to set aside 250 acres as a “land bank” to offset any state land used for community health and safety improvements.
“We were repaving a county road along Piseco Lake and wanted to add a bike lane to get pedestrians off the busy road between campgrounds and hiking trails,” said Bill Farber, chairman of the board of supervisors in Hamilton County. The project stalled because anchor cables for six utility poles would have had to be anchored on adjacent Forest Preserve land and it wasn’t worth seeking a statewide vote for such a small incursion. “It will eventually be done if this ballot proposal passes,” Farber said.
Over the years, voters have approved constitutional amendments allowing Forest Preserve land to be used for a handful of small local projects, including replacing a tainted drinking water supply in tiny Raquette Lake, building a reliable power line in Tupper Lake and expanding the cemetery in Keene. But many other projects languish in limbo because of the cumbersome constitutional process.
“We’re stuck until this gets resolved,” said Mark Hall, water superintendent in the town of Fine in the northwestern Adirondacks, 35 miles from the Canadian border. In the midst of a $7.5 million project to replace an 8-inch water main along a road, the town discovered last year that 150 feet of old pipeline and a section of the road are on state land.
The project can’t be completed unless the ballot measure passes.
“I can’t imagine having to get a constitutional amendment for this piece of land,” Hall said.
In Horicon, in the southeastern Adirondacks, plans to replace a dilapidated one-lane bridge that was closed in 2009 are on hold because the state owns 20 feet on both sides of the Schroon River where the new bridge would be placed. Town Supervisor Matt Simpson says the proposed amendment would allow access to the two-tenths of an acre needed for the project.
Under the ballot measure, known as Proposal 3, a town seeking title to a piece of state land will have to make an application to the Department of Environmental Conservation and demonstrate why it needs the land. If approved, a half-acre used for a local project will be subtracted, on paper, from the land bank.
The proposal is similar to an amendment approved by voters 60 years ago giving the state Department of Transportation the ability to use swatches of state land for highway projects in the region. Of 400 acres earmarked for that purpose, DOT has used 240 acres over the decades.
Environmental groups dedicated to defending the Forest Preserve from any misuse are backing the ballot measure.
“We support it because it meets some well-defined critical needs of communities,” said Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks. “We’re not talking wetlands, mountaintops or old growth forest. This is land along highway corridors.”
Farber says the ballot measure would allow officials to take care of urgent projects when they are needed.
“When a road washes out in August,” he said, “you can’t wait until the Legislature reconvenes in January and then wait years for an amendment to pass.”