In the News  Archive

DEC considers changes to conservation easement rules

Times Union
January 4, 2016

The state could change rules that limit potential development on nearly a million acres of land in the Adirondacks and Tug Hill Plateau.

The Department of Environmental Conservation is proposing new rules for how conservation easements — which control how some private property can be used — could potentially be changed or abandoned at the request of landowners.

Under such easements, the state obtains the development rights, which it does not use, and some or all of the recreation rights. The timbering rights are retained by the private landowners.

Granting such easements can also provide a tax break to a property owner.

"Due to the large volume of acreage subject to DEC conservation easements, and the ongoing need to address changing conditions and management needs, the department is anticipating an increase to the number of requests to modify DEC conservation easements in the future,'' said agency spokesman Sean Mahar on Monday.

Currently, about 950,000 acres are under DEC easements, which restrict development. The new rules would set up a public notice and comment period when DEC is considering changing or ceasing an easement.

It would be the first changes since rules were last adopted in 1985; during this period, only four easements have been changed.

William Farber, town supervisor of Morehouse in Hamilton County, said the issue is regionally important because of the amount of land in the Adirondacks the DEC has easements on. "It is important for the local governments here, and our constituents, to be assured that we will be aware of any easement changes, plus that we all understand the public engagement process,'' said Farber, who is also past president of the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages.

Under the proposed changes, it would be up to the DEC commissioner to decide that an easement could no longer accomplish its original purpose. Changes also should not result in "any net loss of benefits to the state,'' including access for public recreation or changes to restrictions on potential development.

But Peter Bauer, executive director of the conservation group Protect the Adirondacks, said the changes could "significantly weaken public recreation and environmental protection ... the state paid for public recreation on these easements and these new regulations will make it easier for DEC to trade away these rights.''

Bauer said previous easement changes resulted in the loss of public recreation on more than 110,000 acres of the former Champion easement in Franklin, Herkimer, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties. In 2012, the DEC agreed to allow a timber company to keep leasing land to some 200 private hunting camps.

Mahar could not say why DEC believes it will be facing an increase in requests from landowners who want to change the terms of their DEC easements.

But Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, which represents local governments to the Adirondack Park Agency, said he had heard some discussions that easements could be loosened to allow for all-terrain vehicle use or the continuation of private hunting and fishing camps.

Another Adirondack conservation group, the Adirondack Council, believes that changes to such easements "should be few, rare and only done to provide a net positive environmental and public benefit,'' said spokesman John Sheehan.

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