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ENDORSEMENT - Land swap deals deserve support

Post Star
October 29, 2013


Two constitutional amendments calling for Adirondack land swaps are on the ballot this year, and both deserve support.

The Township 40 and the NYCO amendments would both benefit private interests, but both would benefit the state as well.

Both would transfer to private owners land that is now either part of the Forest Preserve or under disputed ownership, but would return a greater share of land to the state.

The more complex of these amendments is Proposition 4, the Township 40 proposition, which would settle long-running title disputes between the state and various private owners over land in Hamilton County.

The dispute involves sloppy record-keeping dating back many decades — a mess that has proved invulnerable to various efforts at legal and political settlement.

Now, with the backing of Adirondack politicians and environmental groups, a settlement is close.

Homeowners, businesses and organizations (including a fire company) occupying disputed parcels would get a clear title to the properties in exchange for paying a fee to the state. Fees would vary, depending on the value of the land.

The state would use the fund created by those fees to buy hundreds of acres of wild land in a popular canoeing area — the Marion River Carry. The land, which includes waterfront, would link canoe routes in the Forest Preserve.

Prop. 4 is an uncommon amendment to Article 14, which established the Forest Preserve as "Forever Wild" land, because it relinquishes the state’s claim to land in favor of a small group of private landowners. Most land swap amendments have sought broad public benefits, by turning over land for a community landfill, for example, or expansion of an airport.

Fairness is the issue with Prop. 4. More than 200 landowners in the Raquette Lake area have been paying taxes on property they bought in good faith. Granting them clear titles is the right thing to do, and the deal will benefit the state by enlarging and improving the Forest Preserve.

Proposition 5 is a more straightforward arrangement, along the lines of previous land swaps state voters have approved. NYCO Minerals would take over 200 acres of state land in the town of Lewis, in exchange for much more land — as much as 1,500 acres — in the same area.

The state land NYCO seeks borders its mining operation, and company officials believe a vein of wollastonite the company has been mining extends underground into the state land.

The land the company would give the state lies in the Jay Mountain Wilderness and includes hiking trails and trout streams, according to Adirondack Mountain Club. The club is one of the two leading Adirondack environmental groups — the other is the Adirondack Council — that favor Prop. 5.

As with previous amendments to Article 14, this land swap would achieve a public benefit — continued operation and expansion of a major Adirondack employer — and would leave the Forest Preserve in better shape than before.

Although mining will scar the land the company acquires, under the deal the company is required, when done with the land, to refill the mine, revegetate the land and return it to the state.

It will take time for the land to return to a natural state, but when dealing with mountains and forests, it makes sense to take the long view.

Eventually, the state will be able to add to the Forest Preserve not only the land it acquires in the swap but also the land it gives NYCO for mining. It would be hard for the state to strike a better deal.

Although the mainstream of the Adirondack environmental community sees the wisdom of both propositions, a hard core of environmentalists has come out against Prop. 5, arguing the state Constitution should not be amended to benefit a private business.

But Prop. 4 also benefits some private businesses, and previous land swap amendments have, too.

Two criteria should be used to judge these sorts of amendements: First, the Forest Preserve should benefit from the deal. Second, the public — particularly in the affected area — should benefit.

With Prop. 5, the Forest Preserve benefits from getting more land than is being given away (and eventually getting back the land given away, too), and the public benefits by supporting a major employer.

With Prop. 4, the Forest Preserve benefits from acquiring important recreation land, and the public benefits by clearing up longstanding property disputes.

Needless to say, the public also benefits, in both cases, from the recreation opportunities on the new Forest Preserve land.

Article 14, the "Forever Wild" clause of the state Constitution, has been praised for its boldness and concision. It now protects 3 million acres of land, most of it in the Adirondack Park, an invaluable natural legacy for future generations of New Yorkers.

Article 14 amendments have been common — more than 20 have passed so far — precisely because its protections are unequivocal and apply to such a huge area.

Tens of thousands of people live in that area, so inevitably, situations arise when, for the good of all, exceptions need to be made to such a strict provision. These propositions are two such situations.

Editorial endorsements represent the opinion of The Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Publisher Rick Emanuel, Editor Ken Tingley, Projects Editor Will Doolittle, Controller Brian Corcoran and citizen representative Vincent Palacino.

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