Legislators need to act on boosting emergency communications for our remote communities
By Tracy Ormsbee
It takes time to pass an amendment to the state constitution. Years, in fact.
Before any proposed change can go to voters, it must first win backing in two successive, separately elected legislatures. This thoughtful approach keeps changes to New York’s fundamental governing document from being made on a whim.
The fastest that an amendment might pass, then, is one and a half years. It could take four or more years if the process stretches from the beginning of one legislative session to the end of another and to the public referendum after that. It’s an eternity when you’re talking about something as critical as public safety – which is the issue at hand now.
Spring 2022 was an opportunity to pass amendments to the constitution on the shorter end of that timeframe: Amendments could be passed by the current legislature before elections this fall, and then by the new legislature in January, and then put before voters in November, 2023.
Four amendments affecting the Adirondack Park did not make the cut. Notably, one of those —which was rushed to meet the deadline and then pulled before it even got to a vote— would have improved dismal emergency communication in Hamilton County. It would have allowed building a road and power to a tower on Cathead Mountain to fix a radio dead zone that makes it impossible for ambulance corps to even call a hospital.
The need is crucial. It could save lives. “We cannot hear anything down there,” the assistant fire chief for the village of Speculator has said.
The amendment may get another chance next session, but that would require awaiting second legislative approval until after the 2024 election, meaning that a vote by the public could happen no earlier than 2025. A better option is for lawmakers to return to Albany and pass the Cathead amendment this summer if a special legislative session is called, as some legislators are demanding, to approve an amendment to the state constitution to protect a woman’s right to an abortion in New York.
Note what that scenario suggests: Legislation can, in fact, move quickly when the will is there to shorten the wait. And that’s what’s frustrating to a lot of Adirondackers. The Hamilton County amendment shouldn’t wait, either. Emergency workers need to communicate from the most remote places of this large, sparsely populated region.
If this amendment, one of such public interest, can’t gain cooperation between towns and villages, property owners and environmental interests, what can?
The hold-up stems from a classic Adirondack debate: property owners unable to do what they want because of land use laws versus environmental interests determined to protect those laws. The public’s interest in this case is safety, as well as access to a nice hike and view from Cathead.
County officials say the peak in Benson is the county’s last opportunity for a communications tower because Cathead is privately owned and is high enough to signal to other nearby towers. Hatchbrook Sportsmen Club owns Cathead. The land around the mountain, however, is state owned, which means motorized use is prohibited, even for club members trying to access the camp. To build a road to the tower and add utilities, the county must cross a half mile of forest preserve, which requires a constitutional amendment.
The club already leases Cathead’s fire tower to the Department of Environmental Conservation and State Police for communications. It is run by solar and wind power and a generator. But to make repairs, a police helicopter must be used, which is costly and difficult.
Hatchbrook members have viewed an amendment that would allow communication upgrades to the tower as a chance to get motorized access to the club. The state discontinued issuing such access in 2000. The envisioned amendment would trade an easement on some of the club’s acreage for land on the forest preserve that includes the road accessing the camp. And that’s where disagreements between various interests remain unresolved.
The club’s attempt at an amendment in 2010 failed. A new amendment that emerged in 2020 had broad support—a rarity in such negotiations—with backing from the parties directly affected and most environmental groups save the Adirondack Council. The council lobbied for helicopter repairs over road building and power line installation through forest preserve. Again, the amendment failed.
This year’s attempt, drafted by Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, and former Hamilton County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Farber, included new information about a land swap with the club and spelled out financial deals between the county and the club. It got pushback from the club, which appeared to have been left out of discussions, as well as from environmental interests. Facing uncertainty, lawmakers set the measure aside. It’s hard to know exactly what went wrong, since these negotiations so often happen in the shadows.
So, let’s shine some light on the problem. Hatchbrook members don’t get their road. The public doesn’t get Cathead access. And between now and 2025, or longer, emergency personnel may have hit-or-miss radio service in the southern parts of Hamilton County.
The parties haven’t worked hard enough to find a way forward. Try again. Ready a proposal for special session. Public safety’s at stake. Don’t accept dead zones.