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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Nature Conservancy cleared in land inquiry

Chazy Lake seen from the summit of Lyon Mountain. Photo by Phil Brown.

Chazy Lake seen from the summit of Lyon Mountain. Photo by Phil Brown.

The Adirondack Nature Conservancy has been cleared of wrongdoing in a probe of state land deals sparked by an article in the New York Post more than a year ago.

“We were happy to cooperate with the investigation, and we are pleased with the outcome,” said Connie Prickett, a spokeswoman for the conservancy.

New York State Assistant Attorney General Rachel Doft wrote the conservancy’s lawyer last week to say the investigation is over.

“The Nature Conservancy complied with all relevant laws, regulations and policies in connection with those transactions,” Doft said in the letter.

The Post article, published last spring, raised questions about the state’s purchase of Lyon Mountain and adjacent lands from the conservancy in 2008 for $10 million. Four years earlier, the conservancy had paid $6.3 million to Domtar Industries for the same twenty thousand acres.

After the article appeared, Governor David Paterson asked state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to look into the deal.

“We intend to begin an investigation into the potential overpayment by the state for these lands in the Adirondacks and into questions about the evaluation methods that were used to value the property,” a spokesman for Cuomo told the Post at the time.

After his election as governor, Cuomo handed off the investigation to the new attorney general, Eric Schneiderman.

The conservancy maintained that the $10 million paid by the state was based on two appraisals completed by appraisers hired by the state. Prickett also noted that the conservancy bought Lyon Mountain as part of a larger deal involving 104,000 acres of Domtar land. The rest of the land was bought by Lyme Timber, but because all of the Domtar holdings were sold as part of a single transaction, she said, the conservancy benefited from the economies of scale. That is, it paid a lower price per acre than it would have if it had purchased the twenty thousand acres in isolation.

Prickett also said the conservancy paid interest, taxes, and other carrying costs during the four years it owned the property.  Much of the difference in the purchase and sale prices went toward offsetting those costs. Any leftover funds, she added, will be invested in other projects.

Doft’s letter suggests that the attorney general’s office also looked into the Nature Conservancy’s acquisition of 161,000 acres of land in the central Adirondacks formerly owned by Finch, Pruyn & Company. The state has purchased conservation easements on much of that land and plans to buy about sixty-five thousand acres outright in coming years.

The state also has plans to buy the 14,600-acre Follensby Park west of Tupper Lake. The conservancy bought Follensby and the Finch lands in 2008.

Phil Brown

Contributor Phil Brown was editor of the Adirondack Explorer from 1999-2018. When he isn't at his desk, he's usually out hiking, paddling, skiing, or doing something else important.

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13 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    After I posted this, AG spokeswoman Jennifer Givner told me that the investigation closed in December, while Andrew Cuomo was still the attorney general. However, I had asked about the status of the investigation several times this year and was told it was ongoing. Asked about this discrepancy, Givner had no comment.

  2. Adirondack Jack says:

    I really would like to get into a deal and flip it to New York State taxpayers for a 50% profit. Where do I sigh up.

    Jack

  3. Adirondack Jack says:

    Millions & Millions in profits from the taxpayer rip off is what I’m looking for. Please someone, anyone, where to I sign up for one of these deals.

  4. Walker says:

    It’s easy, Jack. All you gotta do is come up with $6 million and use it to buy the right 20,000 acres and you’re home free.

    ‘Course it might not work out, but them’s the breaks. You pays yer money, you takes yer chances.

  5. Paul says:

    The state land master plan specifically states that productive forest land should be protected with conservation easements and not by adding the land to the Forest Preserve. Look at the policy and you will see that this is stated very very clearly. This is the direction given to the DEC by the APA in the SLMP. If the LGRB did not criticize these deals they would be shirking their duty. The agency wrote the rules not the LGRB.

    These deals make no sense from a policy or an economic perspective. This investigation simply says that these policies of allowing a deep pocketed environmental group to bear no holding costs is legal. Are they smart? That is debatable. Could the DEC have negotiated a better deal on behalf of the taxpayers? I think so. If you support acquisition of Forest Preserve land you should support the state getting the best deal it can negotiate. The pot is not as deep as it used to be.

  6. Paul says:

    Walker you have it exactly right. Our negotiator in this deal (the DEC) did not get us the best deal they could have negotiated. I seriously doubt that the TNC thought is was taking much of a chance that they didn’t have a committed buyer. What do you think?

  7. Paul says:

    Phil, I read a three part series in the Washington Post a while back (“A House in the Woods”) where they described how the TNC would sell certain parcels of its land to supporters at a loss for second home development. It is my understanding that the TNC will retain some parcels of this Adirondack land. Do you know if they plan to sell this land for development? It is perfectly legal I was just curious if they were doing that here as well.

  8. Paul says:

    Also, here is a follow up on a story you had written about a while back:

    http://www.adirondackbasecamp.com/2011/05/parking-stillwater/

  9. Mick Finn says:

    Doesn’t New York State law prohibit the state from making land purchases at higher costs than the appraised value?

  10. Paul says:

    Mick,

    I think they have to pay “market” prices for land. They apparently offered something close to the average from several appraisals. The weird thing is that I saw in one article was that the state and the TNC had “not agreed yet on a price”. Phil any idea what that is about?

    Also appraising this kind of land is almost impossible really. A good appraisal would consider what the land might bring if it were subdivided and sold as smaller lots for development. This land is way more valuable as a development parcel than as timber land. Even small portions of it are worth more than what was paid by TNC if subdivided. The future town tax base could have been much much larger than it will ever be as Forest Preserve land. But this sounds like a pretty done deal.

  11. Paul says:

    The weird thing is that I saw in one article was that the state and the TNC had “not agreed yet on a price”. Phil any idea what that is about?

    I should clarify this regards the Finch land not the deal the AG was looking into.

  12. Paul says:

    Here is something that struck me as odd when I read the announcement that the DEC was purchasing the land in the Finch deal (from the DEC website):

    “DEC will now conduct an appraisal to determine the value of the Forest Preserve and easement lands in order to make a formal contract offer to TNC.”

    This was AFTER they agreed to buy the land? At the point they cut a deal they had no price. No appraisal, nothing?

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