Four proposed amendments come to nothing
By Gwendolyn Craig
State Assembly and Senate members could not agree on four constitutional amendments related to the Adirondack Park before leaving Albany last week. Lawmakers also set aside a bill intended to give more teeth to the Adirondack Park Agency when reviewing large-scale subdivisions.
In some instances one chamber passed legislation, but the other did not.
“The cynic in me will say that why couldn’t these two majorities get on the same page here,” said state Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury. “It does us no good to pass one in one house, and the other in the other house.”
Even one bill that many thought was a shoo-in, an amendment bringing the Olympic Regional Development Authority’s Mount Van Hoevenberg complex into constitutional compliance, never made it to the floors of either chamber. While lawmakers said a proposal for a constitutional amendment allowing an emergency services tower on Cathead Mountain collapsed earlier this month, there had been hope for Mount Van Hoevenberg. Lawmakers also had optimism for passing amendments that would have transferred an old Franklin County prison and an Adirondack camp out of forest preserve, protecting both.
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It was important for supporters of these amendments to get first passage this legislative session. Constitutional amendments only get sent for a statewide vote after approval from two consecutive separately elected state Legislatures. If they had received first passage this year, the amendments could have gone to a public vote as early as November 2023. Now, the earliest these amendments could be put before voters is November 2025.
Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, said he was disappointed and frustrated. Too many things came up last minute, he said.
The state budget presented in April had plenty for the Adirondacks, “but as far as legislation that could have a long-term impact on the park, that was a pretty dismal session,” said Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks. Bauer blamed Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office and Stec for being “long on legislative malpractice and short on statesmanship.” Stec blamed environmental groups and the Democratic majority for inaction.
The Adirondack Council, however, thought the park fared well this legislative session. In a news release, the council focused on the three appointments confirmed to the Adirondack Park Agency and funding allocated for park projects in the state budget. It did highlight “some missed opportunities to begin the approval process for constitutional amendments.”
A constitutional amendment that would save Debar Lodge in Franklin County from demolition passed the Assembly as lawmakers stayed late into Saturday, but senators had already left Albany Friday morning.
The 80-year-old camp in the Town of Duane could be demolished. The buildings are illegal structures on forest preserve. A group called the Debar Pond Institute volunteered to swap about 400 acres on Meacham Lake to be added to the forest preserve in exchange for keeping the camp and turning it into an education center.
“We’ll take some time to evaluate the situation and make a decision for the future,” said Howard Kirschenbaum, president of the institute.
Ned LeMieux Sr., supervisor of Duane, said he didn’t believe Stec pushed the amendment in the Senate enough.
“I’m not very happy with the way it turned out,” LeMieux Sr. said. “A lot of work went into that operation. It was a very simple, very worthwhile deal. It’s worth saving a place like that.”
Stec told the Explorer that a few environmental groups weren’t “crazy” about the amendment.
“Sometimes I think they take turns being the bad cop,” Stec said. “They (the Assembly) did it really late at the end of session. I was really surprised they passed it.”
A spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Conservation said Monday night that staff “took a number of recent actions to help mitigate deterioration” of the lodge. Long-term planning for what to do about the property is continuing.
“DEC has not yet made a determination on next steps for the lodge,” the spokesperson added.
The department had originally proposed before the Adirondack Park Agency in 2020 removing the lodge and creating a new day-use area with memorabilia of the lodge on site. The proposal was part of an amendment to the Debar Mountain Wild Forest Unit Management Plan. The DEC spokesperson said the department may prepare a revised draft plan or a proposed final plan. Both of those would have to be released for public comment.
A constitutional amendment about the former Camp Gabriels Correctional Facility in Franklin County passed the Senate but not the Assembly.
The amendment would have facilitated the sale of the prison buildings, which have been vacant since 2009. Funds from the sale or lease would be used to acquire more forest preserve lands.
Stec said he was able to get the amendment passed in the Senate three times – two of those times this year. Stec and Jones said it is possible that lawmakers could be called back to Albany for a special session, but they didn’t think it was likely.
If they were to go back, Stec said he didn’t think the Debar and Gabriels amendments were controversial, nor did they have strong opposition.
Franklin County Chairman Donald Dabiew said he had a conference call with Jones and Stec on Monday about the former prison. The county, Dabiew said, does not want Camp Gabriels and he thought the state should keep ownership of some of it.
“The only thing that upsets me about it,” Dabiew said, “nothing is going to happen to it, and it’s been falling apart as it is.”
The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision works with the Office of General Services and Empire State Development when it comes to closed facilities, according to a DOCCS spokesperson, who referred further questions to ESD.
Kristin Devoe, spokesperson for ESD, said “Camp Gabriels will be considered by the Prison Redevelopment Commission, which functions as an advisory body that will make recommendations based on input from the local community and market analyses. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, they will be making recommendations to the state about how to make these dispositions more feasible going forward.”
Mount Van Hoevenberg
ORDA’s Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sports Complex in Essex County never received constitutional protection to exist on forest preserve. An amendment to bring it into compliance and to allow ORDA to construct and operate new Nordic and biathlon trails failed again this year.
“That’s an after-the-fact constitutional amendment,” Stec said. “That should have been done two years ago.”
Bauer said the amendment fell apart because the Senate and Hochul’s office wanted to link it with a previously passed and controversial constitutional amendment involving NYCO Minerals. That amendment, passed in 2013, allowed for a land exchange with NYCO Minerals so it could conduct exploratory mining on some forest preserve lands. The company had said the constitutional amendment was necessary to preserve its place in the community and secure jobs, but the land exchange never happened and the company was sold.
Bauer said there was talk of adding a sunset date to the NYCO amendment with the Mount Van Hoevenberg amendment, “an idea that has merit, but it kind of came out of nowhere in the 11th hour.”
An amendment to help Hamilton County address an emergency services communications gap broke down in May and was not revived before the end of session. It would have also reopened public access to Cathead Mountain in the Town of Benson.
The amendment had received strong support since 2020 by environmental groups like Protect the Adirondacks and Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve. The Adirondack Council had opposed the original amendment, advocating against a road and power line to service a communications tower in favor of maintenance via helicopter.
This year’s legislation, however, included new information about a land swap with the private hunting club that owns the summit. Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, said Morehouse Supervisor and former Hamilton County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Farber had drafted the legislation. She had thought everyone was on board with it until she published it and received pushback from environmental groups and the hunting club.
Bauer said the new 2022 version had things not discussed like a cell phone tower and more development for the hunting club. Glens Falls Attorney Dennis Phillips said the Hatchbrook Sportsmen Club was also “stunned and shocked” over the legislation’s publication, though it wasn’t clear exactly what the club didn’t like about it. Phillips did say club members wanted Hamilton County to pay them $10,000 a year for three years to cover the club’s legal fees, but Hamilton County had agreed to pay one $10,000 sum.
Woerner said she thought it was best to go back to the drawing board.
A bill that would have superseded the Adirondack Park Agency’s rules on subdivisions passed the Assembly but failed in the Senate. Often called the conservation design bill, the legislation would require more land planning and environmental reviews to ensure the APA makes developers protect a minimum amount of open space. Its intention is to curtail rural sprawl.
Bauer blamed Stec for the bill’s failure.
“Dan unilaterally killed the bill in the Senate,” Bauer said. “That took away a lot of enthusiasm to get serious about these (constitutional) amendments.”
Stec said, “I wish I had the kind of power that Peter Bauer gives me credit for, but I’m not in control of what passes the Senate.”
Stec said there are issues with the bill, noting that the APA and local governments don’t like it. The senator doesn’t believe environmental groups have done enough to engage the public on what the bill means and why they think it’s needed.
When asked if he campaigned against the bill, Stec said “I’m not going to campaign for it. …There’s other ways to get there that aren’t as heavy-handed as this.”
Sen. Todd Kaminsky, D-Long Beach, sponsored the bill. His office did not return the Adirondack Explorer’s request for comment on Monday.
Though the Assembly passed it, Jones said he did not support the bill either.
“A lot of these processes go through the APA anyways,” Jones said. “It’s written from legislators on Long Island, and we know the Adirondacks are different.”
Both the Senate and Assembly did pass a bill setting retirement eligibility for forest rangers, environmental conservation officers and other members of law enforcement, bringing them on par with State Police and others. Hochul must sign the legislation for it to become law, something legislators weren’t sure she would do after she vetoed a similar bill in January.
“It’s up to the executive now,” Jones said. “We keep passing it.”