By Gwendolyn Craig
The state Assembly pulled a constitutional amendment that would have closed an emergency communications gap in Hamilton County after the attorney for a private hunting club said members were “stunned and shocked” over the legislation, which included swapping their own land.
Glens Falls Attorney Dennis Phillips said the Hatchbrook Sportsmen’s Club “considered this unauthorized action as indicative of a lack of respect for its property rights and, therefore, came to the conclusion that the continuation of the land swap initiative of the county was not in their best interest.” The club had also wanted Hamilton County to pay it $10,000 a year for three years in return for its permission to present a land swap and to cover the club’s legal fees.
The amendment, stalled in the state Legislature for years, would allow a road to the top of Cathead Mountain in the town of Benson. A power line would service an emergency services radio communications tower.
Phillip Snyder, Benson town supervisor, said the area has popular hiking trails like Auger Falls, where there have been rescues. Better communications, he said, is crucial: “It could save somebody’s life.”
But the amendment has stalled again, and it likely won’t get reintroduced this year. The state Senate’s version of the bill was referred to the judiciary committee, but after the Assembly pulled its version, the amendment appears back in limbo.
“We’re too late in the session now to address them,” said state Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, about the club’s concerns.
There is plenty of finger pointing as to why the amendment failed. State legislators pointed to Hamilton County officials and environmental groups. County officials pointed to the Adirondack Council. The hunting club pointed to them all. In the end it means police, firefighters, EMTs and volunteers will continue to do their jobs without basic radio service in some of the most rural areas of the state, at least for now.
Motor vehicle use is not allowed on the state’s land surrounding Cathead Mountain. In order to build a road and power line to the privately owned mountaintop, county officials needed a constitutional amendment. To amend the state constitution, a proposal must pass two successive state Legislatures before getting on the ballot for New York state voters.
Legislation drafted in 2020 was close to first passage, but the Adirondack Council was against it. John Sheehan, communications director for the council, had told the Explorer that nearly every year people want to amend the constitution’s “forever wild” clause protecting the forest preserve. The council has advocated for servicing the tower via helicopter, which State Police and the state Department of Environmental Conservation currently do with an existing tower. This spring, the Adirondack Council published a proposal that an emergency tower could be powered off-grid using on-site solar panels. It’s a solution the council believes could be done now and without a constitutional amendment.
“New York State officials regularly use helicopters to stock fish, drop lumber, and help build new trail bridges on the forest preserve,” said Willie Janeway, executive director. “The previous owners of the club even harvested lumber from their mountain slopes using helicopters. Building a tower and installing solar and renewable energy back-ups with helicopters is not only a reasonable alternative, but a better alternative. The days of needing a road up Cathead Mountain for that have passed.”
Fellow environmental groups including Protect the Adirondacks and Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve have supported the county’s proposed amendment and have been against the council’s idea of maintenance by helicopter. State Police, too, had told the Adirondack Explorer it would be much easier to access the tower if there was a road.
Morehouse Supervisor Bill Farber, who was the longtime chair of the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors, recently replaced by Indian Lake Supervisor Brian Wells, said the helicopter solution was financially unfeasible for the county.
“It isn’t practicable and the chopper itself is a continued intrusion in a greater wilderness setting,” added David Gibson, managing partner of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve. “A helicopter to continually be used there makes no sense to me and Adirondack Wild, nor does it make sense to solve the problem.”
The council’s renewable energy proposal had Gibson and Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, shaking their heads along with Farber. Any storm that dropped snow or debris on solar panels would cause challenges servicing the site and likely at a time when those emergency communications are most needed, Farber said.
The Adirondack Council also offered a different constitutional amendment this legislative session that would have the hunting club turn over 480 of its acres in exchange for use of one previously closed access road. The acreage would become a part of the Silver Lake Wilderness and provide public access to Grant Lake and the summit of Cathead.
The club did not agree with this proposal either. The Adirondack Explorer reached out to Phillips about what in the proposal the club did not like, but did not immediately hear back.
The Hatchbrook Sportsmen’s Club has owned property in southern Hamilton County since 1989. At that time, members had access to two rights-of-way to their hunting camp. Those entry points were owned by another landowner, however. The property went into foreclosure and became forest preserve, off-limits to motor vehicles.
That left the club with limited options for getting gear to their camp. Former club president Nathan Clark said members used a team of horses to make the trip. The club has unsuccessfully pursued temporary access permits and in 2010, its own constitutional amendment to get back motorized use of the road. Most of the region’s environmental organizations opposed the club’s amendment. Club members told the Daily Gazette newspaper in Schenectady that they closed off public access to the summit, “ out of desperation to try to get support for what should have been the right thing to do — let us use the road.”
Around April 1 this year, the club said county officials “out of the blue” presented an option that included lease terms and a one-time $10,000 payment. The club had wanted $10,000 annually for up to three years.
“These terms were unacceptable to Hatchbrook,” the club’s statement said.
Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, sponsored the latest Cathead legislation even though her district does not cover Hamilton County. Some club members live in Saratoga County and are constituents, she said, and as a member of the majority, she felt it made sense for her to propose it.
Woerner said Farber had drafted the legislation, and she had thought all the different parties were on board. Shortly after the legislation was introduced, she heard from Phillips and the environmental groups.
The club said “any further involvement in the constitutional amendment process would be unduly expensive and an exercise in futility,” in its statement.
Woerner pulled the legislation.
“I decided, OK, we needed to take a step back,” Woerner said. “I think the reality is these land swaps are complex, and there’s a lot of interests at play, and a lot of ways that it can go wrong. Many of the stakeholders in various ways had been through bad land swap deals.”
Next steps for Cathead
Wells said the events were part of a “recurring theme with all projects within the Blue Line that benefit the people,” and called the Adirondack Council “obstructionist.” He blamed the press for not holding the council accountable.
Wells called the Adirondack Council “self-serving” and “arrogant,” adding “what could have been a win for the park, the club and safety for the people who live inside the Blue Line and the people who travel to the park it was negotiated away. … We shall see w(h)ere the blame gets shifted, I hope people are smart enough to look behind the curtain and the money trail in Albany.”
Janeway re-sent his organization’s position on the tower in response to the Adirondack Explorer’s request for comment.
“We can understand and share their frustration with the situation,” Janeway said. “ We don’t doubt that everyone has tried to work in good faith, to address needed emergency communication needs, private property interests, and honor and protect legal protections for the Adirondack Park. There are opportunities we have detailed that are worthy of pursuit to solve all these problems.”
Farber thought the 2022 legislation was favorable to the club, but said “the club obviously gets to make that decision for themselves.”
Farber said it is too early to know what an alternative to the constitutional amendment could be but the county had plans to regroup.
“The path to progress is never a straight one, it seems,” Woerner said.