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.
There is undoubtedly a lot to this story that is not being explicated, but the Adirondack Council’s willingness to take such a controversial stance still seems odd here (especially given that they have been apparently shying away from other controversies vis-a-vis overtourism). What type of infrastructure, exactly, is needed to support the new communications equipment? Does the Council have reason to be concerned that the Sportsmens’ Club will abuse their new motorized right-of-way? Are they concerned about setting a bad precedent? There is evidently plenty of adversarial conflation of issues going on, but it seems that communications towers like these are rare by design. It would benefit all sides to do a better job at stating their case.
One has to be very Leary when it comes to dealing with the environmental enthusiasts just take a look at what happened to all that were involved with the development of a snowmobile corridor trail on former finch lands. One environmental group gives the ok and then everyone else involved with the deal get the go ahead to construct a trail then another group comes in from out of the blue says you can’t do that and takes it to court using some reason of what you can or can’t cut on former timberlands I might add and puts an end to a deal that was made. Let’s just say make sure when you strike this deal you don’t get hood winked and end up with a lose lose lose deal like the dec and all the townships and snowmobile clubs did. Be very Leary hatchbrook and town of wells,dec. don’t put up any snow machine trails in this area for closure to strike a deal we will only lose. Be iron clad when dealing with these groups or don’t deal
Peter Bauer says
Your timeline is way off. Protect the Adirondacks went to court in 2013, well before any “deals” were struck on building Class II trails on the former Finch lands. The “deals” that were struck around the Essex Chain classification were never made public by the groups that made them, and the terms of the “deal” have since been disputed by the participants. PROTECT was not part of that deal.
Further, we had stated since the early 2000s, all during Pataki’s snowmobile focus group, that big wide Class II trails were unconstitutional, but no one listened. Our only option was to go to court, which unlike the process for secret “deals” among state agencies, local gov leaders, and various groups, is an open forum on a level playing field where the law means something.
On Cathead, we still think there’s a way forward that meets everybody’s needs. We’ve been public about that. We wrote about that in the Adirondack Almanack (https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2022/04/its-time-to-work-out-cathead-mountain-amendment.html) and we circulated a letter (https://www.protectadks.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/220330-Cathead-Mountain-web.pdf) in Albany saying the same.
Whoever wrote Werner’s initial Cathead bill this year did a real disservice to this issue because it contained many new controversial items that were never part of a broad framework that seemed to have the support of most of those involved.
How does the Adirondack Council continue to get money after they’ve ticked off virtually every group of people in the Adirondacks; from hikers to snowmobilers, to local governments, to the Adirondack Mt Club, to Firetower lovers (remember the Pharoah Mt fiasco) and they even annoy other environmental watchdogs. Who is giving these people money???
Historically, many would argue that that impartiality has been the Adirondack Council’s greatest strength. That coupled with the fact that their influence is unmatched by any other private organization has allowed them to think about the “big picture” in times when few others could.
The problem, of course, is that this balancing act is difficult to maintain. The list of privileges that are seen as “untouchable” is now a lot longer than just those enumerated in Art. XIV/APA Act.
It is hard to imagine a cogent environmental argument for opposing the solution to the Cathead problem as outlined in Mr. Bauer’s letter. As he said, unfortunately the version that fell through here was a far cry from that. In the interim: Why does the county not try to get their communications equipment installed without the road, alongside the state’s equipment? Retrofitting with grid power can always be done later. (Helicopter flights are expensive, but so are miles of utility lines.) I’d be surprised if Hamilton Co. could not strike up a deal with the state to shoulder some maintenence costs. Since visitor safety is being put at risk, maybe some ROOST funds should be appropriated for this if all else fails. Why force first responders to wait years?