Lawmakers showing movement on Mount Van Hoevenberg and Debar Lodge measures
By Gwendolyn Craig
State lawmakers are considering four constitutional amendments impacting the Adirondack Park, including one that would permit the sale of a former prison in Franklin County and another that would bring an Olympic facility into legal compliance.
Also up for consideration is an amendment that would preserve an historic camp in Franklin County and one that would help Hamilton County bolster its emergency services communications in a radio dead zone.
If the amendments pass both houses before the 2022 session ends, they must clear two more hurdles before becoming law. Local lawmakers in both houses said they are working hard, but the scheduled end of session is June 2 and they did not expect to stay later.
“I would be surprised if everything was accomplished by that date that we need to get accomplished,” said state Assemblyman Steve Englebright, a downstate Democrat who chairs the Assembly’s environmental conservation committee.
“Everything is moving at warp speed right now,” said Assemblyman Matthew Simpson, a Republican from Horicon. “It would be great if we could see closure on all four of these. We’d like to see them all pass together.”
Even if these constitutional amendment measures pass this year, they still have a ways to go. Amendments must pass two separately elected state legislative bodies before going to a statewide vote. If amendments receive first passage in 2022, it’s possible they could receive second passage in 2023 and get on the November 2023 ballot.
The Adirondacks-related amendment that has moved the most this legislative session would facilitate the sale of the former Camp Gabriels Correction Facility. Funds from the prison building’s sale or lease would be used to acquire lands in the Adirondack Forest Preserve.
The amendment unanimously passed the Senate on May 2, but on May 6, the bill was listed as “recalled from Assembly.”
Simpson and Englebright said they did not know what the recall meant. Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, said in a text that it meant they were still working on it. Englebright said the amendment was complicated for a variety of reasons, but did not elaborate. On May 9, the Assembly sent the amendment to the attorney general’s office for an opinion.
State Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, praised the Senate’s passage and encouraged the Assembly to do the same. Stec did not respond to the Adirondack Explorer’s question about what the “recall” notice could be.
“Camp Gabriels has laid dormant for more than a decade, impacting our local economy and quality of life,” Stec said in a news release. “By passing this constitutional amendment, we can remove this financial liability from the state and generate the jobs, revenue and economic activity we’ve needed in Franklin County since the Camp Gabriels prison was closed in 2009.”
The former prison’s history dates to around 1895. Camp Gabriels was owned privately for nearly a century. It was a tuberculosis sanatorium and later a branch of Paul Smith’s College. The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision purchased the property in 1982. It included 221 acres and 19 buildings.
Once the prison closed, the compound transferred to the state Office of General Service. OGS has twice tried to sell the property. The deed had originally stipulated the camp and land would revert to forest preserve.
“Quite frankly, there’s just buildings sitting there and they’re rotting into the ground as we speak,” Jones said. “If somebody wanted to go in and make use of that, we need to get somebody in there ASAP.”
Mount Van Hoevenberg
Also up for first passage is an amendment that brings the Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sports Complex in Essex County into compliance with the state constitution, while also adding acres to the Forest Preserve. The amendment would also allow the state to construct, operate and maintain new Nordic and biathlon trails at the Olympic Regional Development Authority facility.
According to the amendment, the ski complex was never constitutionally authorized on forest preserve lands since 1929 when the complex’s bobsled run was first built in preparation for the 1932 Winter Olympics. “This amendment is intended to protect the integrity of the Forest Preserve by constitutionally authorizing the historic use of this Forest Preserve land.”
The new Nordic skiing and biathlon trails are proposed on 322 acres of forest preserve in exchange for “2,500 acres of land located elsewhere for inclusion in the Forest Preserve.”
Simpson said he had not heard of any opposition to the amendment.
“I think that one is probably a little more clear cut than some of the others,” Jones said.
The amendment was referred to the judiciary committees of both houses.
Cathead Mountain tower
Emergency responders in the Town of Benson in Hamilton County are hoping a constitutional amendment will pass so they may build a road to the top of Cathead Mountain to service a communications tower there.
The proposal has received pushback from the Adirondack Council, but most other environmental groups have expressed support. The council continues to stress that Hamilton County could service the communications tower via helicopter rather than build a road through forest preserve. John Sheehan, communications director, said the council supports a new emergency tower, but would prefer it be done without a new road and power line. The council believes renewable energy methods like solar panels and wind turbines could power the tower.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said he didn’t understand the Adirondack Council’s position on this and said the county would need a power line.
Phillip Snyder, the Benson town supervisor, said he hopes the amendment gets passed, something he has been working on for more than four years. With the area a popular hiking destination, better emergency communications is crucial, he said.
“It could save somebody’s life,” Snyder said.
Servicing the towers via helicopter, Snyder said, would be too expensive. Simpson agreed.
The amendment would also open the mountaintop to the public. It has been private for about two decades.
“It’s a nice little hike up there,” Snyders said. “It’s three hours. You’re up and down.”
Englebright said he didn’t have any news about the Cathead Mountain amendment but that it was being discussed.
“We need to find a way to get together on this and get it done,” Simpson said.
A push to save Debar Lodge in Franklin County through an amendment is getting closer, though lawmakers had differing opinions about first passage this year.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation had proposed demolishing the 80-year-old camp after the property transferred from private hands to the state. Similar to Camp Gabriels’ situation, the buildings are now illegal structures on forest preserve. The state constitution also prohibits the sale or leasing of forest preserve lands.
Stec and Jones are sponsoring the legislation that would put the state-owned buildings on the shores of Debar Pond into the hands of a nonprofit group called the Debar Pond Institute. The institute plans educational programs, veterans support services, public lodging and tours on the property. It would also swap about 400 acres on Meacham Lake to be added to the forest preserve.
Howard Kirschenbaum, president of the Debar Pond Institute, said the bill was amended in April “to clarify the rights to ingress and egress, utilities, and water for drinking and fire protection that would go with the six-acre Debar parcel. This meant a delay for another attorney general opinion and committee re-consideration.”
The attorney general’s office submits opinions on constitutional amendments that include whether a proposal will impact other parts of the state constitution.
“We’re still hoping the Debar legislation will get first passage this year, but time is running out,” Kirschenbaum said.
Englebright said he felt the Debar and Mount Van Hoevenberg amendments were closest to first passage.