Photo by Pete DeMola
The proposed “Health and Safety Land Account” will streamline infrastructure and utility projects on state Forest Preserve land — but only if voters statewide approve its creation this year on the ballot. Pictured above: Hamilton County Board of Supervisor Bill Farber briefs attendees at the Adirondack Local Government Day Conference in Lake Placid on April 5, 2017.
LAKE PLACID — Details are emerging over the proposed land bank that would allow localities access to state land to facilitate infrastructure projects on Forest Preserve without amending the state constitution.
Doing so will remove what advocates say are onerous layers of bureaucracy for local infrastructure and utility projects, from culvert, bridge and road repair to laying fiber for broadband projects.
The land bank, now known as the “Health and Safety Land Account,” includes 250 acres in the Adirondacks, and 500 in the Catskills.
Its creation was unanimously passed for the second time by the state Senate last month. If passed by the Assembly, the initiative will appear on the ballot this November.
Project limits will be hashed out in future legislation, said Nature Conservancy Director of Government Operations Jessica Ottney Mahar, who briefed local lawmakers at last week’s Adirondack Park Local Government Day Conference.
The legislation would also guide the approval of locating public utilities and bike paths along the state and local highways that traverse the Forest Preserve.
“The goal is to promote and protect public health safety and welfare when no other options exists,” Mahar said.
Exact mechanics of how the account will work remain yet-to-be-determined, she said, but projects will be based on demonstrated public need.
The 250 acres in the Adirondacks will be acquired by the state upfront to offset the cost of the account.
Towns will be able to use up to 10 total acres; counties, 15 acres.
But this isn’t a giveaway:
The state Department of Environmental Conservation would need to determine that a feasible alternative doesn’t exist elsewhere; that environmental impacts are minimized and the project does not adversely impact lands that have “critical environmental or recreational value.”
When municipalities want to access the account, they will pay fair market value for the land, which will be deposited in a state account that will be used to eventually purchase more land for the Forest Preserve.
Localities will not have to donate an equal parcel of land in return, nor will they be required to identify new parcels of land to trade, a measure Hamilton County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Farber said would be “onerous and impractical.”
Farber said while the 250-acre number doesn’t seem huge, projects do not tend to burn up a significant amount of acreage.
The key, Farber said, is for localities to have the ability in existing right-of-ways for utilities — including broadband, which continues to be rolled out across the North Country as part of a state initiative.
The number of acreage could grow in the future, Farber said.
“In our opinion, it is far easier to overcome major hurdles and authorization with the idea that it is easier to add additional acres than starting the process over again,” he said.
Both houses of the state legislature appear interested and engaged, Farber said, and state lawmakers met recently to discuss the enabling legislation.
State Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) co-sponsored the legislation. Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee Chairman Steve Englebright (D-East Setauket) and Assemblyman Dan Stec (R-Queensbury) also aided in crafting the amendment.
“As the sponsor of numerous constitutional amendments, I know how time consuming, costly and uncertain the process is,” Little said.
The amendment also would authorize the burial or co-location of public utility lines within the width of town, county and state highways, a thorny constitutional issue that will be separate from the land bank.
The amendment has broad support across stakeholder groups in the Adirondacks, including the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, the Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club, the Nature Conservancy, the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages, Protect the Adirondacks, Adirondack Wild and the DEC.
While advocates have an uphill battle to educate the public, Mahar is confident awareness of the amendment will ride on the tailwinds of the constitutional convention, the controversial question that will also be on the ballot this November.
“I think a lot of people will be paying attention to ballot questions,” Mahar said.
UPDATE: April 13, 1 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect the state Assembly must pass the land bank resolution a second time before the issue can go on the ballot. The legislative body has not done so, and only the Senate has granted second passage so far.