KEENE VALLEY - Gov. David Paterson and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo made waves in northern New York two weeks ago when they announced an investigation into the state's purchase of lands in Clinton County.
According to a story that appeared in the New York Post, the Adirondack chapter of The Nature Conservancy made a 57 percent profit off lands it had been holding for about four years.
The tract in question is some 20,000 acres of forest preserve land in the Lyon Mountain area. The conservancy sold the land to the state for $9.8 million in 2008, a supposed $3.5 million mark-up over what the green group paid in 2004.
The Post article alleges the increase in property values throughout the region was much less than the increase in the land's appraisal, but assessments for timberlands do not equate to appraisals for real property.
Nature Conservancy spokeswoman Connie Prickett said the appraisal for the 20,000 acres in question was $9.1 million in 2004.
"So the difference between the value of the land in 2004 and the value of the land in 2008 when the state bought it was very consistent," she said. "We're talking $9.1 million in 2004. $9.8 million was the value the state arrived at in 2008 after conducting two independent appraisals."
The conservancy bought the land in 2004 below fair market value. Prickett says that's the case because it was part of a much larger wholesale purchase made in partnership with the Lyme Timber Company.
That purchase involved 104,000 acres.
"When you're buying 104,000 acres, your per-acre price tends to be lower," Prickett said. "So you take out a 20,000 acre chunk of a larger parcel, and the resale possibilities change. In the market place, there are going to be more buyers for a 20,000 acre parcel than for a 104,000 acre parcel."
Opponents of the deal - and the deal's price tag - argue that the state knowingly overpaid for the land in order to gain political favor with environmental groups.
Prickett said, to her knowledge, the state followed the same procedure it always does when it comes to purchases like the one in question.
"New York state followed it's procedure and did those independent appraisals and made us an offer on the land, which was $9.8 million," she said. "The Nature Conservancy accepted that offer, and that was consistent with our policy. When we are selling land to a government agency, we will sell it for no more than the government's determined fair market value."
And comparing the price the Nature Conservancy pays for land to the price the state pays is not an apples-to-apples comparison, Prickett adds.
"If you wanted to compare the price the Nature Conservancy paid, with the fair market value of the land in 2008, you'd have to compare the appraised value of the land," she said. "But to compare the conservancy's purchase price with New York state's purchase price is not an apples-to-apples comparison in terms of value."
Cuomo's investigation into the deal is moving forward and his office has received clearance from Paterson - although the governor contends that no wrong-doing occurred.