Minimum 2-year wait likely before any Camp Gabriels sale

The front gate of the former Camp Gabriels in the town of Brighton is pictured. In 2014, a potential buyer offered at public auction to pay $166,000 for the 129-acre parcel and use it as a Jewish youth summer camp, but the sale did not go through because, as part of the Adirondack Park, legislative action is needed to transfer ownership of state-owned property. (Photo — Bill Chaisson)

GABRIELS — Camp Gabriels, located outside the eponymous hamlet in the town of Brighton, ceased operations as a correctional facility in 2009. Since then, the buildings have been unused and unheated while the property waits for a buyer.

In 2014, a potential buyer offered at public auction to pay $166,000 for the 129-acre parcel and use it as a Jewish youth summer camp, but the sale did not go through because, as part of the Adirondack Park, legislative action is needed to transfer ownership of state-owned property.

The state Constitution requires that both houses in two successive sessions of the Legislature pass bills that approve the sale of a particular parcel. In 2016, state Sen. Betty Little moved a bill successfully through her own chamber, but that vote is now too long ago to be relevant. Dan Mac Entee, Little’s chief of staff, said the resolution is on the agenda of the Senate Judicial Committee.

“We don’t expect anything to happen until after the budget,” Mac Entee said by phone. “That means the end of April. But we are in session until June, so that leaves plenty of time.” After the November elections, there will be a new legislature, and the resolution must pass in that session as well.

State Assemblywoman Janet Duprey retired in 2016, and the bill remained in committee in that house. Duprey’s successor, Assemblyman Billy Jones, has inherited the task and has moved it from committee to the Assembly docket.

“Last year,” Jones wrote via email, “I introduced Assembly Bill 5739 to make an amendment to the state constitution that would allow the state to convey certain forest preserve land. In both the Assembly and the Senate, this legislation has been referred to the Judiciary Committee where it awaits further review. I remain committed to passing this bill once it reaches the Assembly floor.”

In 2016, the town of Brighton asked the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages to organize an effort to bring attention to the plight of the parcel. The AATV, however, was focused on its effort to pass the ballot question that allowed a state land bank so all Adirondack communities to repair and improve infrastructure near roads, for example, on state land without legislative approval. Proposition 3 passed in November 2017. Brighton Supervisor Peter Shrope said he understood the priorities of the AATV: Selling Camp Gabriels will benefit the region immediately around it while passing Proposition 3 benefited the entire Adirondack Park.

There is general support for selling the prison property. Shrope noted that in 2016, resolutions in support of its sale were passed by the Franklin County legislature, and the towns of Dickinson, Constable, Duane and Santa Clara. Shrope said the Adirondack Council and “several other green groups” also support the related amendment to the state Constitution.

After 1897, the property was owned by the Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg and served as a tuberculosis sanitarium run by the Sisters of Mercy. In the early 1960s Paul Smith’s College purchased the facility and converted it to a site for its forestry program, which included dormitories.

“These transactions were possible [without state approval],” said Shrope, “because the property had always been privately owned.”

The state of New York purchased Camp Gabriels from the college in 1982. The state added to the 129-acre parcel and used it as a minimum-security prison. The entire property became part of the Adirondack Park even though the developed portion of it had not been managed as forest since its purchase by the Catholic diocese in the late 19th century.

According to the Brighton supervisor, the various owners of 737 State Route 86 have added several brick-and-mortar buildings, a large septic system, a generator “the size of a small locomotive” and a deep well that produces abundant fresh water.

“All of our hydrants in the town are dry,” Shrope said. “They are hooked up to pipes that go into nearby rivers and streams. Now our fire engines can fill up at the Camp Gabriels well.”

Would-be visitors to the site are met with signs at the entrance that discourage trespassing and warn of surveillance cameras. The Paul-Smiths-Gabriels Volunteer Fire Department recently unintentionally verified that these cameras are in working order and being monitored nearly a decade after the 300-inmate prison’s closing. As Shrope tells the story — related to him by town Councilman Steve Tucker, who is a volunteer fireman — the fire department asked permission to fill up the tanks at the camp well, but the request did not get all the way to the state Department of State. Within 20 minutes, two state trooper vehicles arrived to ask the startled firemen what they were doing on the property.

Shrope is not aware of any environmental voices that are calling for the parcel to remain under state ownership and part of the park. “Nobody has come forward,” he said, “wanting to send it back to a natural state. The consensus is that it is a great facility that could be used for something. Camp Gabriels affects everyone north of Keene because it could be used for many things.”

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