Jones says selling Camp Gabriels is a priority

State Assemblyman Billy Jones, second from left, talks about the future of the former Camp Gabriels prison with, from left, Brighton town Councilman Brian McDonnell, Duane town Supervisor Edward “Ned” LeMieux, Duane town Clerk Sue Nitto and Franklin town Supervisor Art Willman. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

GABRIELS — State Assemblyman Billy Jones met with a few local leaders Friday morning to discuss, among other things, the future of Camp Gabriels, a former state prison.

Sitting in the Packbasket Diner, a quarter-mile from the abandoned facility, Jones (D-Chateaugay) said he is working to pass a constitutional amendment through the Assembly that would let the state sell or lease the property to a public or private buyer.

The property is arguably in the state Forest Preserve and therefore cannot be sold. This has vexed local government leaders, who want to fill the facility.

Green energy and micro-brewing are two ideas discussed at the Packbasket Diner, as well as a home health services location, meat processing plant or county substation.

The property has open space dorms, six wells, an outdoor cooler and freezer, a chapel and shrine, and sewage and wastewater treatment plants.

An aerial view of Camp Gabriels in 2010. (Photo provided — New York State)

Town leaders excitedly talked about selling the facility to Franklin County for $1 and turning it into a substation for services in the southern end of the county. The main district attorney’s office, sheriff’s department and bus garage are all housed in Malone, and though the DA has a satellite office in Tupper Lake, the town officials wanted to make sure their portion of the county is well-serviced.

The amendment, which has a companion bill introduced by state Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) to the state Senate, would alter Article 14, the “forever wild” clause of the state constitution. It makes the claim that Camp Gabriels “was not intended to be included in the forest preserve.” It points to the 92-acre property’s deed, which deems the land “not suitable for state Forest Preserve,” as it contains 48 structures.

First used as a tuberculosis treatment sanatorium by the Sisters of Mercy nuns in 1897, the camp changed hands and purposes several times over the years: geriatric care after World War II, classroom and dormitory space for Paul Smith’s College in the ’60s and ’70s, and from 1982 to 2009, a state minimum-security correctional facility.

When the state Corrections department acquired the property in 1982, it consisted of approximately 221 acres and included 19 buildings, according to the amendment. The next year, Corrections transferred 129.2 acres of that land to the Forest Preserve.

After the prison was closed in 2009, the state Office of General Services twice tried sell the property at auction in 2011, unsuccessfully. In 2014 the land was sold for $166,000 to Rockland County resident Adam Fine, to be used as a boy’s summer camp for Orthodox Jews, but the deal never closed. The property is currently assessed at $750,000, according to county records, but the near-sale shows the state would sell it for much less than its assessed value.

The gates to Camp Gabriels are locked in May 2016. (Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)

“The longer it sits there, the bigger investment it will take,” Franklin town Supervisor Art Willman said.

Jones said selling Camp Gabriels is a priority for him, adding that he understands local leaders’ desire to put the facility to use. For the past four years he has an empty prison facility of his own in Chateaugay, one he worked at for 20 years as a corrections officer.

Before voters statewide can decide whether to pass the constitutional amendment to sever Camp Gabriels from the Forest Preserve, it would need to pass through two consecutive legislatures. It made it through this year, and next year when the legislature turns over it will have its second chance. The amendment is currently waiting on acting state Attorney General Barbara Underwood to give her opinion on its constitutionality.

Any revenue generated from the selling or leasing of the property will be put into a state account for Forest Preserve acquisitions. This amendment was proposed in 2016 but failed to get final state legislative approval.

Jones also mentioned that he wants to propose legislation that would ensure that when the state shutters a facility, there is a required plan for the property’s future use.