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Go for it, Patriot Hills

December 9, 2010
Editorial by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Publisher Catherine Moore, Managing Editor Peter Crowley

It came out last week that Patriot Hills at Saranac Lake is looking at the Ampersand Bay Resort as its preferred site for a retreat and reintegration center for war veterans.

It would, without a moment's doubt, be a wonderful site for such a purpose. Set on beautiful Lower Saranac Lake, it offers an excellent balance between the refreshment of the outdoors and convenient proximity to the village. It's just a few minutes' walk or drive to downtown, but it's outside the bustle. There are various housing options in the Adirondack rustic style that many veterans would find relaxing. They could peacefully enjoy sitting on the shore or get out easily for all kinds of boating, including quick trips to the lake's numerous and lovely islands. It's very close to hiking and skiing hot spots; Dewey Mountain Recreation Center and Ampersand Mountain come to mind immediately.

The thought of Patriot Hills at Ampersand Bay reminds us of the Adirondack cure retreats of generations past, including another one specifically for veterans, the American Legion Mountain Camp on Big Tupper Lake.

Although we haven't heard anyone oppose Patriot Hills' noble goal, this news has sparked an interesting debate, in which local people are weighing the positive aspects of the move with concerns about a multimillion-dollar property leaving the town of Harrietstown's tax rolls. Patriot Hills, as a nonprofit group, would not necessarily have to pay taxes on this 28-acre property, unlike its current owner, Montgomery Court Inc.

There's a level at which it's none of our business and out of our control. If a willing private seller sells to a willing private buyer, one that happens to be a tax-exempt nonprofit group, that's just how it goes.

On the other hand, the only way Patriot Hills could buy this property would be with federal finds it doesn't have yet. That's public money, controlled by Congress members we elect, so we do have some cause and means to raise an alarm if we think the spending would be inappropriate.

But that's not the case here.

Sure, Patriot Hills may not win the grant; the federal government has plenty of other things to spend that money on. But it still wouldn't be wrong, or inappropriate, for the Defense Department to buy a property of this level of niceness - attractive lakefront, but not quite luxurious - as a place to help veterans heal the psychological wounds of war, or just transition from war zones to civilian life. We, as a nation, owe them that; they risked and sacrificed much for us.

This project also promises to revitalize the economy of Saranac Lake, which was originally built on curing tuberculosis and is ready for a new healing mission.

If, to serve this good cause, the town, county and school district had to give up Ampersand Bay's tax revenue, it would not be an crazy sacrifice.

The property's school tax is $34,280, and its Franklin County tax is $29,990, according to county records. The town tax, based on the 2011 rate, would be about $8,500.

Harrietstown assessed the Ampersand Bay property at $3.7 million this year, and that's what the current owner pays taxes on, even though it has inflated the asking price to an amazing $13.5 million. If Patriot Hills were to use federal funds to pay anywhere near that asking price, then yes, that would be a waste. But the tax roll would still only lose $3.7 million.

That's a substantial hole, but not a huge one. To put it in perspective, in 2009 the town's total property value dropped by $25 million just from landowners successfully challenging their assessments. Knollwood alone, also on Lower Saranac Lake, saw its assessment drop by $8.7 million.

This is all preliminary, of course, since we don't know if this deal will even work out. There are other sites. We agree with the Patriot Hills organizers that the former Camp Gabriels prison, suggested by many, would not be the right fit for such a use. But the American Management Association has been mentioned, and it might work well. Or maybe, if Trudeau Institute leaves, it could donate its lakefront property to the cause - a gesture, perhaps, to pay the community and federal government back for all they've done for it.

Nevertheless, the Ampersand Bay property sounds like the best option.

Patriot Hills leaders are also looking at a neighboring, non-waterfront property that is owned by John Zuliani and assessed at $399,700. They have mentioned the possibility of building a conference hotel - part of the Patriot Hills concept - on that undeveloped, 12.76-acre parcel. A hotel, unlike a retreat center, would be a commercial use that could be fully taxable. This might be the compromise that eases the bitterness some feel against tax-exempt property owners.



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