CHAZY LAKE - Owners of two camps on state land on Chazy Lake have until Sept. 1 to remove their buildings, or they will face serious fines from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
One camp is owned by Sally Cummings Belden of Fort Edward, and the other is the property of Terry Ryan of Syracuse, Tim Ryan of Memphis, Tenn. and Thomas Ryan of Harriman, Tenn. The camps are located at the end of Winfred King Road on the southeastern shoreline of Chazy Lake in Clinton County.
They were originally built with permission from the Department of Correctional Services, which managed this piece of state land until the mid-1960s. DOCS took timber from the land to produce firewood for Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security state prison in the village of Dannemora that's still in use.
The modest Belden camp, built a century ago on state land with permission from the Clinton prison warden, is located right on the Chazy Lake shoreline, a few hundred feet from a house on private land.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
The DEC took over jurisdiction of the land about four decades ago and, a few years after that, began internal discussions about having the structures removed. But the DEC took little action until August 2009, when it opened an enforcement case against the Ryans and Belden.
On Nov. 30, 2010, the two camp owners agreed to sign an "order on consent" with the DEC, after their attorney was unsuccessful in having the enforcement case dismissed.
Had the camp owners lost their case, the Ryans would have faced a potential fine of $100,000, with $90,000 of that suspended provided that the Ryans removed their camp within 30 days of a decision. Belden faced a fine of $5,000, with $4,500 of it suspended if the camps were removed from the property within 30 days of a decision.
After agreeing to settle, the Ryans and Belden were instead required to pay a fine of $500 by Jan. 15, which they did. An additional fine of $10,000 has been suspended as long as the camp owners remove their houses and other structures from the state land, returning it to its natural state. The camp owners also have to provide the state with an irrevocable letter of credit to ensure the structures are removed.
A long history
The camps became an issue in 1966, when DOCS transferred jurisdiction of 1,141 acres - including the land under the Ryan and Belden camps - to the DEC.
Three years later, DEC staff began working on moving the Ryan and Belden camps off the land, including interviewing the Ryans at their home that December.
When the structures were built more than 100 years ago, DOCS was in charge of the land. Unlike other state forest lands in the Adirondack Park, these aren't in the Forest Preserve. Lands in the town of Dannemora were exempted by the state Constitution from being in the Forest Preserve because they were once logged by the prison, and logging is prohibited in the Forest Preserve.
The camps were built with the permission of the warden. There is documentation that the Ryans have owned their camp since 1950 and that it was built by previous owners in 1907. The Ryans own a two-story house with porches, a shed, an outhouse and a dock.
In an undated letter to former Gov. David Paterson, Belden wrote that her great-grandfather and some friends built their camp before there were roads to it. Around the late 1920s, her great-grandfather bought out the other shareholders and became sole owner, she said. It was then passed down from generation to generation.
"The history of camp starts around the turn of the century - before World War (I), television, computers, modern medicine, satellites, the Depression, Recession or four-wheel drive," Belden wrote Paterson in a letter.
During their years of ownership, the Ryans and Beldens have paid taxes on the structures but not the land, since it is owned by the state.
No land swap
Attempts by the Enterprise to contact the Beldens and Ryans were unsuccessful, but their lawyer, Dick Brickwedde, said he was trying have the case dismissed to buy his clients more time.
"Had we won on our motion to dismiss the proceeding, they would have had to proceed in state Supreme Court," said Brickwedde, who is based in Syracuse. "That would have bought us more time to hopefully (let us deal with) a more favorable administration."
Brickwedde said his clients were hoping to buy land and swap it with the state in exchange for the property underneath and surrounding their camps and outlying structures. He said former DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis was against such a deal.
"These circumstances are not terribly unusual, and in the past the state has engaged in land exchanges," said Brickwedde, a former DEC attorney. "It would have to be done with legislative enactment, and for whatever reason the DEC rejected it."
DEC Associate Attorney Scott Abrahamson told the Enterprise that his agency did consider a land swap but didn't think the Ryans and Beldens could pull it off in a timely manner, if at all.
"We didn't dismiss it out of hand, but it appeared clear that the land swap was not going to happen anytime soon," Abrahamson said. "It's isolated shoreline, and staff here weren't confident that the Beldens and Ryans had the wherewithal to find land of greater or even equal value to what they would be getting in return. There was also a feeling that it was another method of delaying the inevitable on their behalf. The search for a replacement property would have dragged on for perhaps another decade or so in their attempt to find something, so there wasn't a tremendous amount of confidence that they could pull off a land swap."
A sensitive situation
DEC internal memos show that its officials wanted to move the camps off the land years ago but proceeded cautiously.
"Over the years we've tried to deal with the landowners in a cooperative fashion, in probably an amicable or friendly fashion as opposed to just be heavy handed and telling them they have to be out the next day," Abrahamson said. "These tend to be really difficult cases because they involve people with places that are special to them or they've usually stayed in summer for years. They are emotional cases and difficult."
A 1976 letter from DEC Region 5 Director William Petty to DEC Commissioner Peter Berle portrayed the difficult nature of the situation.
"I am informed that both Mrs. Thomas Cummings and Mr. and Mrs. Emmett Ryan are in their seventies," Petty wrote. "This could become a very sensitive issue if we force them to remove these camps.
"If legally possible, we should consider granting life use for the use of these camps."
Because of the sensitive nature of the situation and because the Ryans received political backing from several elected state officials, there was no movement on the issue for years.
The DEC did sign an agreement with the Ryans in 1989, allowing them to retain use of the structures for 10 more years, but after the agreement was up, the Ryans remained on the properties without any penalties.
The Belden situation is less clear. There is less documentation, and Belden, in her letter to Paterson, wrote that the DEC didn't contact her family between 1970 and 1994.
Belden's letter states that her uncle, Myron Cummings, communicated with the DEC in 1970, asking that "an early solution would be appreciated."
"In 1994, almost 24 years later, we were approached and told that we must 'terminate our illegal occupancy,'" Belden wrote. "I have difficulty with that time frame and respectfully object to New York State's lack of action."
Eventually, after failed negotiations, in August 2009 the DEC commenced enforcement actions to have the camps removed.
That drew the attention of at least one lawmaker. About a month later, state Sen. David Valesky wrote a letter to Grannis requesting a deal be struck for the Ryans and Belden. Valesky is a Democrat from Oneida, in the Syracuse area where both Brickwedde and one of the camp owners, Terry Ryan, live full-time.
"Both the Ryan and Belden family would like to keep their camps on land, owned by the state of New York, which have been occupied by the families for generations," Valesky wrote. "During the years, they have been given permission by the state to build a road to the camp sites and the families have also continued to pay property taxes and insurance on these properties.
"Now, the DEC is asking both of these families to vacate the property, demolish the camps and return the land to the condition acceptable by New York State. After years of private investment this request seems unrealistic and I would encourage DEC to work with these families to find a way to either transfer the properties to the Ryan and Belden families or come to Memorandum of Understanding with both families."
Belden, in her letter to Paterson, expressed why she wanted to remain on the property. She described how her "great grandfather and some friends, with the permission of the Warden of the Dannemora State Prison, got together and picked out the most perfect spot on Chazy Lake to build a hunting camp.
"Trying to explain to someone how important this camp is to me and my family is like trying to explain what makes the world turn round," Belden wrote.
Contact Mike Lynch at 518-891-2600 ext. 28 or firstname.lastname@example.org.