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Prison may be easier to sell without buildings

January 27, 2011
By NATHAN BROWN, Enterprise Staff Writer

PAUL SMITHS - The former Camp Gabriels is not in good shape.

Many of the 50 or so buildings leak or have problems with mold, several people who have been on the property said at a town meeting on the former prison's future Wednesday evening. The problems with the old buildings - some of which contain asbestos - have only gotten worse since the prison closed in summer 2009.

"The state didn't do us any favors by just closing everything up," said Brian McDonnell, who is on the reuse committee the town created in early 2010.

Article Photos

Brighton resident Bob Eckert, standing, leads a town meeting discussing ideas about the future of the former Camp Gabriels Wednesday evening at the Paul Smiths-Gabriels firehouse.
(Enterprise photo — Nathan Brown)

Bruce Sawyer, who worked at the prison for more than 26 years, said its water and sewer systems would have to be upgraded. He said the average winter electric bill was between $10,000 and $12,000, the boilers used 250 gallons of fuel a day in the summer, and for these and other reasons, it would be cost-prohibitive to run.

One takeaway from the meeting at the Paul Smiths-Gabriels firehouse is that the property could be easier to sell if the buildings on it were torn down. Chris Leifheit called the buildings "the elephant in the room."

"The buildings are the thing we seem to be stuck on," he said.

"Level the buildings, and plant trees," said Chris Woodward. "You're going to have a hell of a lot more value in that property than you've got now."

The state put the property up for auction last year, and a number of potential investors toured it. The minimum bid was $950,000; bidding closed in November with no bids.

Another takeaway is that the more than 40 people in the room, for the most part, opposed the town of Brighton's taking it over. Town Supervisor John Quenell sent a letter to a large number of town residents in the days before the meeting, inviting people to it and raising the possibility of the town's acquiring it at no cost.

Quenell said Wednesday night that he had "floated a concept" but that the town board had not seriously discussed taking over the property. He said the town would only acquire the camp under "very special circumstances."

"We're not going to burden the taxpayer any more than we already are," Quenell said.

Tracy Santagate said it would make no sense for the town to take on the expense of the camp, noting that the town hall is still vacant and being renovated.

"The cart is so far ahead of the horse, we can't even see the horse," Santagate said.

Leifheit said the camp is "not something we can deal with," and McDonnell said he would be opposed to the town doing anything other than trying to get property tax revenue from the property. Currently, the state is not paying any property taxes.

One idea, which most people in the room supported, is to change the property's classification so the state would pay taxes on it. It doesn't sound like this would be possible with the buildings on it, however, town Assessor Doug Tichenor said Thursday morning.

"Buildings owned by the state are exempt," Tichenor said. "It's no longer a prison, but it is owned by the state of New York."

Camp Gabriels would be worth $2.56 million at a 100 percent equalization rate; its current $2.2 million value is based on the town's equalization rate of 86 percent. Tichenor said he thinks the assessment is too high and plans to change it to about $995,000.

"If it sells, it will sell for that or less," he said.

At a $995,000 assessment, Tichenor said the property's total town, county and school tax bill would be about $25,000 yearly.

The state does pay taxes on its Forest Preserve property. Environmental advocate Dave Gibson said in a recent commentary on the Adirondack Almanack blog that, as state-owned property in a Forest Preserve county, Camp Gabriels is Forest Preserve by definition in the state Constitution and its sale would therefore require a constitutional amendment. The state is currently treating the land as surplus property, however, not as Forest Preserve.

A few people suggested finding a way to preserve the 100-year-old chapel even if the other buildings are torn down. The chapel was designed by the architect Isaac G. Perry, a Keeseville native who designed many well-known buildings throughout the state. Local historian Pat Willis suggested the chapel could be a historic museum and library for the town.

"We have no place to put artifacts now," Willis said.

The meeting started with a half-hour-long debate on how to run the meeting. It was advertised as a public hearing where town resident Bob Eckert would run a brainstorming session.

Eckert is CEO of New and Improved, a company that specializes in helping people explore problems and find solutions. His plan was to present data, then divide the attendees into groups that would discuss it, build off each other's ideas and come up with written proposals.

Town board members Lydia Wright and Peter Shrope objected to this format, saying they wanted more of a traditional public hearing, where people would voice their opinions to the entire audience.

"As a board member, I want to hear directly from all the people in the room what their thoughts are," Shrope said.

"I had no idea it was going to be this structured," Wright said. "I certainly didn't know this was what the venue was going to be."

Sheila Delarm, Eckert's wife, defended his proposed format, saying that the point was to stimulate ideas and that Shrope had endorsed that as the purpose when they discussed it on the telephone before.

"Shame on you for taking people down the path that there's a certain agenda for tonight," Delarm said.

Eckert did agree to run the meeting more like a public hearing, and the rest of it consisted of people speaking one by one.

A few people questioned the point of discussing the camp's future use - if the town isn't going to acquire it, then the state will decide whom to sell it to or if to sell it.

Delarm said she thought the town's residents should still discuss their ideas. She said people in the community would be upset if, down the road, the property were to be sold without their having the chance to voice their opinions.

"I'd rather get in front of it than have the state sell it to somebody that comes in," whose plans might not be compatible with the town's goals, she said.

Woodward said he thought it would be useful for town residents to brainstorm possible private uses they would like to see and use this to market the property. Shrope agreed and said that would be "step number two. This needed to happen first."

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Contact Nathan Brown at 891-2600 ext. 26 or nbrown@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.

 
 

 

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