RAQUETTE LAKE - It's rare for an issue in the Adirondacks to have unanimous support of environmental groups, local governments and state lawmakers in Albany, but that's the case with Proposition 4, a constitutional amendment that will be on the Election Day ballot Tuesday.
Proposition 4, like any constitutional amendment, had to be approved by two separately elected state Legislatures and then submitted for voter approval statewide.
Those who endorse Proposition 4 include the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages, Adirondack Landowners Association, Hamilton County Board of Supervisors, Long Lake Town Council, Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club, Adirondack Wild, Protect the Adirondacks, the Open Space Institute, New York Snowmobilers Association, former Gov. George Pataki and the owners of the contested property, among others.
Raquette Lake property owner Jim Blanchard holds the deed, which dates back to 1896, to his contested property as he stands in front of one of the older structures he owns. He lives in a separate house on the land.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
If passed by voters, the proposition would amend Article 14, the "forever wild" section of the state constitution. The proposition aims to solve a land dispute between the state and private parties in Raquette Lake, a tiny community in rural Hamilton County, that goes back to the 1870s.
In Raquette Lake, 216 parcels consisting of about 1,034 acres have contested titles. The state claims the land is Forest Preserve while private entities, many of them with deeds, claim to own the land. These properties contain private homes, businesses, a school building, a town waste transfer station, a private marina and even a firehouse.
The proposed amendment would allow the Legislature to settle the dispute by working a deal between the state and the property owners. The Legislature would give up the state's claim to the properties in exchange for additional Forest Preserve that would be paid for by the private entities. Companion legislation that outlines the process was already passed in both houses this past summer.
It is widely expected that the state Department of Environmental Conservation would target the Marion River Carry as the property to add to the Forest Preserve, although the DEC has said it's premature to assume this will be the parcel. The canoe carry, which consists of 295 acres, has been coveted by environmentalists and paddlers who want to ensure that it remains open to the public. The land is currently owned by the Open Space Institute, which purchased it from Raquette Lake resident Dean Pohl earlier this year.
The Raquette Lake property owners would be expected to pay $2,000 each, plus an additional amount based on their property's assessment. The total expected to be raised is about $600,000. That money would be held by the town of Long Lake, which would use it to purchase the land.
"This is clearly, I would say, the best way to resolve the issues, given the fact that Article 14 and the constitution doesn't allow for resolution other than litigation or constitutional amendment," said Long Lake Supervisor Clark Seaman, whose town includes the hamlet of Raquette Lake. "Litigation is incredibly expensive for both parties, and this really does seem to be a win-win for all parties involved."
A long history
The contested land that is located on the shores of Raquette Lake was originally part of Township 40, which consisted of 24,000 acres and was part of the Totten and Crossfield Purchase in the 18th century. Back then, surveyors divided the Adirondacks into 50 areas, called townships, so land could be easily sold.
The state claims it purchased the properties from private owners in 19th-century tax sales and that they became part of the Adirondack Forest Preserve. Residents and the other parties have disputed that, saying they own their property legally. The attribute the title dispute to inadequate surveying, poor record keeping, clerical errors and lost documents. Many of the property owners hold deeds and note that a number of those tax sales that allowed the state to acquire property were ruled illegal by the courts.
The state made numerous attempts in the early 20th century to claim the lands as Forest Preserve. In some instances, they took residents to court, and other times, they tried to get them to sign over their property. Often, the property owners stood their ground.
"The defendants claim the right to the property they occupy by virtue of deeds obtained from the people who formerly occupied these several sites," stated a New York Times article from Nov. 15, 1903, about the state's effort to claim the land at the time. "They claim the state's title to the land, which was obtained by virtue of tax sales, is defective, in that the land was sold as non-resident land, when, as a matter of fact, it was owned and occupied by the defendants."
Today, the residents and state still each claim the land, but both agree the compromise that is outlined in Proposition 4 is the best solution.
Passing Proposition 4 would end this same debate that caused headaches for state workers and was traumatic at times for those living under the cloud of the title issue. Not having clear title has affected people's and organization's ability to make improvements to their structures, subdivide their lots and take out mortgages, among other things. Plus, residents have lived under the threat that someday the state Attorney General's Office would take them to court and try to take away property that they pay taxes on and has been in private hands for more than a century.
However, the property isn't treated as Forest Preserve by the state most of the time. Most of it is developed and off limits to the public because it is occupied by private homes or other structures. Even the state Adirondack Park Agency labels the contested lands as private on its land-use map.
Raquette Lake property owner Carolyn Gerdin has done a tremendous amount of research on the title dispute and has represented the property owners in many discussions with government officials and environmental groups. She said relations are now strong with state officials, but she acknowledges there have been problems in the past that have dragged this issue out over time.
Gerdin has experienced some of these problems firsthand. She said her father bought the family's property on Raquette Lake in 1950. At the time, he checked to see if the land had a legitimate title and believed it did. A former owner had even gotten permission to file deeds with the state in the 1930s. However, her dad also noticed the state considered the land to be contested.
"So he called DEC and he asked them what their attitude toward these occupancies was going to be, and they assured him ... that they were working on and expected to have an equitable solution imminently," Gerdin said. "That was 65 years ago this November."
Her family's contested title didn't become an issue until 20 years ago, when the family was subdividing the lot after her dad died. Gerdin said she got an APA permit for the subdivision and was in the process of getting permits for an underwater cable to bring electricity to the property, which is standard on the lake. That got the attention of the state, she said, and the question of her contested title was turned over to the Attorney General's Office.
"That's when I sat up, took notice and said, 'Oh, boy. We're in for it,' and I began to research our property and trace the deeds back," she said.
Although Gerdin's family was concerned about what the Attorney General's Office might do at the time, they haven't heard anything since about it.
"It's an emotional thing to go through this," said longtime Raquette Lake resident Jim Blanchard, who has been interviewed by the Enterprise numerous times in recent years. Blanchard lives full-time in Raquette Lake and has a deed to his property that goes back to 1896, yet the land is still contested.
Blanchard's family, which has lived on Raquette Lake for five generations, actually won a court case against the state to clear its title to another property on the lake in the 1950s. For the most part, residents have been successful when taking the state to court to clear their titles. Property owners have beaten the state in eight of 10 cases the Enterprise is aware of. Most of those were before the 1950s.
Despite this success rate, those interviewed by the Enterprise said they don't want to go to court because it's extremely time-consuming and expensive.
"What happened is that all the people that cleared their title were second home owners up here," Gerdin said, referring to early 20th-century lawsuits. "The poor guy that's been living up here since 1840, and there were some, were not the people who could afford these attorneys."
Neil Woodworth, an attorney and the executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, said the case history of the state losing is one reason that his organization would like this issue resolved through the constitutional amendment.
"I also looked at many of the rest of the claims, and frankly, the legal background on property titles to most of these properties is so twisted that I had little confidence that a state Supreme Court justice could unravel this, because of insufficient evidence," he said. "So (the constitutional amendment) seemed to be the best course, since the state was clearly not going to commit and force people off their properties even if it won the case. You know, we just don't do that in the 21st century."
The DEC is very guarded with what it says about the title issue because it is not allowed to take stances on constitutional amendments, but documents obtained by the Enterprise through the Freedom of Information Law show that it has been frustrated by this issue in the past.
One letter that expresses this sentiment was written by former DEC Region 5 Director Thomas Monroe on Sept. 18, 1990. Monroe acknowledges the "long-standing controversy" and said he dealt it with as far back as the 1960s.
"When I was an Assistant Forest Surveyor working out of the Northville Office in 1964 we had a question arise regarding a boundary in that township whereupon I head up with my survey crew to try and work it out," he wrote. "The next day the District Director of Lands & Forests Maynard Fisk intercepted me at the Northville office and inquired as to my activities and subsequently instructed me to cease and drop any further work in that township.
"It is my long standing belief that the Department and the residents of that area would be well served through having these title questions resolved."
He went on to say he was intrigued by the suggestion of a constitutional amendment to clear title on lands with structures occupying them.
Another letter, by former DEC land surveyor Kenneth Yousey in 1989, also described the situation as tough to deal with from a state worker's perspective.
"Township 40 appears to be an impossible situation," Yousey wrote. "We can only attempt to contain the problem until someone comes up with a solution to it."
Monroe's case of being pulled out of Raquette Lake wasn't the only time a state surveyor was told by a superior to alter their work plans there. Another time was in June 2004, when a DEC worker doing survey work put up Forest Preserve signs in people's backyards.
This actually came during a period when the property owners and state officials were in the early stages of starting to come up with a plan for solving the title dispute.
The signs didn't stay in the yards very long because residents phoned then-Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, who retired in 2012, to complain. Sayward, Sen. Betty Little and many Hamilton County officials have been supporters of Raquette Lake residents for years and have often lobbied on their behalf.
"I called the commissioner of DEC, and I said, 'Pull your boys back. Get them off this land," Sayward said, recalling the situation. "How are we ever going to resolve an issue if there's antagonism up there?"
Sayward said it turned out the surveyor wasn't trying to antagonize the residents but simply trying to do his job and wasn't aware of the complexity of the situation.
Still, those types of interactions made negotiations difficult at times. There was a lack of trust between the state and the locals.
"It's a feeling and reaction that took years ... to overcome, and worked both ways, quite frankly," Gerdin said. "We certainly had people at DEC who had very unpleasant experiences up there, and therefore were very leery of us, and the people up there, because they had had unpleasant experiences, were leery of the state. I do think one of the reasons it took so long is that it took a long time for people to get comfortable with one another."
The last 10 years also included one failed attempt to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2008. That deal, Gerdin said, was too costly for the property owners, among other things, and eventually fell through.
But now Gerdin said relations between the interested parties are much stronger, and the proposed deal is something that property owners can live with. She is hopeful the proposition will pass and the issue will be resolved, finally, after 140 years.
She said having this resolved will allow residents to sleep better at night knowing they don't have to worry that their land might one day be taken.
"You will have the confidence, you have the belief that you don't have to worry anymore that something that you would do or want to do is going to bring attention to your place and cause the state to sue you - or threaten to sue you, which is almost as bad," Gerdin said. "I think the number-one thing (will be) just the feeling of massive relief and peace. And that the right and just (action) has finally come around."