Adirondack Museum threatens lawsuit against North Elba over Placid property
Says assessor axed tax-exempt status, dropped assessment to aid eminent domain
LAKE PLACID — The Adirondack Historical Association, which runs the Adirondack Experience museum on Blue Mountain Lake, has threatened to sue the town of North Elba in state Supreme Court.
The threat comes as the village of Lake Placid moves forward with its intention to use eminent domain to acquire two Main Street parcels from the association, on which to build a public parking garage.
David Kahn, the museum’s executive director, informed North Elba’s Board of Assessment Review of this threat Tuesday afternoon at the museum’s grievance hearing. Also present were town Assessor Todd Anthony and Board of Assessment Review members Pat Gallagher and Gary Lawrence. The board’s third member, former Lake Placid Mayor Jamie Rogers, was absent.
Kahn said the museum would sue to reverse the removal of its tax-exempt status by Anthony. The museum believes Anthony was influenced by Mayor Craig Randall and other village officials to not only remove the museum’s tax-exempt status but also this year to drop the assessed value of the 0.35-acre property from $1.18 million to $850,000, a cost more in line with what the village wants to pay.
Anthony insists there is no legitimate reason for the property to remain tax-exempt now that it will not house a branch of the museum, as was intended a decade ago. As for the assessment reduction, he says that’s part of a town-wide revaluation.
The museum has faced local friction throughout its Lake Placid experiment. It intended to build a satellite branch in 2007 when it bought the property from the Adirondack Church of the Nazarene. It demolished the church and manse and planned to construct a glass, wood and stone building with a 64-foot timber tower, designed by David Childs, who also designed One World Trade Center next to the destroyed World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. The state pledged $1 million, although that later fell through. Local review board members pushed back against the architecture, but the museum finally got its local permit after an arduous eight-month review.
Then in June 2008, the museum announced it had suspended the plan. The reasons it cited were the lengthy permitting processes, a neighbor’s lawsuit over that permit, increased construction costs, fundraising difficulties, a strained economy and the potential effects of high gas prices on museum visitation. Even now the museum maintains that it is open to revisiting the idea of creating a Main Street visitor center.
The village plans to build a 250-car garage on Main Street by combining this museum property at 2476 and 2478 Main St. with the village’s adjacent, two-tiered parking lot across from NBT Bank. For years, many residents have pressured the village to provide more parking downtown.
At the eminent domain hearing March 13, village engineer Ivan Zdrahal presented the renderings of the proposed garage and said the village would gain 80 to 90 parking spaces with it.
During the tense hearing Tuesday, Kahn read from a prepared statement while sitting next to Anthony.
If the Adirondack Experience sues, Kahn read aloud, “Mr. Anthony will be deposed under oath to explain exactly what happened in the course of his discussions with village officials prior to taking action with respect to the museum’s property.”
Kahn added that the museum has decided not to sue over the recent drop in assessment of its two parcels by 24 percent. He said museum officials believe the eminent domain proceedings will result in a price closer to what it wants.
At the March hearing, Kahn said independent auditors valued the property as an asset to the museum worth $1.49 million. The museum bought it for $1.34 million. Kahn added that the museum offered the village the land for $1.2 million at a Jan. 18 meeting with the mayor and some village trustees. Kahn also claims that was the last correspondence the museum had with the village about a possible sale before he read of the ensuing eminent domain hearing in a Feb. 22 Enterprise article. The village disputes this claim and says a letter advising them was sent out prior.
The museum claims Anthony revoked the tax exemption and reduced the assessed value the day after the eminent domain hearing. They claim the timing is an obvious indication of collusion between him and village officials.
Speaking Wednesday morning, Randall said the museum’s claims are “absolutely untrue,” saying he and the village has had no interaction with Anthony with regards to the drop in assessement and property tax change.
Anthony said he sent the museum an exemption removal notice in early March and a change of assessment notice earlier this month. Speaking Friday in his office at the North Elba Town Hall, he explained the timing.
He said he needed to wait until March 1, the state’s date for declaring taxable statuses and the beginning of its assessment cycle. He also said the museum’s assessment changed in the wake of the March eminent domain hearing due to the timing of the state’s yearly assessment cycle. May 1 is when the new year’s tentative roll is issued, and July 1 is when the final roll is adopted.
“If (my) whole timeline was six months prior, no one would have anything to say about the optics,” he said. “March 1 is not the day I walked out there and decided to do all of this. March 1 was the final nail in the coffin. I’ve gathered my facts. It’s not an exempt use.”
Anthony, who is in his third year as the town’s assessor, said he waited until this year to reassess the museum due to an overwhelming number of cases in his first two years. There are more than 8,100 parcels in the village and town.
“I came in and I tried not to make too many waves my first year,” he said.
This year, he said, he’s working on a full revaluation of all parcels by 2018, and reviewing exemptions is part of that.
“It’s an inappropriate exemption,” he said. “We could have found a more proper one if a museum was going there, but 10 years later, it hasn’t happened. My ability to just look past it has been breached. I mean, I can’t. And I have a responsibility to the town to tax what’s taxable so the rest of the town’s bill is appropriate.”
Anthony said Friday that the removal of the tax-exempt status and the drop in assessment is not unique. He said the prior assessor, Kim Daby, issued many exemptions that Anthony ultimately deemed weren’t accurate. Anthony said that in his first year on the job he removed 197 “aged,” inappropriate exemptions.
According to Essex County property records, 374 parcels in the village and town changed in price from 2016 to 2017: 231 parcels increased in value at an average of $227,951 while 104 parcels decreased in value at an average of $104,344.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Lawrence asked Kahn directly if he thinks “there is something going on between the assessor and the mayor or the village?”
“We do,” Kahn replied.
“There is stuff going on behind the scenes here,” Kahn later added. “And for better or for worse, Mr. Anthony here has basically told the press that, yes, he had been talking to village officials about our situation.”
“Well, I guess the courts will have that, if it goes that far,” Lawrence replied.
Kahn refers to an April 21 Albany Times Union article that reported Anthony said he had discussions with village leaders about the status of the property.
Speaking Friday, Anthony denied that notion.
“No,” he said. “I don’t work for the village. I don’t want a parking garage there. You could fit all the people that support eminent domain for that thing in a Yugo.
“You’ve got a small handful of people that think that’s a good idea,” he added, “and I’m certainly not working for (the village) on it.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, Anthony asked Kahn three times to read and identify an exemption he felt the property is due. Kahn declined each time.
“We have made it available,” Kahn said of the lot, “to nonprofit and for-profit organizations at no charge. There is interpretative signage on the property that serves hundreds of students in Lake Placid and Essex County each year, so we are doing a lot.”
“If you don’t mind,” Anthony asked a few moments later, could I impose upon you just to read — there are only two exemptions available. I’ll show you the one that you had. I’d just implore you to read it.”
“Why did this happen now?” Kahn retorted.
“Because it’s become ugly and obvious,” Anthony said.
“Yeah, but the village asked you to do it, right?” Kahn replied.
“No,” Anthony said.
“Who are you kidding?” Kahn said. “Nobody’s going to believe that. No judge is going to believe that. You are going to be in front of a judge.”
“My words to Craig Randall were, what’s up with eminent domain?” Anthony said. “I think eminent domain — well, I probably shouldn’t provide that opinion, but I don’t think that’s a very wise thing.”
“Between you and I,” Lawrence told Kahn later as the hearing concluded, “I really do think that (the Board of Assessment Review is) getting involved here with something that could be a bit of a problem if we go either way on this, ’cause I’m sure that it may go to (a) bigger (forum), you know what I mean? I’m not saying what we are going to do. I’m just saying that it may, if we rule in favor of the assessor or should it remain the same.”