Protect the Adirondacks has reviewed the options for the future of the Camp Gabriels complex, a former state prison in the Town of Brighton in Franklin County in the northern Adirondack Park. The site is located between Saranac Lake and Paul Smith’s just outside of Gabriels. The land that the prison complex was built upon is Forest Preserve, protected under NYS Constitution Article 14, Section 1. The prison complex was part of a state purchase in 1982 of over 224 acres. This facility has been dormant since 2009 when the state closed the prison camp.
This article is the third of five that looks at Article 14 amendments in general, the three amendments currently being organized, and the hangover from the NYCO amendment in 2013. The first article outlined the history of Article 14 amendments in recent decades. The second article in this series will focus on the Mt. Van Hoevenberg Olympic Winter Sports Complex managed by the Olympic Regional Development Authority. The fourth will focus on Hamilton County’s plans to try and place an emergency communications tower on Cathead Mountain, which while the mountain summit is privately owned it is surrounded by Forest Preserve that would need to be accessed for power lines and a motor vehicle road. All of these amendments are in the early stages of development. A fifth will look at the passage of the NYCO amendment, which raised serious questions about public accountability.
Several efforts have been made to transfer the former state prison from state ownership. Initially, the Office of General Services (OGS) sought to sell the former prison through a public auction and two different auctions were held. Protect the Adirondacks, and other organizations, raised questions about the constitutionality of such a sale because we believed that all state-owned lands inside the Adirondack Park Blue Line are Forest Preserve. Justifiable concerns by potential buyers about acquiring clear title prevented the sale of the property through a state auction. The only way that Forest Preserve can be removed from public ownership, even if it’s land beneath a former state prison, is through an amendment to Article 14, Section 1. The need for an amendment in order to transfer the former Camp Gabriels complex is now fully recognized by all parties.
Various legislation proposing to amend Article 14, Section 1 for Camp Gabriels has been introduced in recent legislative sessions but failed to move through both chambers. The main weakness of these proposals was that they failed to comply with historic precedent for Article 14 amendments in two key ways. First, an Article 14, Section 1 amendment should be a remedy of last resort that resolves a clear problem and provides a clear public benefit. Second, an Article 14, Section 1 amendment should be consistent with past amendments, written as either a land swap or a use amendment.
The Problem and Public Benefit Tests
The problem with the Camp Gabriels site that is forcing an amendment is that the former prison campus/buildings need to be removed from the Forest Preserve in order to protect and uphold the integrity of the Forever Wild provision. Given the level of development on this tract it is simply not feasible to remove all the buildings and infrastructure and remediate the site and return it a natural state. Such a project would run into the millions of dollars, and perhaps tens of millions, and it’s unlikely that the State of New York would ever commit to a remediation project at this scale. Letting the site decay also raises serious long-term environmental issues.
The developed lands of the Camp Gabriels complex are not high value public land, like lakeshore or a mountain summit or a unique ecological area. This tract borders a major road on its south side and a major utility corridor on its east side. There are private residences to the west. Over 132 acres of the original 224-acre+/- parcel purchased by the state in 1982 has been classified as Wild Forest and is set to remain in the Forest Preserve. Unlike the developed areas, these Wild Forest areas contain high value public lands, including access to extensive shoreline on Jones Pond.
Across the Adirondack Park there are many state facilities, such as Department of Transportation maintenance complexes, stations for the State Police, and office complexes for the Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency (APA), among others. There are also three state prison complexes and one extensive mental health facility. These lands are all classified as “State Administrative” under the Adirondack Park Agency Act and Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. According to the latest data from the APA there are 2,028 acres of State Administrative lands among the 2,595,802 acres of Forest Preserve in the Adirondack Park.
Camp Gabriels will not be the last state facility in the Adirondacks that is shuttered. Protect the Adirondacks believes it’s important to set the precedent that these lands are Forest Preserve and may only be removed from the Forest Preserve through an amendment to Article 14, Section 1, when they are no longer deemed necessary for state use. We believe that when possible, these lands should be restored to a natural state and reclassified as Wild Forest or another such classification. When this is cost prohibitive, or when the former facilities could serve a new public benefit purpose, these lands and all associated buildings and development, should be removed from the Forest Preserve, in exchange for newly purchased wildlands to compensate for the loss.
Protect the Adirondacks believes that there is no option other than an amendment to Article 14 to resolve this situation and remove the Camp Gabriels complex from the Forest Preserve. We believe the facts around Camp Gabriels satisfy the “Problem” test.
Beyond upholding the forever wild values of Article 14, Section 1, by removing these buildings from the public Forest Preserve, and beyond affirming the principle that all State lands in the Adirondack Park are Forest Preserve, the main benefit to the public from removing the Camp Gabriels complex from the Forest Preserve is that there is strong local interest and support for potentially utilizing the complex to pursue a series of local public benefit projects. These include:
- Camp Gabriels has an excellent water system and well. The Town of Brighton has a number of road-salt contaminated residences along state roads in that area who rely on bottled water for drinking. The Town would like to create a water district that could service these impaired residences.
- There is interest regionally is using the site to create a volunteer fire company training facility. There is no such facility within the Adirondack Park.
- There is interest by the State Police in using the facility as a training center (with no outdoor shooting range).
- Local community development NGOs, working with Franklin County, look to use the property for possible business incubator space, start-up space, and maker space.
- Local community development NGOs, working with Franklin County, look to use the property for possible affordable housing.
- Local community development NGOs, working with Franklin County, look to use the property for possible workforce housing.
- Other NGOs, working with Franklin County, look to use the property for possible summer intern housing.
The complex could provide attractive off-campus housing for Paul Smith’s College students.
- Other NGOs, working with Franklin County, look to use the property for possible NGO office space.
The above list is not a complete list of the local aspirations for the site by any stretch. There are other ideas in the greater Tri-Lakes community for this complex. Protect the Adirondacks believes that the Camp Gabriels complex, if successfully removed from the Forest Preserve and transferred to Franklin County, which would work closely with local towns, will meet the “public benefit” test, if suitable replacement land is simultaneously added to the Forest Preserve. While there is no one overriding imperative that is driving the future use of the property, we’re confident that in county ownership, working in partnership with local community organizations, a viable plan can be organized for this property where a variety of public benefits can be pursued.
It’s also important to note that the State of New York has not been successful at facilitating re-use of former state prisons across the state. We think that transferring the Camp Gabriels facility to an interested local partner is one viable option. Protect the Adirondacks believes that it is reasonable for the Legislature to require a plan for the future use of the Camp Gabriels property by Franklin County at the time of Legislative approval after approval by NYS residents in a statewide vote. Positive action with First Passage in 2020 will greatly assist local efforts to seek grants for the property to begin planning.
Protect the Adirondacks has assessed this issue and finds that the only viable option to resolve this problem is through an amendment to Article 14, Section 1.
Consistency with Past Article 14, Section 1 Amendments Test
An assessment of the Camp Gabriels tract by Protect the Adirondacks finds that the full 92 acres currently classified as part of the complex should not be part of a constitutional amendment, but that there could be a viable amendment that removes 57 acres+/- containing the prison complex of 40 buildings, parking lots, roads, baseball field, water system, major electrical generator system, etc., and all associated lands. The other 35 acres+/- should remain in the Forest Preserve and presumably be reclassified as Wild Forest similar to the surrounding Forest Preserve lands.
Protect the Adirondacks believes that an Article 14, Section 1, amendment for Camp Gabriels should be organized as a “land swap” amendment where the Forest Preserve, and the People of the State of New York, are compensated through the acquisition of other lands in the Adirondack Park for the Forest Preserve. We propose that the State of New York commit to purchase at least 300 acres of land for the Forest Preserve within the Adirondack Park as a condition of the removal of Camp Gabriels from the Forest Preserve. By organizing an amendment for Camp Gabriels as a “land swap” amendment, this proposal would conform with past practices.
Proposed Article 14, Section 1, Amendment Conceptual Language for Camp Gabriels
Given all of our concerns detailed in the foregoing, Protect the Adirondacks would be prepared to support an amendment of Article 14, Section 1, to resolve the Camp Gabriels issue, organized similarly to the following:
Notwithstanding the foregoing provisions, and subject to legislative approval prior to actual transfer of title, the state may convey to Franklin County 57 acres, and all buildings and associated infrastructure, of the former Camp Gabriels state prison in the Town of Brighton, Franklin County, for the benefit of local communities. As a condition of the transfer of Camp Gabriels, the state shall acquire three hundred acres of land for incorporation into the forest preserve, on condition that the legislature shall approve such lands to be added to the forest preserve.
Protect the Adirondacks believes that all draft amendments to Article 14, Section 1, should be accompanied by enabling legislation that codifies how an amendment will be managed and operationalized. Enabling legislation for a Camp Gabriels amendment should require legislative approval of a plan for the future use of the property by Franklin County prior to transfer; legislative approval of the metes and bounds of the 57 acres to be removed from the Forest Preserve around Camp Gabriels and for the new lands of at least 300 acres to be added to the Forest Preserve in the Adirondack Park.
The political calendar makes action on a proposed amendment to the State Constitution advantageous in 2020. If First Passage is approved by the Legislature in 2020, then Second Passage could be approved in 2021, followed by a vote by the People of the State of New York in November 2021. If First Passage is delayed until 2021, then Second Passage and a vote of the People will not be available until 2023 at the earliest. This would significantly delay the resolution of major problems facing the Forest Preserve and Adirondack communities.
An amendment to Article 14, Section 1 is the only viable way forward for the former state prison at Camp Gabriels. Protect the Adirondacks is committed to working with all parties to make this happen.