Myth: The State of New York does not pay taxes on Forest Preserve or conservation easement lands that it owns.
Reality: The State of New York pays local property taxes on Forest Preserve lands it owns just like any other taxpayer. In 2011, it was estimated that combined town, county, school and special district taxes topped $75 million from the state for over 3.4 million acres of Forest Preserve and conservation easement lands in the Adirondack Park. Here is data from NYS Real Property Services organized by town-level data and county-level data.
The myth of the State of New York not paying taxes on state lands is an enduring myth in the Adirondack Park. At the June-July 2013 APA Forest Preserve classification hearings some speakers erroneously made this charge. Different state laws require property tax payments by the state for both Forest Preserve and conservation easements. The Real Property Tax Law defines most categories of state tax payments.
A lawsuit involving Forest Preserve land assessment brought by a town in the Catskills in the 1980s upheld the right of local assessors to establish valuation on Forest Preserve lands. NYS Real Property Services also provides assessment estimates for local municipalities for Forest Preserve lands, which are helpful to local assessors. Efforts by Governors George Pataki and David Paterson to reduce state property tax payments for the Forest Preserve and other state lands were opposed by the environmental community and local governments.
The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation establishes the value owned by the state in a state-held conservation easement. Both the state and private landowner pay taxes on easement lands according to the values each owns.
Other factors also effect the amount that municipalities within the Adirondack Park receive in tax payments. “Transition Assessments” have been triggered in various Adirondack communities according to a state formula. For instance, in 2011 it is estimated that the Town on Newcomb received over $1.4 million in transition assessments and the Newcomb Central School District nearly $1.8 million. Other towns have triggered transition assessments too, but none like Newcomb.
Another factor is Real Property Tax Law section 542, which is the “Additional Aggregate Assessment.” This action was enacted at the time of the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) Act to provide more tax payments to some Adirondack communities. This payment is based on formula of state Forest Preserve ownership and valuation in 1960. Implementation of Section 542 through the years has created winners and losers among local governments. The amounts received vary from town to town. Newcomb received (county, town, school, special district) nearly $1 million in 2011. Minerva over $2 million, North Elba over $300,000, and Schroon received $45,000. A number of Hamilton County towns do well with this payment: Arietta took in over $2 million in 2011; Benson over $800,000; Indian Lake over $775,000; Long Lake over $1.4 million; and Wells over $1.4 million. The Town of Webb is the Park’s biggest winner with nearly $3.4 million in Section 542; note that $1.7 of this went to Herkimer County.
Total Forest Preserve tax payments vary town by town, largely by acreage owned by the state. The transition assessments and additional aggregate assessments create widespread discrepancies. Amenities on Forest Preserve lands, such as shorelines, especially near developed properties, public road frontage, miles of state roads, etc., also effect the valuation/assessment and resulting tax payment.
In total, the Town of Webb topped $5 million in estimated combined taxes from the state in 2011 (though $2.6 million of that went to Herkimer County). Newcomb received $3.7 million, Arietta was not far behind at $3.6 million, Minerva $3.2 million, Long Lake $3.1 million, Indian Lake $2.8 million, Harrietstown $2.3 million, Santa Clara $2 million, and North Elba $1.9 million.
One last oddity of Forest Preserve tax payments is that some lands classified as Intensive Use areas under the State Land Master Plan are subject to taxes while others are not. For instance, the state pays taxes on Million Dollar Beach in Lake George, but not on Prospect Mountain. The state does not pay taxes on Whiteface or Gore Mountain Ski Areas. Across the Park, some state campgrounds are subject to local property tax payments, but most are not.
Here’s an explanation of the Real Property Tax Law Sections:
RPTL 532A: This the section of law that requires state payment of property taxes on Forest Preserve Lands.
RPTL 532B : This is the section of law for state lands in Altona and Dannemora (not including the Clinton Correctional Facility).
RPTL 533: This is the section of law requiring state tax payments for state-held conservation easements.
RPTL 534: This section of law governs state tax payments on state Reforestation Areas.
RPTL 536B: This section applies to lands in 19 towns, mostly in the Catskills, but does include the Town of Ellenburg (Clinton County).
RPTL 536C: This section applies to certain special school districts and towns, includes Dannemora and Saranac school districts.
RPTL 542: This is the aggregate additional assessment in which some towns, as identified around the enactment of the APA Act, were granted an additional payment by the state based on state ownership and total assessments in 1960.
RPTL 545: This section applies to the state “transition assessment” that is triggered by a variety of conditions. It has the impact of increasing the overall state tax payment.
ECL 15-2115: This is the section of law that provides for state payment of taxes on special river regulating districts.
Sources: NYS Real Property Services, NYS Real Property Tax Law.