Raquette Lake residents relieved by Prop 4 passing

Many Raquette Lake property owners feel a sense of relief after Tuesday, when voters approved Proposition 4, a constitutional amendment that is intended to clear up a 140-year-old land dispute there.

“It’s a massive feeling of relief. It’s kind of like this huge weight has been lifted off your shoulders,” said Raquette Lake property owner Carolyn Gerdin, who has headed a citizens’ committee on the issue. “People have been emailing all day. Somebody said they had gone to bed last night, thinking maybe this is a dream, and I’ll wake up and it won’t be true. But they got up this morning, and it was true.”

In Raquette Lake, 216 parcels consisting of about 1,034 acres have contested titles. For more than a century, the state has claimed the land is Forest Preserve while private and public entities, many of them with deeds, claim to own the land. These properties contain homes, businesses, a school building, a town waste transfer station, a private marina and a firehouse.

Not having clear title has affected these property owners’ ability to make improvements to their structures, subdivide their lots and take out mortgages, among other things. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has also stopped construction work on contested properties in recent years. 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. In the past century, that has happened twice that the Enterprise was aware of. In eight other cases examined by the Enterprise, local residents won.

The state claims it purchased the properties from private owners in tax sales dating as far back as the 1870s, and that they became part of the Adirondack Forest Preserve when it was established shortly afterward. Residents and the other parties disputed that claim, saying they own their property legally. They 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 amendment will now allow the state Legislature to settle the dispute. It states that the Legislature can give up the state’s claim to the contested properties in exchange for additional Forest Preserve, which would be paid for by the public and private property owners. Companion legislation that outlines the process was passed in both houses this past summer.

Raquette Lake resident Jim Blanchard’s family has had property on the lake since just after the Civil War, and he now lives on it.

“It’s a relief to see this finally pass,” Blanchard said. “Obviously, we’re anxious to have this move ahead quickly and smoothly. You just never know. This is a huge step, and there’s going to be a few more to make sure it’s a done deal. Most of us that are getting older, we wanted this done in our lifetime, and thank God, it is now. It wasn’t easy. There’s a lot of players involved, and we feel very fortunate that we were able to pull together.”

Gerdin said some property owners were numb shortly after the vote while others were in tears.

“We had somebody write, who said she had trouble in the (voting) booth,” Gerdin said. “She was afraid she was going to break down when she saw it on the back of the ballot there. It’s so personal.

“A lot of people are saying that now their children and their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren, that they don’t even have yet, and everybody will be able to enjoy their places in peace.”

Raquette Lake native Tom Beckingham attended the elementary school, which is now a community center, and is a member of the fire department. Both are on contested land, as is his home.

“We’re tickled to death that the vote passed,” he said. “We’re very, very, very pleased that the people of New York, even though it’s an issue that’s pretty much local, voted positively for us.”

Getting to this point has been a long and arduous process. It’s taken years of negotiations that were started shortly after former Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward was elected in 2002. The negotiations in the following years included environmental groups, state and local officials, and Raquette Lake property owners.

“We are so grateful to everybody,” Gerdin said. “I mean, everybody’s hung in there: the legislators, DEC, the AG’s office, the county people, the town people, the environmental groups. … I think it’s a shining example of how agencies and government and people can work together for the good of everybody.”

Blanchard gave a lot of the credit for getting to this point to Gerdin, a retired elementary school principal who lives full-time in Albany but whose family has owned property on the lake since 1950.

“It would’ve never have happened without Carolyn Gerdin,” Blanchard said. “She did all the years of research. She was at every meeting. She just was there for everyone and did a lot of hands-on (work). She was our spokesperson. She negotiated a lot with the players without even the rest of us being there. We trusted her to do that and she did a great job.”

Other members of the citizens’ committee included Raquette Lake Navigation Company owner and Long Lake Councilman Dean Pohl, Burke’s Marina owner Michael Burke, Jim Colligan and Joe Gerdin.

Although the proposition passed, the landowners will have to wait before their titles are officially cleared. The owners will eventually be sent a letter by the DEC asking if they want to be a part of the deal. Those who opt in 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 and give it to the state. It is expected that the DEC will target the Marion River Carry, now owned by the Open Space Institute, to add to the Forest Preserve. Land owners get clear title for participating in the deal. Those who don’t participate will continue to have contested titles.

Gerdin said the process could take as long as two years, but she’s said that’s fine with her now that the issue has been resolved.

“I’ve really felt for these people since I’ve gotten involved with it,” Long Lake Supervisor Clark Seaman said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like. I’m a fifth-generation Adirondacker on my mother’s side, and I can’t imagine how it would feel to have the family home … having this clouded title and not knowing the uncertainty of it all for all of those years.”