Hurley can't keep NYC from buying more watershed land

The Ashokan Reservoir, looking towards West Hurley. Photo by Flickr user Nick Stenning.

File under: Wishful Thinking. According to a couple of stories in the Daily Freeman – one this Wednesday, one a week ago – the town of Hurley is considering banning New York City from buying any more land in the town.

The catch? The town doesn't have the legal power to do that.

From Wednesday's story:

The Town Board is reviewing an option to ban the New York City Department of Environmental Protection from making further land acquisitions in the town.

Hurley supervisor Gary Bellows, who's quoted in the Freeman story, wants to put an end to city land purchases in the town.

“Why are we okaying the DEP to buy more land in town, so they can turn around and sue us to lower their assessed value on it?” Bellows told the Watershed Post.

The town and the DEP are currently duking it out in court over the valuation of a few thousand acres of Hurley land that the city owns and pays taxes on. Hurley says the land is worth $177 million; the city says it's worth $40 million. The case is expected to go to court in June, the Freeman reported.

But while Bellows may not like having the DEP as his town's biggest taxpayer, towns in the watershed don't have the legal right to prevent landowners and the DEP from making real estate deals, except in what are known as “designated hamlet areas.” The hamlets are core neighborhoods within the town, carved out of the city's land acquisition program during hard-fought negotiations in the 1990s between the city, the state, federal regulators, upstate watershed towns, and environmental organizations.

Within the town of Hurley, the hamlet of Glenford is such an area, set aside by the 1997 watershed agreement. The town is free to ban the city from acquiring land in this area. To do that, the town will have to schedule a public meeting to discuss the ban, and alert all landowners within the hamlet by mail.

It may sound like a technical distinction, but there's a big difference between towns and hamlets. The town of Hurley spans 30 square miles of land; the 150-acre hamlet of Glenford takes up less than one percent of that area.

When pressed on the issue, Bellows admitted that blocking the city from acquiring more land in Hurley wasn't an option under current state law.

“You can't say that they can't have any land. Not entirely,” he said.

But he hasn't given up on the idea of looking for ways to keep the city out.

“My position is that I would like to stop New York City from acquiring land within the town of Hurley,” he said. “There may be other avenues that the town can pursue.” He declined to elaborate.

The Freeman also reported that the Coalition of Watershed Towns (a group formed to negotiate with the city on behalf of its member towns) has stated that banning further land acquisition is one of three choices the town can make regarding the city's land acquisition program. That's true – but again, only in the hamlet of Glenford.

Last year, with many of its member towns fed up with battling the city in court over land values, the CWT got New York City to agree to change the way its watershed land is valued. A water supply permit granted to the city by the state Department of Environmental Conservation last December spells out the new tax plan, which provides a standard method for valuing watershed land, and sets up a mediation forum for resolving disputes. The CWT hopes that the plan will save towns money by keeping land valuation disputes out of court.

The tax plan is voluntary for towns in the watershed. Bellows said he thinks Hurley will win the current dispute in court, and that he has no interest in the new tax plan.

“If the board members want to bring that up, and have Hurley take advantage of it, we will be able to do that at any time. But the town council believes we're headed in the right direction the way we're going now,” he said.

Dennis Lucas, supervisor of the town of Hunter and the chairman of the CWT, said that if the leaders of Hurley would rather go to court than use the new tax scheme, that's their prerogative.

“I'm not the governor of the watershed,” he joked. “If a town wants to strike out on their own, they can.”

Note: In the initial version of this story, we goofed and mistyped the Hurley supervisor's name as "Greg," not Gary. It's fixed now. Clearly the Karma Fairy is after us for criticizing another media outlet on accuracy.