CANTON – A plan that called for 10 communities along the St. Lawrence River to earn a Scenic Areas of Statewide Significance designation has begun to unravel because some officials are concerned it could result in unwanted land conservation and create a restrictive business climate.
Three municipalities recently opted out of the plan – the village of Alexandria Bay and the towns of Morristown and Orleans – and the town of Alexandria has signaled it probably will follow suit. The other six municipalities still included in the plan are the town of Hammond – which has led the effort – the village and town of Cape Vincent, the village and town of Clayton and the village of Morristown.
Officials who support the SASS designation, meanwhile, contend it would enhance the region’s reputation for tourism, help yield grants for economic development and land conservation and prevent developers from building large industrial structures, such as wind turbines and smokestacks, that would detract from the region’s scenic character.
The final draft report of the Thousand Islands Regional Assessment needed to achieve the SASS designation, released this month, already will have to undergo major revisions because it doesn’t account for Orleans no longer being in the proposed SASS district. The Orleans Town Council voted unanimously to drop out of the plan on Feb. 12 – the same week the report was released. The move followed a two-year study by a Massachusetts consulting firm that was funded by a $75,000 state grant. That process has included the creation of a project advisory board and steering committee, a handful of public meetings and an online visual survey.
As a result of Orleans’s decision, a large swath of land in the town will have to be removed from the 156-square-mile proposed area, with 52 miles along the St. Lawrence River, in the draft report.
The report was developed based on the participation of eight municipalities that included Orleans.
The town of Morristown and village of Alexandria Bay aren’t included in the proposal because their decisions to opt out were made earlier in the year.
Orleans Town Supervisor Kevin C. Rarick said that although he has been criticized by some officials for the decision made by the board – arguing the decision was made hastily – he believes the move was made in the town’s best interest. He said board members researched an incomplete version of the report before the final draft version was released, and they concluded it could spur unwanted land conservation that would take land off the tax roll, increasing residential property taxes. He cited the fact that the designation could be used to support grant applications made by land-conservation groups.
“I’m all for land conservation, but in Orleans we already have Wellesley Island and Grass Point state parks, the Thousand Islands Bridge, DEC properties and Perch Lake that all are all tax-exempt,” Mr. Rarick said Thursday. “How much more do we need? That’s where I have an issue with it.”
He added that town residents who have expressed concerns at public meetings have been overwhelmingly opposed to the SASS designation, which they’ve perceived as “another form of red tape.” In effect, the SASS designation would require developers who propose projects that require state or federal permits, or grant funding, to complete a visual-impact assessment reviewed by the state Department of State.
“We’ve had business owners and residents come in and state: ‘Why do I need another form of review? It’s hard enough to make a living as it is,’” he said.
Mr. Rarick said he was told by another town supervisor in support of the SASS designation – whom he declined to name – that Orleans made a mistake by opting out of the SASS plan too soon. An informational hearing on the report is tentatively scheduled for April 13, at a location to be determined in Cape Vincent.
“I was told by one of the supervisors that we messed it up for everyone else … we were in the dead center (of the proposed district) and right in the middle of the river,” Mr. Rarick said. “But our board has done a lot of homework, and I just don’t understand why people think this is going to be a magic bullet that will make things go away. I think this is just going to make the water more murky.”
Alexandria Town Supervisor Dale D. Hunneyman, like Mr. Rarick, said he is concerned that the plan could spur too much unwanted land conservation. He said the Thousand Islands Land Trust already owns about 45 parcels in the town – totaling about $1 million in assessed value – that have tax-exempt status.
“There’s a reason why TILT has such an interest in the SASS program, and I think it would open up the door for them to get easier grants for buying land in the town. … That affects our tax rate, and the taxes have to go on other people’s backs,” Mr. Hunneyman said.
Unlike other officials leading the effort, he said he would support the development of wind projects in the region due to their economic impact in generating property taxes. An online visual survey for the SASS report conducted last summer, however, found that people overwhelmingly felt that wind turbines detract from the area’s scenic character. More than 600 respondents participated in the survey.
Mr. Hunneyman said the Alexandria Town Council initially decided to opt out of the SASS plan in December, but that decision was rescinded by the board in January. He said the board decided to wait until all the information in the report was published before making a final decision, but he believes the board will ultimately decide to drop out.
“Our board members haven’t really seen any benefit for the town of Alexandria in the plan,” he said. “We’re keeping our options open, but right now we’re not seeing many benefits.”
Ronald G. Thompson, owner of Uncle Sam Boat Tours in Alexandria Bay, said he is opposed to the additional layer of review that the Department of State would require under the SASS designation.
“I don’t believe that the pros outweigh the cons,” he said. “What I have to look at is, do I want the Department of State to have more of a say than they already do? It’s pretty cut-and-dried from a business person’s perspective. … We want to promote tourism, economic development and get grants, but there are other ways to achieve those three things other than using SASS.”
For their part, Clayton Town Supervisor Justin A. Taylor and Cape Vincent Town Supervisor Urban C. Hirschey said they support the SASS designation and don’t believe board members would vote to opt out of the plan. Mr. Taylor said an additional review process for projects that could affect the scenic character of the region would be valuable.
“It’s a tool to preclude any type of wind development in the SASS district, or if there were a major industrial development such as a power production or nuclear plant with big towers and cranes,” Mr. Taylor said. “I’m suggesting that it would certainly be desirable to have a higher level of review to see if there would be a better location for such significant industrial development.”
Of the same mind, Mr. Hirschey said that large-scale industrial projects that would involve a long-term change in the scenic character of the land “probably deserve a more thorough review, rather than a quick judgment. … We have a lot of beauty, and we want to conserve it rather than destroy it.”
Hammond Town Supervisor Ronald W. Bertram, the lead agent of the SASS project, said that while more municipalities could decide to opt out of the SASS plan, he hopes they will reconsider after reviewing the full assessment report.
“A couple of them are saying they want to opt out because this is going to stop development, but I didn’t go into this project to bring the region down on people from the state,” Mr. Bertram said. “But I think there is some distrust about the state, and I think that’s where this is coming from. I thought this would be a great program to recognize the Thousand Islands and give us bragging rights, because there are only two of these SASS districts elsewhere in the state. … My idea is that if we all work on this designation, we can make it a regional issue and all work to promote our region.”
He contended the potential negative impact on business development has been overblown by some officials.
“I don’t see this as blocking any kind of normal development we have here,” he said. “If you don’t need a federal or state permit, it doesn’t get reviewed anyway.”
Clifford P. Schneider, a Wellesley Island resident and former Cape Vincent town councilman who is a volunteer coordinator for the SASS project, said opposition among some officials has been largely due to an “underlying mistrust” of the state government. He said he believes concerns have been exaggerated.
“I think what’s happened is it has gotten beyond just dealing with SASS,” he said. “Some people have been playing to the fears of heavy-handed government, but SASS isn’t the poster child for big, bad government.”
Morristown Town Supervisor Frank L. Putman did not return a call Thursday seeking comment.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding