Does Hamilton County have a future?

I gave a talk last night at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, one of the most popular destinations in Hamilton County.

The conversation circled around the question of what the “next” Adirondack Park will look like, in an era when the pipeline of dollars from Albany is contracting and the environmental debate is shifting.

The audience had a lot of great questions, and a lot of them focused on the basic question of survivability:  Can a place like Hamilton County continue to exist in some recognizable form?

First a little context:  Hamilton County is a massive, wild beautiful place, with more than 1,800 square miles of terrain.

Folded within those mountain and river valleys — as of the 2007 census estimate– were just over 5,000 year-round residents.  The 2010 survey now underway may find that the population has dropped below that 5,000 threshold.

It’s astonishing really.  A region as big as some European countries, with roughly the population of Saranac Lake.

Communities like Blue Mountain Lake, Long Lake and Indian Lake have struggled, losing their year-round grocery stores and seeing an erosion of their year-round population.

Schools have closed.

Currently, the main cash economy in these communities is local government:  local residents tax the state forest preserve, and second homeowners, and translate those dollars into public-sector jobs.

That formula never resulted in much growth.  And as subsidies from Albany shrink, the future is even more cloudy.

Going forward, the challenges as I see them are three-fold:

1.  These are among the most remote communities in the Northeast, meaning it’s difficult to attract permanent year-round businesses and residents.

2.  The hamlets of Hamilton County are so small that they lack many of the amenities (a year-round nightlife, ready access to broadband internet access, shopping options, etc.) that many Americans want.

3.  The impact of the forest preserve and shrinking stewardship dollars for public land clearly has an impact on the county’s economic future.

So what do you think?  What can the Adirondack Park’s most remote “micro” communities do to reinvent themselves and survive?

And should the state and Federal governments contribute resources to trying to spark a renaissance there — or are those increasingly scarce development dollars better spent elsewhere?

25 Comments on “Does Hamilton County have a future?”

  1. Paul says:

    “3. The impact of the forest preserve and shrinking stewardship dollars for public land clearly has an impact on the county’s economic future.”

    Brian, this is a complex “challenge”. What do you mean by this? What is the impact of the forest preserve, positive or negative?

    The “shrinking stewardship dollars for public land”. Again what do you mean? If the answer above is positive than this is a bad thing, if it is negative than it is a positive development for the county.

    Do the folks you spoke with in Blue Mt. Lake think that additional forest preserve land in their county is a positive factor? Do some think that a transfer of public land to private use might have a positive impact economically. It would certainly increase the tax base that they are reliant on. The amounts of tax that the state pays on land in the county pales in comparison to private land.

  2. Bret4207 says:

    Define “survive” Brian. I grew up within the Park and lived there till 15 years ago. I saw the wave of the future in Cuomos “21st Century Bond Act” which thankfully failed. It’s all about aesthetics, just like your recent post about the “looks” of all those towns you went through. At one time Mussolinis Italy looked like heaven to many in America caught in the Great Depression. Looks can be deceiving. What I think the downstaters and limousine liberal crowd want and what the year round Adirondackers want are two different things. I don’t see Hamilton County “surviving” if by that you mean flourishing. I see it continuing in a slow decline, driving the young folks away through lack of jobs and opportunity. Eventually it’ll be retirees, a few lawyers, museum curators and others with good paying jobs and a core service industry to meet their needs. I don’t think there will be much else.

    And no, I don’t have a realistic answer to fixing it either. Pumping more taxpayer dollars into an area where the deck is stacked against development is nuts. All you do is create a welfare state.

  3. bob says:

    Paul: You said “The amounts of tax that the state pays on land in the county pales in comparison to private land.”

    Do you have real numbers? I am not challenging you, just would like to know more. I thought a large parcel the state bought a few years back in my town tax went up. I think it had a forestry tax break on it. Just wondering.

  4. mary says:

    Land in the private sector does not always yield the biggest revenue to support services we need. Consider the large tracts being put into 480A status.

  5. Brian Mann says:

    Bob – The state doesn’t do forest practices tax discounts. In theory, they pull full value — though some critics argue that they undervalue their holdings.

    The other value to local governments of these public land tax payments is that the local governments don’t have to do much – few services are needed, etc.

    Brian, NCPR

  6. bob says:

    I meant the private owner has tax breaks for forestry, I think the state is paying more in taxes.

  7. bob says:

    Paul said it “pales in comparison to private land”, meaning its significantly less. Paul seems to know more about it and thought he or someone can provide actual numbers to add to the conversation. Thanks.

  8. Paul says:

    Bob,

    Yes, in many cases you are correct and the tax payments will increase when timberland goes from 480a (the tax reduction program) to Forest Preserve. What I am talking about is over the long term. Developed land is assessed at a much higher value than undeveloped forest preserve land. Just look at any Adirondacks town tax roll and compare the value of an acre of developed waterfront verses an acre of forest preserve waterfront. All the numbers you need are just a click away. Brian is also correct that on Forest Preserve land the town does not have to provide as much service as they do on private developed land. They do still need to maintain town roads etc. The best alternative for a town when it comes to undeveloped land would be private undeveloped land that is not under 480a. That is actually quite a bit of land if you look at some towns tax rolls. The notion that we can somehow help an Adirondack county by placing its land in the Forest Preserve seems counter productive. Some Forest Preserve is a good idea since it helps the tourist economy but how anyone can argue that a place like Hamilton County needs any more makes no sense to me. If it adding more Forest Preserve Land is some part of an effort to “save” the county I think they better re-think the plan.

  9. Mateo says:

    Paul – You said : “The amounts of tax that the state pays on land in the county pales in comparison to private land.”

    You are now spinning it like a professional politician (what business are you in – you may have a different calling). When you say “comparison” what are you comparing -the shore of Long Pond in the St Regis canoe area with the shore of Mirror Lake?

    There are still parcels getting 480 (not 480 a) meaning they’ve not been developed in the last 36 years, and not likely going to be developed anytime soon. “What I am talking about is over the long term.” How long are you looking 100 years? I am afraid Hamilton Co may have no residents by then. Hamilton County still has a lot of undeveloped private land.

  10. Mary says:

    If pristine shorelines and access is what the people of NYS want then it needs to be paid for. Why not require registration of all watercraft. And reconsider tax rates on state parcels?

  11. mervel says:

    Well there are vast counties in South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska that are slowly shrinking and have for several generations with even smaller populations and even less services than Hamilton county; should governments prop these counties to ensure a specific population?

    The peak of Mount Marcy does not have any people living on it either, should we worry about that?

  12. Bob says:

    Mary – what is the tax rate for state parcels? Does it need reconsidered?

  13. Mary says:

    It is clear it is taxed at a lower rate than an identical piece of private land. Perhaps itshould be equal or maybe even taxed at a higher rate than private parcels. allI’m saying is if the people want it then it has to be paid for. And just assuming that if it was returned to private ownership does not mean it will generate development from a private holder.

  14. Paul says:

    Bob,
    Here are some examples that seem to point to a problem for me:

    A 175 acre Forest Preserve Parcel on the Madawaska Flow in Franklin county the state owns this and pays a whopping 292 dollars in town taxes.
    How much do you think you or I would be paying if we owned this 175 acre waterfront parcel?

    Here is a 2600 acre parcel of pristine river frontage, the state pays 3,200 bucks in taxes. Or all of 81 cents per acre.

    Here is another good one a 0.5 acre island, I bet that is beautiful property. It is assessed at 12,000 dollars and the state pays 60 bucks in taxes.

    What a joke. If these towns think these are good deals they are nuts!

    I am not suggesting that the state should be paying more I just think that someone else should be paying this, and be paying some more realistic amounts. The state can’t even afford these bills. If a group like the Nature Conservancy wants to buy up and protect a whole bunch of land in Hamilton county then let them pay the taxes. If that requires us to change NYS tax law so that not-for-profits involved in land preservation are required to pay taxes than do it. Just like timber companies and other owners of large tracts they will realize they need to log the land to pay the taxes. That is good for the economy of the county.

  15. Paul says:

    Mateo,

    This is not “spin”. Who am I “spinning” for, I have no stake in this?

  16. Chuck says:

    I own 150 vacant acres in St Lawrence county with river frontage. My taxes this year were about $1500.

  17. Mary says:

    logging is not the economin engine it use to be. One reason is canada’s gov’t subsidy to its loggers and another is because of mechanization a logging job that use to take 30 men now takes 5. same with road construction. Jobs that use to take 50 now have a crew consisting of the owner his wife their 3 kids and their wives.

  18. Solidago says:

    Of course Hamilton County has a future! It just might not involve a lot of year round residents. What’s the problem with that? Like mervel, I question the assumption that there is some target population number that matches the area’s economic carrying capacity. People move when they feel they’d be better off elsewhere. I did, and pretty much everyone else does too.

    That said, I think decent cell coverage, through which you can get broadband internet access, certainly would improve things for residents and visitors. I know I’m a good 2 hours away from decent cell coverage.

    Although I don’t think government revenue is really the issue here, I think it is nuts that in this day and age hunters and fishermen are the only groups that have to pay fees to take advantage of the state’s resources. Paddlers, hikers, birders et al need to start helping to foot the bill.

  19. George Nagle says:

    Brian, you say that the environmental debate is shifting. Would you expand on this, and relate it to the possible future of Hamilton County?

    One well known environmentalist is quoted as saying that with decreased state spending there will be a greater role for local governments. I’m not sure that is true for those park issues of statewide concern.

    Who else is defining, or shifting, the environmental conversation?

  20. mervel says:

    Yeah I agree with salidago. All over the country particularly in the West large rural areas are shrinking in population and have been for the past 30 years as farming and ranching require fewer human beings etc. it is just life, things change.

    But there is always a future it might just be different. Hamilton County should take advantage of its natural attributes and yes get fair market price including charging for recreational use and fair tax rates. My uncles in South Dakota have turned a good portion of their range land over to hunting now, it is not a total replacement and my cousins largely had to leave, but things change we can’t control these forces we can simply adjust to them.

  21. Bret4207 says:

    “Although I don’t think government revenue is really the issue here, I think it is nuts that in this day and age hunters and fishermen are the only groups that have to pay fees to take advantage of the state’s resources. Paddlers, hikers, birders et al need to start helping to foot the bill.”

    Darn straight!

  22. Pete Klein says:

    I wouldn’t worry too much about Hamilton County. The people and their elected officials are a decent lot and are pretty good at surviving. Will it grow? Probably not. If you look at the population levels over the past 100 years, they bounce around the 5,000 mark. The main change has been in the age of the average resident. Yes, many of the young move out for economic reasons and are replaced by retirees who probably see this as a cheap place to retire.
    Why is it so difficult to keep a grocery store open year-round in Indian Lake? Most of the answer can be found in shopping habits. Many Indian Lake residents have gotten into the habit of going down to Glens Falls once a week for shopping, eating out and going to movies.
    Like the old country song, “A Country Boy Can Survive,” so will it be with the year-round residents of Hamilton County, the best damn county in the Adirondacks.

  23. Rational and Logical says:

    Finally you have raised an issue that is at the forefront of the socio-economic problems facing the Adirondacks, and that is will the communities continue to exist? There needs to be wholesale changes made if Hamilton County and the communities within in it are to be sustained and hopefully even flourish. The fact that “Solidago” openly states no problem with the loss of year-round residents is alarming and elitist in the worst sense. These narrow-minded, single issue, environmentalists need to wake up. The communities are dying and that is very sad.

    Lets bring people back to the Park, re-energize the hamlets, actually recruit business and jobs into the Park and redirect preserve acquisition funds to community development initiatives that work to restore THE most threatened and endangered species in the Park…the year-round resident.

  24. TiSentinel65 says:

    Hamilton county is sufferung the same withering on the vine effect as all other towns under jurisdiction of the APA. These people wrote the book on how to destroy the local economies of the Adirondacks. Many that staff the APA are the same type of elitists that staff the Nature Conservancy, Adirondack Council etc. The one thing they all like is increasing the forest preserve by acres every year, even though they could hardly manage a kindergarten class. If we want vibrant economies and towns again we need to cut the APA from jurisdiction of private land and return it to the elected officials and citizens of the park. When this happens, the APA will be able to concentrate on the forest preserve. The people will be able to determine what is best for their towns. I also would hate for us to put a price tag on a walk in the woods or a canoe or camping trip. I paid over $1600 dollars for life time licenses last year. I am dead set against more money for DEC and more land to the forest preserve. I however beleive we should not charge people just to go into the woods. Are we a free Adirondacks?, or are we going to become an exclusive club for the elite? The people who have family here, who have relatives buried here who have lived here for generations are tired of the fly by nights who think they have all the answers for this land. Those who want more government controlls should try North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba or any other communist nation that has complete controll over their lives and land. I for one like the Adirondacks and beleive those of us who have lived here our entire lives know what’s best for us. The rest of you trouble makers go back to where you came from. You are not welcome.

  25. Ole Joe says:

    Amen, to TiSentinal65……..

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