Open Space or the Ramapo Real Estate Company?
In the spring of this year, the Town of Ramapo sent out a four-page newsletter hailing, among other things, the Town’s Open Space initiative. In a section called "ask the supervisor," a single question was posed, "Why does the Town of Ramapo seem like the only municipality in Rockland to be acquiring large amounts of open space?" As part of the answer, the Supervisor made the following claim, "All of our purchases have been officially designated as parkland." The claim, if true, is important because it is the way local governments have of keeping this kind of public property from being sold and developed in the future.
In July, Preserve Ramapo submitted a Freedom of Information request for all the properties purchased by the Town and the specific dates on which each property was dedicated as parkland. This is what was returned:
That question posed by the publicist, "Why does the Town of Ramapo seem like the only municipality in Rockland to be acquiring large amounts of open space?" suddenly got very loud. Out of the entire list, only one of the properties was formally dedicated, and that was a gift back in 1977. And it took the Town almost 30 years to get around to dedicating even that single plot. The other document returned in the FOIL request was a copy of Town Resolution No. 2003—597, which formally dedicated the Mitch Miller property "as a Town park. . . [and] that the park thus established is thereby impressed with a public trust and its use for other than park purposes will require specific approval of the State Legislature." Translation: the 150 acres are locked up and cannot be sold by the current or future Town administrations to a developer, to an entrepreneur, or to anyone without the legal OK from the State. But what about the 23 others?
When questioned about this, the town clerk said the Mitch Miller resolution was the only one in the records but that the attorney said that properties could become parkland by something called "designated use," and that the principle was defined in New York case law.
The next logical question was to ask for the citation from New York State case law that the attorney was referring to, and Mr. Samson agreed to ask for us.
When the request was repeated about a week later, the second response was that the Clerk’s Office was not obliged to do legal research; they only had to provide copies of documents. The door closed with that conversation.
So there was one dedicated parkland and 23 others were "protected" by the nebulous claim of the Town attorney that using land as a park will prevent the future sale of the property.
Something seemed wrong. If the case law was that clear, and the attorney was that confident that it would protect $24 million of the public’s money, wouldn’t the citation be familiar enough to easily recall or cite? Why couldn’t the public be given that information? And why was the Mitch Miller property formally dedicated by resolution in 2003 if it was already being used as parkland for almost 30 years?
Getting an Answer
A call to Robert Freeman of New York’s Open Government Commission verified the clerk’s claim—they don’t have to give you the information you requested about the law, only the documents not the explanation.
Next was the Project Manager of the Trust for Public Land. His advice was to refer the question to a law firm that does environmental law.
There we finally got some results. We were referred to a case that included an explanation of how you dedicate parkland in New York State. Unfortunately, it also produced a number of new questions. The case involved a decision by the Supreme Court of New York concerning a beach dedicated as a park.
The explanation of how land becomes dedicated parkland includes the following from the case:
"A dedication is generally defined as the devotion of property to a public use by an unequivocal act of the owner, manifesting an intention that it shall be accepted and used presently or in the future. The intention of the owner to dedicate and acceptance thereof by the public are the essential elements of a complete dedication. Thus it is vital to a dedication of property to public use that it is to be forever and irrevocable after acceptance, and that it be for a public use."
The municipality goes through a process to dedicate the land:
"To complete the dedication process, it is necessary that there be an acceptance of a proffered dedication. The rule that there must be an acceptance to complete a dedication has been applied in connection with a dedication of land by the state to a city for park purposes. On the other hand, when a formal dedication of a street is made by the state or by a municipality, no acceptance is necessary."
This describes the process followed in the Mitch Miller resolution, which was presented at a public meeting of the Ramapo Town Board on Oct. 15, 2003.
Now we get to the part that seems to relate to the "designated use" claim by the Ramapo town attorney.
"There are various ways in which acceptance by the public may be established. In addition to acceptance shown by express act, there may be an implied acceptance arising from acts of a municipality or its officers and also from use by the public for the purposes for which the property was dedicated. Acceptance is found in the actions of a municipality or governmental unit which is done on behalf of the public in making improvements to and maintaining the particular facility."
Sorry for all the legalese, but since we couldn’t get a straight answer from the Town, this was necessary.
So it seems to get the second half of the requirement, the acceptance from the public "may be proved by long public use, or by the positive acts of the public authorities in recognizing and adopting" the public space.
But then when you start taking a closer look at the use of these parklands other questions arise about the validity of this roundabout process. For instance, the most recent Journal News item about open space appeared in last Friday’s paper (Aug. 31). It describes how the Pine Brook Road property has been leased to a private organization, the Rudolph Steiner Foundation, to be used as pasture for some of its farm animals. Without any public notification or acceptance, does this truly constitute public use? And if the primary use is by a private group, how will that ever "prove long public use"? Why not just take two minutes out of an upcoming Town Board meeting and formally protect this property irrevocably from any future disposition or sale—dedicate it formally and on record.
There are a number of serious questions about this whole process, including:
> What case law is the Town relying on to protect the Open Space purchases?
> Having paid $24 million for these properties, does the public have a right to know what law is being applied?
> Have any recent court decisions modified or invalidated any part of that law, making parklands dedicated in this way more vulnerable?
> Why was Mitch Miller dedicated in a formal, public declaration and not the others?
> Does the St. Lawrence administration have any plans for these parcels other than to keep them as publicly owned parklands?
> Would an eventuality such a tax crisis, toward which, incidentally, we seem to be heading, cause any of these properties to be disposed of to reduce taxes or cut the red ink flowing from some of them such as the Equestrian Center?
And again, there’s the painfully obvious question: Why doesn’t the Supervisor just take a few minutes out of a future Board meeting to once and for all dedicate all of these properties formally? The total text for the Mitch Miller resolution was just over 200 words. On more than one occasion in the past, St. Lawrence has interrupted a meeting to wax eloquent about someone’s birthday or some other trivial matter, wasting at least 200 words while trying polish his own public persona—are public lands that need permanent protection from development worth at least as much time?
Finally, a vague or general reassurance from the Supervisor will not be enough in a matter as important as this. Remember, Christopher St. Lawrence has for the last few years reassured all of us that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with our sewer system. Last month he called the system a modern marvel in a Community View in the Journal News, and on one of his recent cablecasts, he claimed it was perfect. He is a Sewer Commissioner so he knows better, especially in the face of the fines from the DEC and a Consent Order from the State that has recently outlined $50,000,000 in repairs that have to be made beginning immediately. Perfect? His Master Plan claimed downzoning in Monsey would have minimal impact on traffic on Route 59. Route 59 is now rated F by the Department of Transportation. His Master Plan would not overtax our water supply either. Yet, Dr. Daniel Miller of the Board of Health testified before the State last fall that United Water could not supply sufficient water for our population. We will soon be drinking prohibitively expensive water drawn from the Hudson River because of St. Lawrence’s foresight. We have inherited enough grief from this Board and Supervisor, and the political platitudes no longer serve anyone.
Christopher St. Lawrence is not a friend of environmentalists. He is a proven friend of expanding development, so we want know "Why does the Town of Ramapo seem like the only municipality in Rockland to be acquiring large amounts of open space?" Is it the screen behind which St. Lawrence can continue with his land giveaways to special interests and favored developers? Is it just more incompetence as when he is imitating a civil engineer or hydrologist? Or is there something even more sinister going on?