By FREDRIC U. DICKER State Editor
Last Updated: 11:08 AM, April 5, 2010
ALBANY — Gov. Paterson’s administration handed an enormously wealthy environmental group a staggering 57 percent profit on a large tract of wilderness land — even as property values collapsed across New York, a probe by The Post has found.
The little-noticed green giveaway of taxpayer cash occurred in October 2008, as the state Department of Environmental Conservation paid The Nature Conservancy nearly $10 million for 20,000 acres of Adirondack wilderness that the group purchased for $6.3 million just a few years earlier.
Official state records examined by The Post and statements by local officials show the purchase price was heavily inflated and relied on outdated appraisals from a year earlier, when real-estate values in New York and other parts of the nation were still skyrocketing.
GREEN FEES: Adirondack Park official Frederick Monroe said the state “grossly overpaid” The Nature Conservancy for 20,000 acres of upstate wilderness.
Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board Executive Director Frederick Monroe said the state “grossly overpaid” for the property.
“I’ve suspected there’s some sort of close relationship between the state and TNC that resulted in this price, because it didn’t reflect the true market value,” Monroe said.
The price paid for the land was also out of line with property values recorded at the state Office of Real Property Services. Records for Clinton County show a mere 14.4 percent increase in value for forest land from the time The Nature Conservancy bought the property in January 2005 to when it sold it to the state, for inclusion in the park, in October 2008.
Several county and town officials insisted the state paid far too high a price for the land.
“This price was not indicative of property values in the area generally,” said James Gonyo, Clinton County’s director of real property tax services.
“The price paid was higher than we would have assessed it at and, as a result, we will not use it as a valid sale on which to base assessments in the future.”
Saranac Councilman Jerry Delaney, in whose town the bulk of the land is located, called the sale “a horrible deal all the way around.
“Ten percent a year is a good return on land, but 57 percent in three years? I think it’s clear the state has a cozy relationship with The Nature Conservancy.”
Sources told The Post that Paterson — and former governors George Pataki and Eliot Spitzer, in office when the appraisals were conducted — viewed the conservancy as an influential organization whose support they wanted.
“Paterson, Spitzer and Pataki saw the ‘enviros’ as the good guys with lots of influential friends, and their view was, ‘If they can give them a few extra million dollars of public money, why not?’ ” said a prominent New York official, who has had contact with The Nature Conservancy.
Pataki selected prominent Manhattan lawyer Ira Millstein in 2004 — a year after he was named to a special Nature Conservancy advisory panel — to draft governance principles for state authorities.
The price paid to the preservation group also appears to contradict a pledge made by TNC when it acquired the heavily wooded land from Domtar, an international lumber and paper company.
A press release issued at the time said TNC promised to “hold the land on behalf of New York state” and quoted Pataki referring to the environmental group as a “partner” with the state.
The statement suggested to many that New York intended to reimburse TNC for the cost of acquisition, plus any expenses, once it had the funds to complete the purchase.
TNC, which has $6 billion in assets and employs 3,500 people, has an extremely close working relationship with the DEC and even has members of its staff working in the agency’s Albany headquarters as part of a natural heritage program.
Connie Prickett, a spokeswoman for TNC, said, “The question of why the state paid that much is a question that needs to be directed to the state.”
The practice appears to be continuing.
The Post has learned that a Paterson-administration plan to buy a large tract of land near the state-owned Belleayre Mountain in the Catskills is being blocked by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli out of concern that Albany is preparing to spend “millions more” than the property is worth, said a source.
DEC spokesman Yancy Roy conceded the 2008 crash of the national economy is a legitimate question,” but he insisted the wheels of state government just turn too slowly for the falling property values of the Adirondack land to have been addressed.
“Key elements of the transaction had occurred before then,” said Roy.
“The state process is much slower than, say, a private home sale. It takes months,” continued Roy. “The notion that the state wanted to ‘reward’ TNC is absurd.”