hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues October 2016


Town may veto conservation deal

Plan to protect bird habitat clashes with dreams of growth, development


Contributing writer



Merrilyn Pulver-Moulthrop wants to conserve 180 acres of her farm as habitat for threatened bird species, but town officials may veto the deal because of concerns it could hinder a water system for future development. Joan K. Lentini photo

A retired farmer’s plan to conserve 180 acres of habitat for critically endangered grassland birds is in jeopardy after town officials suggested last month that they might use their veto power to block a pending sale of the land to the state.

Supporters say the conservation deal would be a key step in a long-running effort to conserve critical bird habitat in the Washington County Grasslands, a 13,000-acre swath of farm fields and open, grassy areas that extends through much of the county’s western side.

But at least three members of the Fort Edward Town Board raised concerns about the deal last month, saying they want to keep the land on the tax rolls -- and also keep it available to become part of a proposed public water district that would spur more development in the area. By law, the state Department of Environmental Conservation can’t make the purchase without the town government’s consent.

The land at issue in the pending conservation deal falls within a 2,000-acre area that is considered so vital to threatened grassland birds that the National Audubon Society designated it an “important bird area,” or IBA, in 1997. The IBA includes land in Fort Edward, Argyle and Kingsbury.

In recent years a local group, the Friends of the Washington County Grasslands IBA, has been working with willing landowners in an effort to protect land in the bird area from development.
“It’s critical to the survival of short-eared owls in New York state,” said Laurie Lafond, director of conservation and development for the Friends of the IBA. “These were once one of New York’s most common owls. Now there are less than 100 left in the state.”

The area, just east of the Champlain Canal, supports 10 of 11 grassland bird species that are considered in greatest need of conservation in New York. Bluebirds, bobolinks, meadowlarks, and other grassland birds feed and nest there, and snowy owls, harriers, hawks, falcons, and foxes hunt the small mammals that live in the open fields.

Merrilyn Pulver-Moulthrop, a former Fort Edward town supervisor, owns the land at issue in the pending sale and said she has been working for three years on a deal with the DEC. She and her late husband, David Pulver, bought the land in 1967 and ran a dairy farm there until the late 1990s.

“I want to see this come to fruition,” Pulver-Moulthrop said. “I’m 70 years old. I have reached the point where I need to plan for the future.”


Vanishing vista
Lafond said the grasslands originated about 10,000 years ago as the glaciers receded. Native Americans farmed the naturally open land and kept back trees that blanketed the rest of the region. Later, European settlers did the same, though they abandoned some land that proved too rocky or poor for their farming practices.

“Grasslands are the fastest disappearing habitat in the country due to forest regrowth and development,” Lafond said.

Pulver-Moulthrop described her land as “mostly open,” with only a few small wooded areas.
When she and her husband started farming there, “we realized there were a lot of birds in the area,” she said. “We’d see snowy owls and short-eared owls.”

While the dairy farm was active, the Pulvers grew corn. When the cows left, they switched to hay.
“The soil is heavy clay,” Pulver-Moulthrop said. “It’s most productive as hayfield.”

In 2002, the family put 94 acres into a 50-year conservation easement with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. That land is included in the 180 acres Pulver-Moulthrop wants to sell.

“It was the beginning of protecting wildlife habitat in the grasslands,” Pulver-Moulthrop said. “It allowed birds to nest and raise their young, and brought more birds in.”

The mission of the Friends of the IBA, a nonprofit land trust, is to conserve critical habitat for New York’s endangered, threatened, and at-risk grassland birds. The group owns 15 acres in the area and has a conservation easement on an adjacent 50-acre parcel. The state owns 268 acres, including 100 acres it bought from Pulver-Moulthrop in 2008. The new parcel would connect the state’s wildlife management area with the land owned by the Friends of the IBA.
“It’s part of the critical core area for birds,” Lafond said.


Covering a tax bill
The state generally does not pay taxes on land it owns as wildlife management areas, and the Town Board is concerned about losing that revenue if the state acquires the property.

Lafond said her organization worked with the Fort Edward assessor to determine that county, town and school taxes on the property come to about $3,800 annually.

“It’s all agricultural land with an agricultural exemption,” Lafond said. If the land became tax-exempt, taxes on the rest of the town would increase by an average of $1.69 per household, she said.

State Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury, introduced legislation this year to allow the state to make a payment equal to the lost taxes. Twenty-one other towns in the state have similar arrangements. The bill passed in the Senate, and Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, introduced a similar bill in the Assembly, but the session ended before it came to a vote. Woerner has pledged to re-introduce it.

Until the state bill is approved, the Friends of the IBA has offered to make an annual payment equal to the tax money.

But Town Board members expressed skepticism about that offer when they met last month. Pulver-Moulthrop offered to sign a promissory note committing her to make the payment if the Friends of the IBA doesn’t.

The group “is growing by leaps and bounds,” Pulver-Moulthrop said. “It certainly will have the resources to do a payment in lieu of taxes.”

Lafond said that based on conversations with landowners in town, her organization doesn’t believe most people care about the lost tax revenue.


Water to fuel development?
Members of the Town Board also raised questions about how the sale would affect a public water district they hope to create.

Wide-open, rolling farmland is usually prime land for development. A major reason that the grasslands area in Fort Edward is still open is the poor quality of the groundwater there. It’s high in minerals, smells and tastes bad, and destroys appliances.

Pulver-Moulthrop said developers have advised her that they wouldn’t touch her land unless municipal water lines were extended to the area.

The town draws its municipal water from reservoirs in Moreau, across the Hudson River, and distributes it to the village of Fort Edward and to the town’s Water District 2.

The town has proposed creating a Water District 3 to serve 96 parcels in the northeastern section of town. One of those parcels is a two-acre building lot in the land Pulver-Moulthrop wants to sell to the DEC.

According to minutes of the Town Board’s September meeting, several board members objected to the sale because it might jeopardize the water district. Councilman Terry Middleton said he would prefer to see the land developed.

Fort Edward Supervisor Mitchell Suprenant was out of town in late September and could not be reached for comment for this report. Town Clerk Aimee Mahoney said no one else at the town office was authorized to comment.

But protecting the area from development is the key goal of Friends of the IBA.
“Development would fragment the habitat,” Lafond said. “The town’s master plan favors open space.”

Pulver-Moulthrop, who oversaw development of Water District 2 while she was town supervisor, pointed out that “Water District 3 is only a proposal.”

“It would be a very heavy climb in this area,” she said. “There are a lot of miles and not a lot of houses.”

Although some grants are available for water system development, most residents in the area earn too much to qualify for them, she added.

Lafond also characterized the plan for a water district as speculative.
“There are a lot of problems with the water district as far as being able to fund it,” Lafond said. “It could be years more. It’s not realistic to hold up the purchase because of the water district.”
The Town Board meets again on Oct. 11. Friends of the IBA is asking its supporters, especially those who live in Fort Edward, Kingsbury and Argyle, to send the board letters supporting the sale. As of the September meeting, Suprenant and one of the four council members favored the sale, while three were opposed.

“We hope to convince one more board member,” Lafond said.
If the board withholds its approval, “I don’t know what we’ll do,” Pulver-Moulthrop said.
“It’s not my responsibility to put homes on my lots when that’s not what I want to do,” she added. “The land is beautiful. This is our family’s legacy to future generations.”

The conserved land would include a nature trail dedicated to her late husband, she said.
Lafond said the state would keep the land open by mowing one-third of it every year on a rotating basis. That would benefit the grassland birds as well as the small mammals that attract the owls and hawks.

“The area has always been a close farming community,” Pulver-Moulthrop said. “Most of the farmers would like to see it continue to be that way. I’m very hopeful the town will vote to accept the proposal and allow me to move forward.”