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Surplus psychiatric center lands should be worth exactly $1

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The state is getting its house in order to prepare for the transfer of 45 acres of surplus land at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center to the city of Ogdensburg. The state Office of General Services will be up this week to conduct a survey and document what lies on the property the state approved for transfer.

The state legislation authorizing the transfer, however, stipulated that the land would be transferred for “fair market value.”

Seeing as a portion of the land is St. Lawrence River waterfront and another portion is prime commercial land along Route 37, city officials and state lawmakers representing the north country are anxious to find out what value an appraiser will place on it. If it’s a certified appraiser independent of the state who does not take into consideration that the state twice unsuccessfully tried to sell the land, the value could be outrageously high.

If it’s too high, the deal and its potential to jump-start the Ogdensburg economy could go nowhere.

State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, is absolutely right to push the state to transfer the land to the city for $1. The state would be completely within its legal rights to do so. Under the state Constitution, one government can transfer land to another government for less than fair market value.

State officials have said they included the “fair market value” language in the legislation because they didn’t want to set a precedent, but it’s not like this hasn’t been done before. The New York Power Authority transferred surplus project lands to townships for a nominal fee following the 2003 relicensing settlement for the St. Lawrence-FDR power project in Massena.

Either the city or Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority — or both — have been asking the state to turn over surplus lands on the campus since, no kidding, 1991.

In 1992, a city task force formally requested three parcels, two of which were for OBPA. A fair market value of $990,000 was placed on the two OBPA parcels, which totaled 60 acres. OBPA challenged that appraisal.

Two years later, OMH set an asking price of $124,000 for one 39-acre parcel that had been requested. After some back and forth, OBPA agreed to purchase the land, with the price offset by giving the Office of Mental health free rent in one of its buildings for three years and seven months.

The sale of the land was authorized in 1994 through legislation sponsored by former Sen. James W. Wright of Watertown. It carried a sunset clause voiding the authorization if negotiations did not wrap up by 1996. At that point, it looked like the land transfer might actually happen.

The following year, in 1995, OMH formed the Interagency Council on Mental Hygiene Property Utilized, whose approval was required to officially sell the property to OBPA.

The council undertook a preliminary environmental site assessment to determine whether there was any contamination on the property. The report was received in December 1995, and three months later the council determined another environmental assessment was needed.

The state, meanwhile, hired an outside consultant to conduct a best-use analysis for the property. That consultant, Texas-based The Weitzman Group, determined that the land held absolutely no value.

At that point, OBPA again requested that the state Office of Mental Health transfer the property.

The OMH council asked if it could start occupying the building under the free lease agreement pending the transfer of the deed, which they acknowledged might never take place. The transfer of the deed, after all, was contingent upon further environmental analysis and the cleanup of any contamination on the property. I could not find any evidence that more environmental investigation ever even began.

OMH moved in and starting paying rent. At the end of 1996, the authorization to sell the land expired.

The following year, in 1997, former Governor George E. Pataki announced that surplus land at the psychiatric center would be offered for sale to private bidders, including the parcel that nearly was sold to OBPA and the other parcel it requested but never got. The Weitzman Group again that year concluded that there was no value to the property, and the city asked to take control of the waterfront portions of the campus.

In 1998, the state’s Empire State Development Corp. offered 263 acres up to bid. There were no bidders.

In 2000, Empire State Development put 260 acres up for bid. No takers.

It took 10 years for the state, city and OBPA to end up right back where they started.

The state has put up a lot of roadblocks over the years to maintain control of land it hasn’t used in decades, that no private bidders wanted and that its consultants determined was worthless.

If officials are serious about wanting to divest the state of its idle properties so more property can get back on the tax roll, they will do everything they can to allow the city to take over the property at a reasonable, nominal fee. It would be tragic if history were allowed to repeat itself.

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