New York state owns a lot of land, and in most cases and places, doesn’t pay any taxes on it. That is its prerogative, given its sovereign immunity. Two notable exceptions are the Adirondack and Catskill parks, where the state has voluntarily been paying town, county and school taxes for more than 120 years. It is right to do so — and now, after yesterday’s Appellate Divison decision overturning a lower court decision from last November barring the payments, once again legal.
The case was brought by a citizen of a western New York town that contains a small state-owned wildlife management area — land that the state doesn’t pay taxes on. The plaintiff complained that his equal protection rights were violated when the state paid taxes on its land in some municipalities but not others, because that gave him a bigger tax burden than those similarly situated. The Supreme Court judge sided with him, calling the state’s system of deciding when and where to pay taxes on its land “arbitrary.”
But in the case of the Adirondack and Catskill parks, there is nothing arbitrary about it. Protection of these great forests, and the great river (Hudson) and city (New York City) that depend on their watersheds, serves a clear public purpose and is a matter of statewide importance. The costs of that protection shouldn’t be borne alone by the relatively few people that live there, who are deprived of the land’s development value when the state purchases it.
The state recognized this when it first established the park preserves in 1886, the first time it had given up its sovereign power and allowed itself to be taxed by lower levels of government. And the courts had upheld the system of taxation in the parks — until last November.
That system is not only a matter of fairness for the people who live in those depressed areas, but a practical and political necessity. Without the state tax payments — $70 million annually in the Adirondacks and $30 million in the Catskills — local property owners would have to pay much higher taxes, ensuring even more poverty and angry opposition to any proposed land purchases by the state. The Appellate Division’s ruling is right, and most welcome.