Back-tax auctions don’t usually amount to much.
Mostly it’s landlocked pieces or strips of drainage ditch abandoned by developers. But last week Saratoga County, nearly auctioned 141 acres of prime real estate in Halfmoon, one of the region’s fastest-growing towns. A former farm was to be sold because of $40,760 in uncollected back taxes, penalties and fees.
Such properties make developers salivate. This one did.
An attorney for Bruce Tanski — one of Halfmoon’s most prominent developers and a major Republican campaign donor — appeared before the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, urging it not to let the previous property owner get the land back by paying the back tax bill.
Edmund Rucinski, an artist and musician whose family has been on the land for three generations, raised the money, but did so so late in the game — just days before Tuesday night’s auction — that it required approval by the supervisors.
Tanski’s lawyer said Rucinski came in too late to reclaim the land.
“The property at issue is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars more than any back taxes which may be owed by the property owner,” said Daniel J. Tuczinski, an Albany attorney.
Legally, the county holds title to the land as leverage to collect the taxes. Because of that, Tuczinski said returning it to Rucinski “could be construed as a gift back to the property owner in violation of the New York state Constitution.”
Supervisors weren’t persuaded. They voted unanimously to accept Rucinski’s payment and return the land to him, minus four acres the county took last spring for a planned extension of the Zim Smith recreation trail.
The county’s lawyer backed them up. This is the first time in recent memory a prospective buyer has objected, though properties being pulled out of a tax auction at the last minute is more or less routine.
“The Board of Supervisors’ policy is to let property owners redeem until the day of the auction. That’s always been board policy,” said County Attorney Stephen Dorsey. The board can do “any disposition the board desires,” he said.
In a later interview, Rucinski said Tanski has been after his family’s land for years.
“This whole tax situation was being used to pave the way for a takeover of the land,” he said Wednesday, the day after the board vote.
Last year, Rucinski fired off letters to high state officials including the governor and attorney general, objecting to the county’s seizing his land for unpaid taxes. He said he finally took a loan to pay off the county bill, rather than continue to fight the system.
Rucinski’s said he’s trying to preserve the land from development. His grandparents once milked 30 cows on the farm, he said, and it has been in farming since at least 1840.
“I’m trying to keep the land together. I’m trying to keep agriculture here,” said Rucinski, who gave up a New York City arts career in 1999 to return to Halfmoon and care for his aging mother.
“This property is one of the last high-yield agricultural properties left in the county,” he said. “I have been hoping to somehow revitalize agriculture here.”
Rucinski said he has no plans to sell to Tanski or any other developer, though he would likely reap millions.
“I’m not totally anti-development, but just against the kind of sprawl that’s going on here,” he said.
In the running
The Wilton Wildlife Preserve & Park is the New York state finalist for the fifth annual Tom’s of Maine “50 States for Good” community giving program.
That puts the innovative partnership between the town of Wilton and The Nature Conservancy — habitat for endangered wildlife spread across 1,500 acres in central Wilton — in the running for $10,000 in funding to create an accessible trail project.
Supporters of Karner blue butterflies and Blandings turtles can use their mouse to vote at http://50StatesforGood.com until Oct. 15.
“This would be a huge boost for us from a fundraising perspective, but we are also looking at this as a great opportunity to share the work that we do with a broader audience,” said Margo Olson, the preserve’s executive director.
Stephen Williams is a Gazette reporter. The opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.