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Developer John Witt sues Wilton, claims land taking

Developer John Witt sues Wilton, claims land taking

Land on Palmertown Ridge includes proposed trail route
Developer John Witt sues Wilton, claims land taking
Photographer: ShutterStock

WILTON -- A prominent Saratoga Springs area developer is suing the town of Wilton in federal court, saying the town is illegally requiring him to give 264 acres to the town.

The land on the Palmertown Ridge in the northwest corner of town is set aside as open space, which Witt agreed to in 2005 when he was given permission to develop a plot of land. But he said he only learned of the town's requirement that he give the town the 264 acres when he proposed selling it to a private open space preservation group. The Town Board issued a "clarification" in April saying specifically it wanted the land given to the town.

Witt and his company, Witt Construction of Saratoga Springs, are seeking to have the town's requirement invalidated by a federal judge, or to have a judge order Witt to receive $1.4 million in compensation.

The lawsuit was filed June 27 in U.S. District Court in Albany.

"It is unlawful for the town, as it has done here, to take title to the developer's land without paying just compensation for it," attorney John Henry of Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna in Albany wrote on Witt's behalf in the lawsuit.

Witt acknowledges agreeing to set aside the 264 acres in the Adirondack foothills as permanent open space in 2005 as part of negotiating a planned development district agreement with the town that allowed luxury home development on another 267 acres. While the 264 acres was to be permanently preserved, the lawsuit says town officials at the time said they didn't want the town to own the land.

"The town does not want to own it," the lawsuit quotes then-deputy supervisor Ray O'Conor as saying at the time. "We do not have the resources, the staff or the expertise to maintain or enforce any restrictions on the properties."

In 2007, the lawsuit says, Witt sought to amend the planned development district to increase some lot sizes and make horse boarding a permitted use. Those changes were approved, but the lawsuit says that when the revised local law was filed with the state secretary of state in January 2008, it was changed to say the open space land should be dedicated to the town of Wilton.

"Upon information and belief, that change to the local law passed by the Town Board was made by the town attorney or other town official after it had already been adopted by the Town Board and without notice to [Witt]," the lawsuit states.

The law the Town Board approved in April, affirming that it wants the land, was intended to clear up "potential confusion" about the town's earlier intentions, according to minutes of the April 4 meeting.

Going back as far as the 2005 discussions, there was a plan that some of the 264 acres would be offered to the state, which is interested in developing a hiking trail system from Moreau Lake State Park across the Palmertown mountain range.

As part of those efforts, which Witt supports, the developer agreed in 2018 to sell the 264 acres to the Open Space Institute, a private non-profit land conservation group that he had been negotiating with for several years. Witt says he wasn't aware the 2008 law included language about giving the land to the town until the proposed land sale was being researched.

The land remains owned by Witt.

Efforts to build the Palmertown Ridge trail system have gained steam in the last year, with the OSI having developed a master plan for an off-road trail system running from Moreau to Saratoga Springs. The OSI frequently works in cooperation with the state Department of Environmental Conservation or other agencies to buy land and then hold it until the state agencies can obtain the money to buy it from the OSI.

The town's positions, the lawsuit says, "substantially defeat the Open Space Institute's reasonable expectations of receiving the open space," the lawsuit states.

Mark Schachner of Glens Falls, the town's attorney, said he couldn't comment on the lawsuit. He was not the town attorney when the 2005 and 2008 legislation was being discussed, he noted at the April meeting.

The town has yet to file a formal response to the lawsuit. U.S. District Court has scheduled an initial conference for Sept. 27 in Albany in front of Magistrate Judge Christian F. Hummel.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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