Nature and taxes

I’ll admit to being something of a tree hugger. We’ve planted about a dozen trees on our half-acre in downtown Kingston, taken down four or five diseased or dangerous ones. But, we’re also taxpayers and when I see city officials embracing a rather large give-way of scarce riverfront property, I just go out and hug a tree.

“This lead could use a serious rewrite,” editors have admonished me from time to time. Upon reflection, here’s a hopefully better try.

One of the worst examples of 20th century industrial desecration is the former 500-acre Hudson Cement/Tilcon property on Kingston’s northern border with the town of Ulster on the Hudson River. Limestone was discovered there toward the end of the 19th century, leading to a (literally) booming cement industry, ending in the 1970s. Cement manufacturers walked away leaving an urban moonscape of deep craters and abandoned buildings, albeit with hundreds of acres of wetland and diverse wildlife. Shortly before 9/11, a Yonkers-based outfit called AVR proposed constructing some 1,600 units of riverfront housing with supporting commercial, even including a new firehouse. In comparison, a city ward contains about 900 residential units, on average. City regulations, environmental opposition and the Great Recession killed that project.

Late last month it was announced that Scenic Hudson, the premier environmental protection agency on our river, was negotiating to purchase the property, dormant since 2010, to create what Kingston mayor Steve Noble called “an urban oasis.” About 125 acres are in the town of Ulster; the site features a mile of riverfront and direct access to Rt. 32.

As Kingston had about 8,000 residential units among its nine wards at the time, the AVR project would have represented almost two new wards. Built from the ground up, developers would have invested tens of millions in infrastructure, including a major addition to Kingston’s flush-full sewage treatment plant on the Rondout Creek.  That, of course, is now history.

Scenic Hudson describes the property as mixed, ranging from hundreds of acres of pristine wetlands, meadows and woods to the post-industrial lunar scape left by Hudson Cement Corp. Scenic Hudson pledged to embrace and preserve nature where it finds it, mentioning, in passing, the possibility of limited commercial development on the site.

Numbers, please

The city, of course, has no say in this transaction between a private owner and a non-profit, other than encouraging Scenic Hudson’s environmental protection on goals. Scenic has yet to reveal a purchase price, but unconfirmed published reports indicate something in the $5 million range. That comes to around $10,000 an acre, dirt-cheap for waterfront property.

The question which no city official, the guardians of our purse, has addressed is what will it cost Kingston coffers in future tax receipts if this property is taken off the tax rolls in its entirety?

Municipal assessments can be complicated, sometimes arbitrary. There are numerous categories, ranging from single-family residences to heavy industrial (like AVR). More of an art than a science, assessments can vary widely even within similar categories. Apples and oranges abound; favored few fruitcakes are not unheard of.

Within a few thousand dollars, the bottom line could look like this: Assuming a $5 million purchase price and a similar assessment (based on purchase) with a combined city/school/county tax rate of about $52 per thousand, a taxpaying entity would produce about $260,000 in taxes a year.  That ain’t hay, as farmers up around Arkville used to say. As one realtor pointed out to me last week, it would be left to the non-resident taxpayers of Kingston’s dual-taxation system to pick up the slack. Non-homestead, as it’s called, represents about 10 percent of city property but pays several times that in taxes.

As an environmentalist who has walked the property, I welcome a well-respected outfit like Scenic Hudson taking on the responsibility of preserving what could be fairly considered an urban oasis. As a taxpayer, I want my elected representatives to consider my piece of paradise and the local merchants I prefer, against the rising tax bills we get every year. There’s a balance to be struck, and so far, I’m not seeing it.