Eminent domain gives rise to citizens group

Fulton County Planning Director Scott Henze and Fulton County Industrial Development Agency Executive Director James Mraz lead an IDA eminent domain hearing Tuesday at the Johnstown Town Hall. (The Leader-Herald/Michael Anich)

JOHNSTOWN — The eminent domain issue that arose over a late town of Johnstown veteran’s property has spawned a new citizens group — the Fulton County Agricultural Development Agency.

The FCADA, led by founding member and organic farmer Matt Ebert, wants to be a direct challenge to the Fulton County Industrial Development Agency. The IDA and Fulton County government are trying to obtain the late Robert Bowe’s property through eminent domain.

Ebert said the IDA’s efforts to obtain Bowe’s land for its proposed Hales Mills Development Area is a case of “dark” money being used to usurp viable farmland.

“This is a tragedy for the environment,” says the 53-year-old St. Johnsville activist.

Ebert was one of about 40 people who spoke up against eminent domain at an IDA hearing June 4 at the Johnstown Town Hall.

In an interview this week at The Leader-Herald, Ebert said he founded the Fulton County Agricultural Development Agency about two weeks ago over the Bowe matter. He said that about a dozen people now belong to the grassroots group. The FCADA wants to halt projects like the Hales Mills Development Area, which he said has no real developers yet, and bring agriculture and local farms back into the economic forefront.

“There’s no call for it,” Ebert said of the project. “It’s the cart before the horse.”

He said his group has already started complaining to the state Attorney General’s Office and the Public Integrity Bureau.

Ebert said the FCADA “strongly opposes” county supervisors’ “arbitrary and capricious” use of eminent domain.

“On behalf of farmers across the country, and our veterans, we consider this decision on Bowe Farm unethical, biased toward industry, and a brutal devaluation of county farmlands,” he said. “What county supervisors said to agricultural developers and area farmers this year: ‘Our industrial and residential self-interests can destabilize your land values and your net worth.'”

County officials estimate the Hales Mills Development Area — when completed — will include about 120 residential lots, mixed-use developments, townhouses and a two-mile walking trail

The IDA is working with the county and town governments to obtain two parcels of land Bowe put up for sale last summer for a 490-acre, proposed Hales Mills Development Area. The 85-year-old Bowe passed away May 27. It was brought up during the hearing that Bowe has heirs and a will.

According to his broker, Bowe desired $5,000 per acre. Bowe’s estate now owns a 69-acre parcel on the west side of Hales Mills Road Extension and an 89.5-acre parcel on the road’s east side. The IDA was offering $3,000 per acre.

Meanwhile, the IDA is spearheading an effort to obtain Bowe’s property through eminent domain. Fulton County government and the Johnstown Town Board have signed on to be part of the effort.

Ebert issued a public statement this past week on behalf of the ADA, outlining his group’s efforts.

He indicated that the Fulton County ADA is a non-profit, non-partisan grassroots organization made up of Fulton County residents dedicated to improving agricultural development in the county. Membership is open to anyone.

“We have no formal leadership, we work together to improve our county’s agricultural health and well-being, including the preservation of historic farmlands,” Ebert said. “FCSDA members caucus, form alliances and introductions, and address agricultural needs through volunteerism, civic duty and direct political action. We strongly believe farmland should be developed for agriculture, and we oppose the use of eminent domain to seize farmland and equally oppose the FCIDA development plan at Hales Mills.”

Ebert took note of upcoming meetings and said the FCADA may make its presence known. He took note of the Fulton County Board of Supervisors’ meeting at 1 p.m. Monday at the County Office Building. He also noted the next IDA meeting at 8 a.m. Tuesday at the Fort Johnstown Annex, for which he said he would have no problem getting “arrested” if he has to.

The IDA is expected to consider eminent domain comments made at the recent hearing. It is expected most if not all of its discussion about eminent domain will be in a closed-door, executive session away from the public.

“Hales Mills project will be challenged by the FCADA using every legal means possible,” Ebert said. “We kindly request county supervisors abandon the rule of eminent domain, and reject the FCIDA Plan for Hales Mills in favor of the FCADA Sustainable Ag Plan for 2020. Our Sustainable Ag Plan has the immediate benefit of valuing our soil and our farmlands at a much higher rate than the FCIDA plan.”

Karen Fagan, whose family is into farming, said the IDA does not include any of the data supporting the protection of farmland and there is a lot of information out there.

Matt Brower, a farmer, said groups such as the Agriculture & Farmland Protection Board should be doing what the ADA is doing now by protecting the interests of farmers. He said he’s interested in the ADA, which Ebert publicized during the hearing.

“That’s the first I heard of it,” Brower said. “I do want to get more information. The county has done nothing for agriculture.”

Brower said that one of the problems is that government powers see dairy farmers not making so they abandon efforts to help other farmers. But he said he sees excitement from out of area motorists who stop by his town of Mayfield stand.

Ebert, who works on organic farms, including in the town of Oppenheim, said he will fight for more public information from groups like the IDA.

“Give people back the power they are missing,” he said.

Ebert said the county and IDA taking Bowe’s property by eminent domain would set a “huge precedent” for the area. He said Bowe’s land has “excellent soil” that isn’t being considered in this situation.

He said there was a main purpose of his new group — it’s to “bring agriculture back to the community,” and do development projects “mostly for agriculture.”

Reminded that hundreds of jobs were created in the past in Fulton County through industrial parks built on farmland, Ebert said those legal efforts to secure land should be “applauded,” along with the jobs they brought. But he said the Hales Mills project isn’t an emergency and it refers to housing and parks more than anything.

A former Orange County resident, Ebert said he worked previously for large corporations such as Microsoft and Apple out west before coming back to this part of New York state last year. He said he’s studied at Notre Dame, and knows that what he’s seeing with the Hales Mills project is “political corruption,” “dark” money, “red flags” and a lack of transparency.

Ebert said that his email for anyone interested in the FCADA is: FCADA2020@gmail.com.

Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at manich@leaderherald.com.