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In the Adirondacks, holding on to the past for the present


NORTH RIVER — The Adirondacks are speckled with a tapestry of seasonal lives, loves and generational tales spun from the natty yarns of treasured family cabins and holiday homesteads.

But just as the seasons tick by — 10, 20, 30 winters, springs, summers and falls — families also move on. And as parents and grandparents pass on, children can inherit long-cherished but rarely visited and sometimes dilapidated historic family vacation homes.

Remembering the past, some offspring of the original homeowners find themselves unwilling to sell or demolish the homes of their youth.

So the taxes get paid even as the homes fall into ruins.

“Town of Johnsburg has six hamlets — North River, Wevertown, North Creek, Bakers Mills, Riparius and Johnsburg. There are approximately 1,700 homes and 1,000 of them are second homes,” said Johnsburg Assessor Christian Holt.

Some of these second homes have been all but abandoned by owners who are still paying the taxes.

“Many are not habitable,” Holt said.

Holt started his own list of abandoned or derelict properties in the town, and while he said it is not yet complete, he has logged at least 30.

“The list I started is not a comprehensive list,” he said. “It’s a mix of houses that are vacant and not habitable (22) and houses and mobile homes (8) that are lived in, but have serious zoning violations ... People are starting to complain, mostly the second home owners that have expensive homes and hate living next to junk.”

Unhappy neighbors

According to Warren County Building Code Enforcement Administrator Charles Wallace, the Johnsburg situation is not common in the county, but he said he does get contacted about homes in disrepair from unhappy neighbors like North River resident Leslie Clement, who owns North River Hobby Farm.

Concerned about a decaying historic farmhouse on Shields Road that sits right at the entrance to her five-star rated Airbnb of cabins and glamping sites, Clement contacted Wallace and the Town Board about the property.

“The farmhouse has not been occupied in many decades. The house is in dilapidated condition and is an eyesore to the neighborhood. The lawn is never mowed, the garage is collapsing and the siding is falling off the house,” Clement wrote to the board late last year. “Last week, the entire porch which runs the full width of the farmhouse collapsed. The roof framing, posts, floor framing and steps are crushed into a huge pile of debris … It sure makes an impact on our guests who come from all over the world and wonder why no one takes care of it. “

Resurrecting Bird Camp

Clement and a handful of other grandchildren of early Adirondack second home builders have returned to ancestral Adirondack properties with dreams of reviving them — dreams only realized after sizable investments of money, time and labor.

Clement moved to North River in 2012 from Springfield, Massachusetts.

“I was longing to get up here,” she said.

A builder and developer, Clement said she had hoped to create a magical hideaway on her North River farm. But town and Department of Environmental Conservation delays, which followed negotiations with her own family members for the property, held up her project for years.

“Owning property with multiple family members took its toll and the two camps — Bird Camp and Mullon Camp, where we live — deteriorated,” she said. “No one wanted to share the costs of upkeep, taxes and improvement, and soon it was only me who visited or tried to maintain things. It took 20 years but eventually I was able to buy out or barter with all the other owners.”

Now she owns 40 acres atop what was once her family’s Adirondack treasure.

“I have a small cluster of buildings, including my great-grandparents’ century-old Bird Camp, four glamping tents and several cabins I have built in the last few years,” she said.

Now she has the opportunity to live on the land with her children as her great-grandparents once did.

“My family’s connection with the Adirondacks goes back to 1905, when my great-aunt Edie Bird, then a teenager living in Port Washington, Long Island, became sick with TB,” she said.

At that time, the Adirondack wilderness had a reputation for health-giving properties, believing (mistakenly) the fresh air could cure tuberculosis.

“So my great-grandparents sent their daughter Edie here to North River, where she ‘took the cure’ by boarding at the nearby Cedarwood Farm on School House Road.

“Edie sat outside all winter with the other boarders, bundled under quilts on the porch, and in summer months walking the roads and wildflower meadows,” she said. “Happily, my great-aunt Edie Bird recovered. In 1910, my great-grandparents, Tim and Ida Bird, bought eight acres of beautiful property on ‘Christian Hill’ (as it was once known) and built a small ‘shingle-style’ camp in the rustic Adirondack style.”

With dramatic southward views toward Gore Mountain, the second camp on the homestead is Mullon Camp, built in 1922. It’s where Clement now lives.

Mullon Camp still has the leaded glass windows and other building materials from a demolished Guggenheim estate on Long Island that her great grandparents brought north by train.

“The rest of the building materials were all locally acquired — cedar shingles, stone, milled lumber,” Clement said.

Traditionally, the women and children stayed all summer in the camp while the men traveled back and forth.

“Life was leisurely. Visiting, and having visitors, was an important part of life. Cooking was done with a hand pump and wood cook stove,” she said.

Amping up zoning

In December, Clement wrote to the Town Board about the 43 Shields Road farmhouse and other abandoned homes nearby.

“There are numerous abandoned houses in our community which are an eyesore, a blight on our community,” she said. “They are a detriment to real estate values and a safety hazard.”

Additionally, Clement contacted Wallace at Warren County.

“I asked if he could contact the owner and ask her to remove the collapsed porch and make the house and garage safe,” Clement said.

Wallace said it is up to the towns as to how to handle these situations.

“Not every town wants to handle it the same way,” he said.

In the case of the Shields Road property, Wallace said he first contacted the town supervisor, Andrea Hogan.

“I (also) reached out to the owners of the property and they did come into compliance,” said Wallace.

A photo of the property taken on Thursday, compared to a previous photo, shows that the Massachusetts owner had rubble from the crumbling porch cleared and the grass cut.

During a Feb. 5 Town Board meeting, Supervisor Hogan addressed Clement’s letter.

“A letter we got in correspondence about derelict properties started a whole conversation,” Hogan said. “We do have quite a few of them around town. We’ve spoken with Charlie Wallace at the county and he had some recommendations to moving forward and asking people to clean up their derelict properties.”

Holt said there is some confusion about how these properties are defined and derelict properties are actually lived in homes with code violations.

Hogan explained in the meeting the conversation is about vacant homes that owners are still paying the taxes on.

“So we’re going to work with Wallace a little more and we’ll come back with a proposal closer to spring,” she said, adding that currently the zoning enforcement officer is budgeted for six hours and this amount of work goes beyond that. “Right now, it’s not a time to ask people to start cleaning up properties; they can’t really do much anyways.”

Assessor Holt believes some people hold onto homes because the Johnsburg taxes are so low and demolition can be costly.

He shared the story of a woman who inherited a family home on Sodom Road in North Creek from her brother when he died.

“She wanted to do the right thing,” he said. “She paid about $20,000 to have it taken down and hauled away. It’s less than an acre lot, so it is unlikely that she will be able to sell it for much more than $10,000 to $15,000. This is a very rare example of a property owner doing the right thing, even though financially it doesn’t make sense. She is now paying the taxes on that now vacant parcel.”

So, for now, Clement, daughter Emeline McCarthy and yellow lab Sammy find new ways to enhance the land they love. King of the mountain, Sammy offers guided hikes to visitors, and Clement and McCarthy fire up a wood-burning pizza oven (they built by hand) for guests who share the bubbly delicacy, family-style, outdoors on purple linen-covered picnic tables overlooking an Adirondack vista.

“I have supplied virtually all the physical labor to pleasurably and tirelessly restore, build, maintain and beautify the property,” said Clement, adding that without the financial support of her late father and brother, she would not have been able to do it. “The camps go forward into the future, restored, refreshed, rejuvenated.”

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Kathleen Phalen-Tomaselli covers Washington County government and other county news and events.


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