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Volume 8 - Opinions of Counsel SBEA No. 102

Opinions of Counsel index

Tax sales (unredeemed lands) (Forest Preserve) - N.Y.S. Const., Art. 14, § 1; Environmental Conservation Law, § 9-0101; Real Property Tax Law, § 1019:

For purposes of the RPTL, the “Forest Preserve” is a geographical description rather than an inventory of State lands. Any other interpretation would render section 1019 meaningless, a result contrary to basic rules of statutory construction.

Pursuant to section 1019 of the Real Property Tax Law, the treasurer “of each county containing part of the forest preserve” must file with the Department of Environmental Conservation a list of all tax delinquent parcels located within the Forest Preserve within that county. The Department has a right of first refusal on unredeemed parcels in Forest Preserve counties. “All parcels situated in the forest preserve which have been bid in by the county and have not been redeemed” as set forth on this list, are subject to a right of first refusal by the State.

With exceptions not here relevant, the Forest Preserve is defined as “lands owned or hereafter acquired by the state within the county of Clinton, except the towns of Altona and Dannemora, and the counties of Delaware, Essex, Franklin, Fulton, Hamilton, Herkimer, Lewis, Oneida, Saratoga, Saint Lawrence, Warren, Washington, Greene, Ulster and Sullivan” (Environmental Conservation Law, § 9-0101(6)). We are asked whether tax delinquent parcels which are not owned by the State are subject to the State’s right of first refusal pursuant to section 1019.

The predecessor of section 1019 was added by chapter 362 of the Laws of 1898, which amended section 151 of the Tax Law to provide that the treasurers of St. Lawrence, Lewis and Oneida Counties would inform the State Comptroller of all lands “in the forest preserve which have been bid in by the county”. This amendment was added as an exception to the general principle of the Tax Law of 1896 that Forest Preserve counties could not auction the delinquent parcels of non-residents (L.1896, c.908, §§ 150, 151). At that time the State levied a real property tax, and the State Comptroller had the right to auction delinquent parcels (L.1896, c.908, Art. VI). Thus section 1019 was originally an exception to an exception, allowing three Forest Preserve counties to conduct auctions, provided the State retained a right of first refusal.

It is clear that the drafters of chapter 362 and the codifiers of the Real Property Tax Law meant Forest Preserve to be a geographical description rather than an inventory of State parcels. Similarly, section 532 of the Real Property Tax Law refers to lands “within the forest preserve”. This simply means the geographic area included in the definition in section 9-0101(6) of the Environmental Conservation Law (Town of Indian Lake v. SBEA, 45 Misc.2d 463, 257 N.Y.S.2d 301 (Sup.Ct., Albany Co., 1965), mod., 26 A.D.2d 707, 271 N.Y.S.2d 501 (3d Dept. 1966)). That is, the listing required by section 1019 is tax delinquent parcels not owned by the State and located within the Forest Preserve. Moreover, since section 19 of the Public Lands Law forbids the sale of State lands for nonpayment of taxes, no State lands could legally appear on a tax sale list.

To read section 1019 as meaningless is to render nugatory an act of the Legislature which has been administered and understood for 86 years. It is highly unlikely any court would do this. “Few words are so plain that the context or the occasion is without capacity to enlarge or narrow their extension. The thought behind the phrase proclaims itself misread when the outcome of the reading is injustice or absurdity” (Surace v. Danna, 248 N.Y.18, at 21, 161 N.E. 315 (1928)). “It is well settled that in the interpretation of a statute we must assume that the Legislature did not deliberately place a phrase in the statute which was intended to serve no purpose” (In re Smaters’ Will, 309 N.Y. 487 at 495, 131 N.E.2d 896 (1956)). Presumably, a court asked to interpret section 1019 would read it in such a manner as not to make it meaningless.

Accordingly, it is our opinion that the term “Forest Preserve” as used in the RPTL is geographical description which includes both State and privately-owned lands. It is not simply State owned lands as of a certain time.

January 24, 1985