Monday, October 24, 2011

Dave Gibson: ACR Myths and Impressions

As Brian Mann recently reported on North Country Public Radio, Adirondack Park Agency (APA) commissioners recently toured the Adirondack Club and Resort (ACR) site. In addition, parties to the hearing have less than a week to make any final reply to the closing statements or legal briefs. In November, Adirondack Club and Resort’s public hearing record will close, and be delivered to APA. This winter, the commissioners will have to render a decision on the application based on that record, and only upon that record. Eight years of pre-hearing review and debate will reach some kind of conclusion.

For those unfamiliar, ACR is a resort proposal comprised of 719 dwellings in 14 separate areas proposed to sprawl across 6200 acres a few miles southeast of Tupper Lake Village, on the slopes of Mount Morris above Tupper Lake and Lake Simond, and just west of Follensby Pond. The subdivisions are proposed for 4800 acres of lands classified by the APA as Resource Management (the most protective land use area under the APA) and 1200 acres of lands classified as Moderate Intensity Use, with a few hundred acres classified as Low Intensity Use. This is the largest second home development proposal to come to the APA since the mid-1970s.

In future posts, I may focus more on the ACR hearing record, but for now I write about several personal impressions, as well as myths about the hearing and the APA law.

Impression 1: All of us involved in this hearing had the privilege of appearing before a truly competent, unbiased, helpful law judge in control of the proceedings, Daniel O’Connell of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation’s Office of Hearings and Mediation Services. For newcomers to a full-blown adjudicatory hearing, Judge O’Connell regularly coached and talked parties not represented by lawyers through our frequently awkward efforts to cross-examine witnesses. Sometimes, he suggested how we could reword our questions to avoid objection. He was assiduous about maintaining the record and exhibits, reasonable about the hearing schedule, insisted upon decorum at all times, patiently listened to all motions and explained his rulings. Most significantly, he gave all parties an equally liberal opportunity to present evidence, admitting into evidence many items that opposing lawyers argued should not be in his effort to assure the APA commissioners with as full a record as possible.

Impression 2: My colleague Dan Plumley and I have watched the APA closely since 1987, and observed past agency staff developing a hearing record. Therefore, we were regularly surprised – and occasionally shocked – by the premature lengths agency hearing staff went in this hearing to argue that various draft conditions on a permit would mitigate demonstrated or potential adverse impacts of the ACR. One day early in the hearing, the agency hearing staff member seemed less interested in what a witness had to say about actual or potential visual impacts of the subdivisions, and more interested in how draft staff conditions had already addressed the problems. How could this staff person know to propose a solid mitigation measure if he wasn’t completely listening to the witness? Wasn’t developing the hearing record more important than presenting draft conditions to a permit so early in the proceeding before the evidence was presented? Isn’t the agency by law and regulation supposed to avoid and minimize impacts before it simply accepts them and attempts to mitigate the damage? I know that the hearing staff are not offering any recommendation to the commissioners as to whether or not to issue a permit, a permit with conditions, or a denial. I also realize that some of the proposed conditions may constitute effective mitigation. However, hearing staff appeared overly eager to condition a defective application and bend to the project sponsor’s aspirations during the proceeding, and even in their closing brief.

Myth 1: APA balances environmental with economic issues. Some media and project proponents portray the 1973 APA Land Use Plan as a balance between resource protection and economic benefits. It wasn’t, and it isn’t. The law’s section 809 states that the agency, in rendering a determination, must find that a given project “would not have an undue adverse impact upon the natural, scenic, aesthetic, ecological, wildlife, historic, recreational or open space resources of the park, or upon the ability of the public to provide supporting facilities and services made necessary by the project, taking into account the commercial, industrial, residential, recreational or other benefits that might be derived from the project.”

There is a vast difference between taking potential benefits into account, and a legal obligation to balance two very different missions. APA’s is an environmental mission, not a balancing act. The courts have ruled this way for decades. In fact, in Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks v. Town Board of Tupper Lake (3d Dept., 2009), the appellate court wrote that in contrast with the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, “the APA…is not charged with such a balancing of goals and concerns but, rather, is required to ensure that certain projects ‘would not have an undue adverse impact”, etc. “Clearly by placing environmental concerns above all others, the APA’s mandate is more protective of the environment than that embodied within SEQRA.”

Myth 2: The decision by the APA in late 2006 to deem Mr. Foxman’s application complete somehow legitimizes all of the application’s data and information. The applicant argued this all the time during and long before the hearing. It is wrong. The application is a statement about goals, desires, and aspirations. It is an allegation, nothing more or less. The hearing is intended to subject those assertions and allegations to expert scrutiny and the rules of evidence. Those rules say that an applicant must present experts whose testimony is competent, material and relevant. The project sponsor had better come up with experts who can competently and materially defend the allegations in the application, or he or she fails to meet their burden of proof, which leads me to my 3rd myth.

Myth 3: Since Mr. Foxman’s application was deemed complete, and because his hearing lawyer was schooled in the law (he actually was the APA Executive Director at one time), the burden of proof is on other parties to show how the application may fail to meet the statutory and regulatory requirements of the APA. Wrong. The burden of proof is squarely on the applicant. “The burden shall be on the project sponsor to present testimony concerning the matters alleged in the application (emphasis mine)” (Section 580 of APA Regulations). Mr. Ulasewicz tried to switch that burden many times during the hearing, often attempting unsuccessfully to intimidate witnesses about their knowledge of APA law and regulation. “Has so and so expert read the Act?” he would ask. “If he had, he would know that residential development is an allowed use of Resource Management,”etc. Adirondack Wild’s expert, who was a conservation biologist, pointed out that he was not retained to debate whether the Act allows development, but to present evidence about how and where the location, scope and intensity of that development could impact sensitive natural resources.

To go one step further, even an impartial observer – and I readily admit to not being one – would have noticed how poorly Mr. Foxman’s team met its burden of proof about the alleged tremendous economic benefits of the ACR, its alleged vast sales and tax potential, and its alleged immaterial burdens on the community. ACR’s so-called expert witnesses in these arenas often were unfamiliar with the application, or where the data in it came from, or could not disclose material and relevant sources to back up their arguments. I may return to the hearing record in future posts.

Photos: Above, outlook from summit of Mt. Morris, Cranberry Pond and Lake Simond in distance; Below, scene from the hearing in Ray Brook, Judge O’Connell at center.

Dave Gibson

Dave Gibson

Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for nearly 25 years, much of that time as Executive Director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks and then as first Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks.

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is a partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

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