Thursday, March 15, 2012

Commentary: APA Lacked Will, Not Authority

Will New York build upon its historic leadership as a steward of our protected Adirondack Park, home to people and wild nature, exhibiting the highest standards for ecosystem management? Or will that promise be lost to the lowest common denominator, where the most specious claims to the economic bottom line win the argument, a “go along-to-get along” mindset? Following the issuance of a permit by the Adirondack Park Agency for the sprawling Adirondack Club and Resort, citizens around the state are wondering.

Remember what APA permitted in January: 706 residential units, 332 buildings, 39 large “great camps,” 15 miles of new roads, sewer, water and electric lines, fences and posted signs spread across 6,200 mostly undeveloped forest acres – 75 % of which is in the most protected private land classification in the park, Resource Management. Remember what this permit jettisons: a variety of traditional backcountry recreational uses, including hunting leases as well as forestry operations. The permit sanctioned real estate estimates shown to be highly exaggerated and completely unreliable. The applicant’s payments in lieu of taxes scheme is probably illegal. This is speculative development at its worst.

In past decades the APA had also been faced with resource intensive, forest fragmenting, exploitation, which begs the question: what did APA do then, under the same rules and regulations still in effect today? In our closing statement at the ACR hearing, we pointed out many permits where the Agency limited development to a small area near roads and conserved the vast majority of Resource Management for forestry and open space recreation, as their law requires.

For instance, in the late 1980s Patten Corporation picked up over 13,000 Adirondack acres with an eye to rapid subdivision into wilderness kingdom lots. The APA played a key role in blocking that objective. In 1988 APA denied a large subdivision of 2000 acres on Resource Management land in the Town of Grieg. It ended up approving just 11 hunting and fishing cabins of 800 sq ft or less, prohibiting new roads, utility connections and further subdivision. In 1995, APA prevented Whitney Industries from subdividing their 45,000-acre holding in Resource Management near Long Lake, and required a master plan for the entire property. A permit eventually allowed several new homes in one small area, while it protected the vast amount of backcountry forest that was eventually purchased for the Forest Preserve.

A more recent example is the Persek project permit in the Town of Horicon, Warren County, issued in 2004. On a total of 348-acres, the Agency clustered eight building lots of four acres each near the road, and required a 279-acre area north of these lots to be reserved as an undeveloped forest “managed for forestry and open space recreational uses” with no houses and no infrastructure. At the Adirondack League Club near Old Forge on a total of 1235 acres, the Agency in 2006 permitted 25 building lots along 3.5 miles of Woodhull Lake, yet assured that 1060 contiguous acres in the backcountry were preserved for forestry and open space recreation. At Brandreth Park, the Agency’s 2009 permit restricted development within a 442 acre development area at the northern end of Brandreth Lake, just 5 percent of the ownership, and the remaining 95 percent of the lands were reserved for forestry and open space recreational uses.

Yet, this year APA staff refused to acknowledge their past practice, and led their commissioners to doubt that they had the legal authority to require the Adirondack Club and Resort to do something similar: cluster their subdivisions, and conserve large contiguous tracts of Resource Management land – the backcountry – as unfragmented open space available for forestry and backcountry recreation.

Sadly, the Adirondack Council gave the ACR applicants, the governor and the Agency cover, starting with a “pathway to a permit” statement last year and ending with the Council’s defense of the APA’s January permit as the best the Agency could do. Then, this month the Adirondack Council released the following statement:

“The APA’s staff and commissioners lacked the clear authority to compel the developer to carry out those changes,” meaning ways to protect “water quality, save wildlife and conserve the forest.”

Of course, Adirondack Council is right that stronger Agency regulations and a better statute are badly needed. We’ve known this for years. Yet, as the Agency’s past precedent and practice reveals, Adirondack Council is dead wrong to imply that the ACR permit with conditions reflects anything close to maximal application of the Agency’s current tools. In future cases, the Council’s statement could be dangerous in its implication that the Agency did the best that it could for ACR. In fact, the Agency had ample opportunity under existing law and regulations to persuade the ACR applicant to reduce the intensity of development, to concentrate the subdivisions closer to Mt. Morris and the former Ski Area, and to leave the area east of Lake Simond as open space, free of great camps, guest cottages, driveways and septic tanks. Adirondack Council’s own independent experts made an excellent case for such alternatives at the public hearing.

No, in 2012 the Agency, backed by Governor Cuomo, lacked the will, not the authority to prevent or to re-design the Adirondack Club and Resort from what it truly is – a needlessly intensive and insensitive sprawl development. In the face of this new precedent, which future course will Governor Cuomo set?

The Agency failed in its paramount duty to protect the delicate physical and biological resources of the park. It ignored its past precedents and practices, and failed the public’s trust. Governor Andrew Cuomo could prod the Agency to seek a deep, valuable, rich and bright future for the park, its communities and its wild places in keeping with our landmark “forever wild” heritage. Will he? Only time will tell. APA meets monthly to make other decisions on the future of the Adirondack Park. Citizens concerned about the APA’s low standard reflected in the ACR permit should share their views with the governor. For more, please go to www.adirondackwild.org

Photo: Dan Plumley points to past a Agency permit which protected the backcountry during the APA’s February meeting.

Dan Plumley and David Gibson, partners with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, jointly contributed this commentary.

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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7 Responses

  1. mountainlady says:

    Yes! This is right on…and so needed. Reminds me of this quote from Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil:
    “THE SAD TRUTH IS THAT MOST EVIL IS DONE BY PEOPLE WHO NEVER MAKE UP THEIR MINDS TO BE EITHER GOOD OR EVIL…IT WAS AS THOUGH IN THOSE LAST MINUTES HE WAS SUMMING UP THE LESSONS THAT THIS LONG COURSE IN HUMAN WICKEDNESS HAD TAUGHT US: THE LESSON OF THE FEARSOME, WORD-AND-THOUGHT-DEFYING, BANALITY OF EVIL.”

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  2. Paul says:

    Dave, You point out a number of good examples of where the agency has blocked a number of development proposals over the years. Don’t you think that this modified project that is in close proximity to a hamlet (TL) and has much of its development clustered near existing development (the ski area) is just the agency trying to take a balanced approach?

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  3. Will Doolittle says:

    David, haven’t you said the Park is “lost”? So why does it matter what happens in other projects in the future? The Park is already “lost.”
    But, perhaps, you believe it can be found again, if the APA will go back to its past practices. There’s another way of looking at this case, which is that the APA followed the law. The law, as written, allowed this project. In the past, as you say, the agency may have found ways to force changes on the project, or kill it altogether, even though it followed the law. Some people would see this new attention to the law as a positive thing.
    Finally, mountainlady’s comment says something about the possibility of extremist thought on this subject.

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  4. brsacjab says:

    So this is what happens after endless lies and lawsuits, commentary. No one should be surprised that interloping self appointed protectors of the “park” continue to maintain a “nothing can be developed or used” stand. Despite the best efforts of all kinds to extreme environmentalist groups, they didn’t manage to kill business this time. Maybe I should go outside the “park” and declare their backyards wilderness…

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  5. SwilliAm says:

    Perhaps democratic governor Cuomo ought to consult with former republican governor Pataki about what it means to “protect the delicate physical and biological resources of the park.”

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  6. Paul says:

    What is the deadline for these groups to sue the APA regarding this decision? Given the case that you have tried to lay out (here and in prior posts)Dave it seems inevitable that you will want to sue in this case?

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