The gap between legislative intent to protect the open space resources of the Adirondack Park and the APA’s analysis of project impacts in accordance with the law widened into a chasm in 2012 when the agency approved the Adirondack Club and Resort by a 10-1 vote.
Now, the Agency has also approved by 10-1 vote a Zipline thrill ride down scenic French Mountain above the Village of Lake George at the entrance to the Adirondack Park. That development will not engender statewide publicity nor, I suspect, a lawsuit. Nonetheless it requires the cutting of a 900-foot swath, 35-50 feet wide, down a steep and wild mountainside. According to Agency staff, the steel cables would be highly visible from many vantage points; in some views the cables would be silhouetted above the mountain, and the cut would resemble a utility line. The thrill ride benefits exactly one business in a resort community.
Although smaller in scale and scope than the ACR development, the easily approved Zipline does further damage to the integrity of the Adirondack Park Agency and the Act which created it. The Zipline will permanently scar a mostly undeveloped, highly visible, scenic and historic mountain which presents from I-87 the first tangible evidence to travelers that the sign Entering Adirondack Park means something important and distinguishing – both legally and aesthetically. The contrast of seeing this steep, undeveloped mountain looming above Lake George after traveling the sprawl along the Northway exits to the south could not be greater.
APA project staff admits all of this and more. They are highly competent group and very cognizant of their law and of the significance of French Mountain at the Park’s entrance. In their memorandum to their members, APA staff state that:
“The project involves the introduction of a tourist attraction onto an undeveloped and forested mountainside. The proposal, particularly the visual impact associated with the clearing of vegetation for the project will contrast significantly with the natural setting.”
“An evaluation of the project’s potential visual impact in relation to the pertinent development considerations indicates that potential impacts to Open Space resources, vegetative cover, unique features, aesthetic resources and adjacent land uses do exist. Staff believes the project produces adverse visual impacts that are contrary to the objectives of the pertinent development considerations.”
The impacts listed above are five of the most significant development considerations which the Agency is compelled by law to consider in rendering a decision. Staff goes on to quote the law’s admonition to protect the views from major travel corridors which define the Park for the traveling public.
Staff also noted that the top of the mountain where the Zipline construction begins is classified as Rural Use, described in the APA Act as areas: “where natural resource limitations and public considerations necessitate fairly stringent development constraints. Those areas are characterized by a low level of development and variety of rural uses that are generally compatible with the protection of the relatively intolerant natural resources and the preservation of open space. These areas and the resource management areas provide the essential open space atmosphere that characterizes the park.” [emphasis mine]
Yet, staff concluded last Friday that these many impacts are sufficiently mitigated by the applicant’s willingness to allow some vegetation to remain below the Zipline. Thus, the impacts are not “undue.” Staff recommended approval with conditions, but then stated that “The consideration of an undue adverse impact within the context of this project is ultimately a decision for this Agency board.”
Indeed. In reviewing the web broadcast of their meeting, it appeared to me that staff invited a challenge to their recommendations. One member, Richard Booth, did challenge them. He could not reconcile the level of impacts recognized by the staff with a decision to simply approve with mitigating conditions. He voted no. The other 10 members all voted for the project’s approval. The chairwoman, Lani Ulrich, told the media she did not see any concerns. Nine other members apparently agreed with her, seeing no overriding concerns with their approval of a thrill ride scarring an iconic mountainside zoned Rural Use at the entrance to the Adirondack Park. Several members wanted to justify their vote by saying that Lake George was already developed, so what difference would another visual intrusion make. The trouble with that thinking is that the Park law members are responsible for upholding says nothing about a Lake George sacrifice zone.
Could there have been alternative ways to route the Zipline that did not scar this mountain and cause quite so much visual impact? Perhaps, said the Agency’s staff counsel, but the only way to determine that would be to hold a public hearing. Remember that the APA cannot deny a project without holding an adjudicatory public hearing in which sworn testimony is admitted, and on which evidence the Agency is supposed to make its final decision: yes, no, or yes with conditions. Of course, the Agency blatantly ignored much of the evidence at the ACR adjudicatory hearing. But I and others have gone over that ground many times.
Given the admitted project impacts, it was astounding that members directed no questions to the staff about why a public hearing for the Zipline wasn’t recommended. Was the project controversial? Yes. Through a hearing process might the applicant have come up with viable project alternatives which would significantly reduce aesthetic and other project impacts? Very possibly. Were the legal thresholds of calling a hearing met? Easily. Even the Towns of Lake George and Queensbury have held hearings on the local impacts of this project.
Yet the agency charged with overseeing resources in the context of a six million acre Park of national and international significance failed to call a hearing. Basically, under Governor Cuomo this APA does not wrestle with broad public considerations. Instead, it continues to behave like a Ray Brook planning board, reducing their examination of impacts to the metes and bounds of an actual project footprint, perhaps looking out several miles beyond, but failing to consider cumulative impacts and failing to act as the legally constituted regional planning agency for the entire Park.
The losers are all New Yorkers who trust that the APA is looking out for their interests and setting a high standard by preserving the natural resources, iconic wildlife, scenic and open space character which makes Adirondack Park different from anyplace USA.
With its 10-1 vote, the APA has shown, once again, that they are not deserving of the public’s trust.
Editor’s Note: In 2005 the Macchios were entangled in numerous legal disputes after roads were built on French Mountain without a permit. Those road remain a visible scar seen from both directions of the Northway. Background information can be found in two stories by the Glens Falls Post Star here and here. Lake George Waterkeeper Christopher Navitsky has explained the problems with permitting the road to be used for this new commercial development in a letter to the Queensbury Planning Board [pdf]. More detailed opposition to the project by a nearby camp ground is outlined here [pdf].
Photos: Top and bottom, portions of roads built in about 2005 without a permit (now designated “forest roads”) that are expected to serve as commercial access roads for the new development. Middle, French Mountain from the Adirondack Northway. In winter the road to the top is still visible curving along the left side of the mountain; the road is much more visible in summer.