Friday, October 16, 2009

Origins of the Adirondack Park Agency: A Footnote

New York’s history of preserving wild, open spaces in the Adirondack Park while, at the same time, sustaining (or at least suffering) its small communities has become known as “an experiment,” a misleading term at best.

Now comes “The Great Experiment in Conservation; Voices from the Adirondack Park,” a collection of essays meant to extract transferable lessons from the Park’s history of mixing public and private uses.

Although he and his co-editors title their collection, “The Great Experiment in Conservation,” Dr. Ross Whaley concedes that in at least one decisive respect, the Adirondack Park could more accurately be described as a Great Improvisation.

“You can’t take this model and replicate it elsewhere,” Whaley said at a conference of the Adirondack Research Consortium, held at the Lake George Land Conservancy’s Bolton Landing offices on October 8.

The model can’t be replicated elsewhere because, Whaley explains, the alignment of political forces that created the Adirondack Park Agency was unprecedented and temporary.

“In one of those extraordinary moments in history, the Adirondack Park Agency was established with its powers intact,” Whaley and co-editor William Porter write in their essay, “Public and Private Land-Use Regulation of the Adirondack Park.”

A regional agency that would regulate private land use, was, of course, the most important of the 181 recommendations issued by the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks, which Governor Nelson Rockefeller created by executive order in 1968.
Rockefeller could have easily shelved the Commission’s recommendation as too controversial, but chose instead to publicly support it and then spend political capital on its behalf.

Making certain that Rockefeller didn’t go wobbly was Harold K. Hochschild, the plutocratic founder of the Adirondack Museum who replaced Leo O’Brien in 1970 as chairman of the Temporary Study Commission.

What follows might be described as a footnote to Whaley’s argument that the passage of the Adirondack Park Agency bill, far from being inevitable, was the product of a conjunction of power (abetted by the legal, intellectual and political skills of commission members Dick Lawrence, Peter Paine, Jr. and others ) unlikely to be found in one place at one time again.

Opposition to the proposed land use agency surfaced almost immediately after the Temporary Study Commission released its recommendations in January, 1971.

Seventy five negative votes in the Assembly would have defeated the bill, and Clinton County Assemblyman Andy Ryan claimed that he had secured promises from 89 assemblymen to vote ‘no.’ Despite the fact that the Republicans held the majority in both houses of the legislature, the bill appeared likely to die in committees.

Ryan and his fellow Adirondack assemblyman, Glenn Harris, wanted to delay passage of the bill by at least a year, or substitute the proposed agency with another commission that would study the regulation of private lands further. It was a position supported by county boards of supervisors and newspapers like the Post Star.

(The Adirondack Daily Enterprise favored immediate passage of the bill; Bill Doolittle, who would become one of the Adirondack Park Agency’s most vociferous opponents, had yet to purchase the paper. In the spring of 1971, it was still owned by Roger Tubby and Jim Loeb, himself a member of the Study Commission.)

Senator Ron Stafford announced that he would use his influence to kill the bill in the upper house, a position diametrically opposed to one he had expressed in private conversations with Peter Paine.

Stafford later told the Knickerbocker News, “It’s the first time I’ve bucked the governor, and it’s going to be tough for us, but I think we might be able to do it.”

Meanwhile, Hochschild was working behind the scenes to counter-act the growing opposition.

Harry Albright, one of Rockefeller’s key aides, told Hochschild that the administration was nervous about Ryan, Harris and Stafford. “He said that against their opposition it would be difficult to get passage of the legislation,“ Hochshild wrote in a memo to the members of the Study Commission.

The Commission was formally disbanded in March; it lost its staff, offices and funding. Hochschild and the other members of the Commission, however, agreed to work as private citizens to secure passage of the bill.

They set up meetings with Stafford, Ryan and Harris, but nothing of any substance was accomplished.

Harris told a newspaper at the time, that, while “(the legislators) had been trying to negotiate amendments, only minor compromises were offered.”

The members conducted a public relations campaign that produced editorials and letters from conservation organizations and the legislators’ constituents in support of the bill.

Hochschild also urged the Commissioners to solicit “letters to the Governor, the Senate Majority Leader and Assembly Speaker from large contributors to the Republican party.”

It’s quite possible that those “letters from large contributors” helped persuade Senate Majority Leader Earl Brydges and Speaker Perry Duryea to apply pressure to their recalcitrant members.

(Rockefeller himself, of course, had inducements of his own to offer. )

Discussing the passage of he Adirondack Park Agency bill, Whaley and Porter write, “In what was expected to be a late-night negotiation, Hochschild refused to bargain. He simply told the Speaker of the Assembly ‘No.’”

Hochshild would offer no more than what he had agreed to in a deal brokered by Duryea. The bill’s opponents would receive lanyards, or emotional rather than practical goods: local representation on the agency board, some exemptions from agency authority, the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board. (The truly unfortunate compromises would come two years later, when the Private Land Use Plan was submitted to the legislature.)

Thus the bill was approved, without any provisions delaying the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency or any significant reductions in the agency’s power to regulate private land use.

In return for abandoning the fight to defeat the bill, the legislators were given, in addition to the agreed-upon compromises, cover that would preserve their political credibility back in their districts.

My father, Robert Hall, who was a member of the Study Commission, owned weekly newspapers in the Adirondacks. He agreed in advance to write and publish editorials praising Harris and Ryan as “tough opponents” and publicizing the concessions they had won from Rockefeller and Hochschild.

In my father’s files is a letter from Speaker Duryea making it clear that a complimentary editorial was part of the bargain.
“Knowing that it would be forthcoming made our task considerably easier in gaining support for the bill,” Duryea wrote.

It’s easy to understand why Harris and Ryan insisted on favorable editorials in the hometown papers as part of any bargain.

The first priority of every politician, Ron Stafford always said, is to protect his base. Everything else – statewide acclaim, influence, wealth – is secondary.

Not long after the Temporary Study Commisssion had completed its work but before the legislative battle had begun, Harold Hochschild circulated among the members and staff of the Commission a note he had received from his daughter-in-law, Arlie Hochschild, then an assistant professor of sociology at Berkeley.

“I had a student come into my office the other day to talk about ecology. At one point I happened to mention the Adirondack Commission Report and before I had a chance to say anything more he said: ‘Oh, the Adirondack Commission Report – that’s the best thing of its kind. I understand Nevada is considering that report as a model,’ so, I modestly confessed that my father-in-law was a member.”

Hochschild’s pride in the work of the Commission and in its potential as a model for land use planning throughout the nation helps explain why he fought so tenaciously to translate its recommendation for an Adirondack Park Agency into statute.

It also explains why he wouldn’t allow that proposal to be diluted, not to say debased, by too many political compromises.

Hochschild could not, however, have foreseen what Ross Whaley discovered: the Adirondack Park Agency’s flaw as a model for regional land use agencies elsewhere lies in the fact that a man of Harold Hochschild’s caliber is required to bring them to life.

For more news and commentary from Lake George, read the Lake George Mirror

Photo: 1) Intermission during a meeting of the Adirondack Study Commission; (l-r) Peter Paine Jr., Henry Diamond, Robert Hall, Richard W. Lawrence, NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller.  2) Harold K. Hochschild, the founder of the Adirondack Museum who replaced Leo O’Brien as chairman of the Temporary Study Commission in 1970. Lake George Mirror File Photos. 

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Anthony F. Hall is the editor and publisher of the Lake George Mirror.

Anthony grew up in Warrensburg and after an education that included studying with beat poet Gregory Corso on an island in the Aegean, crewing a schooner in Hawaii, traveling through Greece and Turkey studying Byzantine art and archeology, and a stint at Lehman Brothers, he returned to the Adirondacks and took a job with legendary state senator Ron Stafford.

In 1998, Anthony and his wife Lisa acquired the Lake George Mirror, once part of a chain of weekly newspapers owned by his father Rob Hall.

Established in the 1880s, the Mirror is America’s oldest resort newspaper.

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