Monday, August 30, 2010

Commentary: Uplands Need More Protection

Politicians often complain that the Adirondack Park is over-regulated, but a case can be made that in some respects the Park is under-regulated.

All it takes is one house on a mountaintop or ridge to spoil a wild vista, and yet the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), which was created to safeguard the region’s natural resources, has no regulations aimed at protecting the uplands from unsightly development.

The uplands are clearly at risk. Given that most of the Park’s private waterfront has been developed, people with money are turning to the next best thing: a big home on a hill with a commanding view.

An article by George Earl in the September/October issue of the Adirondack Explorer reveals that dozens of conspicuous homes—visible from roads and trails—have been built in the uplands of Keene over the past few decades. And that’s just one town. The same kind of development is occurring in other parts of the Park, most notably around Lake George.

The APA does have tools to protect uplands when it has jurisdiction over a project. For example, it can require that a house be screened by trees or situated to minimize its visual impact.

The problem is that the APA often lacks jurisdiction. The agency does have the authority to review projects above the 2,500-foot contour, but this is essentially meaningless. APA spokesman Keith McKeever could not think of a single house built above that elevation, not even in Keene (“The Home of the High Peaks”). Near Lake George, Black Mountain is the only summit that exceeds 2,500 feet, and it lies within the state-owned Forest Preserve. In short, all the development around Lake George and the rest of the Park takes place below the 2,500-foot contour.

The APA also has jurisdiction when a house is built on property classified as Resource Management—the strictest of the agency’s six zoning categories for private land. Much of the Park’s uplands fall within this classification, but many stick-out homes are built on less-regulated lands where the APA does not automatically have jurisdiction.

Finally, the APA lacks jurisdiction even in Resource Management lands (as well as other lands) if a home is built in a subdivision approved before the agency’s creation.

Most of the Park’s towns lack zoning rules or the expertise to deal with upland development. So it’s up to the APA to address the problem. It will be difficult politically and technically. Even the definition of “upland” is tricky in a region where the elevation ranges from 95 feet at Lake Champlain to 5,344 feet at the top of Mount Marcy.

If nothing is done, however, we’ll continue to see a degradation of the Park’s wild character. It’s said that you can’t eat the scenery, but this isn’t true. Natural beauty is an economic asset that has been drawing tourists to the region for well over a century. For this reason, too, the uplands should be protected.

Photo by George Earl: Upland home in Keene.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.

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Phil Brown

Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack.

Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing.

He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.

Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.




25 Responses

  1. Anthony F. Hall says:

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