1988 was a long time ago, and not just in years. It was a different time in America. It does seem like yesterday in my life, but that’s because I’m in my mid 50s and time is speeding up. In the Adirondack Park of 1988, as in the rest of the country, a real estate boom had been underway for some time. Speculators were getting into the game. At the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), the number of permit applications was way up.
The park’s Resource Management and Rural Use lands – the “backcountry” – were under considerable real estate pressure. The Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st Century would be established by Gov. Mario Cuomo the following year. In contrast with today, in 1988 a majority of Agency commissioners viewed themselves as agenda setters.
I regularly wrote and published for the membership of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks reports titled “what’s up at the APA.” Readers may, or may not find this trip back in memory lane relevant to the debate that Adirondack Wild stimulated recently about the Agency’s current legal authority to deny fragmenting, land consuming subdivisions like the Adirondack Club and Resort. Does the Agency have that authority? Clearly, yes. The history of past Agency actions in similar circumstances is long and undeniable, as my report from 1988 confirms. On the other hand, are the APA Act and Regulations deficient in the tools needed to protect the Park and to provide clarity to the Agency staff, to the public and to applicants? The answer in 1988 and today remains yes.
Here is that report, which recalls aspects of the ACR debate:
“August, 1988: A major challenge has been posed to the Adirondack Park Agency and the APA Act by large acreage subdividers like Patten Corporation, Properties of America, and others. By purchasing large tracts of 1000 or more acres, then subdividing them into large tracts well below the density limits required in Resource Management and Rural Use areas within the Park (the most restrictive classifications), these companies are posing serious challenges to open space. The Agency is responsible for insuring ‘optimum overall conservation, protection, preservation, development and use of the unique scenic, aesthetic, wildlife, recreational, open space, historic, ecological and natural resources of the Adirondack Park.’ Yet, very few specific tools for carrying out the APA’s Act’s language exist in the statute, except for density restrictions (Resource Management 15 principal buildings per square mile, Rural Use 75 PBs per sq. mi.). As APA Executive Director Robert Glennon said at a recent meeting, ‘the APA Act is macrocephalic – it has a big head, but far too small a body.’
Despite the Act’s shortcomings, the APA voted on August 17 to deny a permit to Patten Corporation to subdivide 1900 acres in the Town of Greig into 13 lots on land zoned Rural Use. Patten had sought to create one ‘rustic camp’ on each lot, averaging 150 acres each. Patten planned to include deed restrictions that limited the amount of resubdivision that could take place on most of the lots.
Nevertheless, the Agency overruled staff recommendations, and denied the Greig subdivision by a 7-2 vote (following a public hearing). As stated in their press release, ‘the Agency expressed concern with the rustic camps eventually becoming permanent homes, and with the fact that all 1900 acres were proposed to be lotted out in a grid pattern, without regard to natural contours and boundaries.’ As stated in the APA Act, applicants must demonstrate an absence of negative impacts on Park resources, and this was not done in this case according to the decision documents. Some Agency members suggested clustering the lots to avoid carving up so much of the area, others criticized the deed restrictions as not affording perpetual protection of the land’s character, while still others felt that not enough information on each lot was included in the application. However, Patten representative Daniel Christmas felt that he had provided the Agency with everything the staff had asked for, and asked the full Agency for guidance about the kinds of additional information he should provide. He left notice that he would submit a revised application.”
My report continued about the Agency’s use of its park-wide oversight, research and planning powers:
“The commissioners convened an ‘outback task force’ for several hours on Friday. Improving shoreline protections became a central topic for discussion. Since most of the privately owned shorelines are zoned Moderate or Low Intensity, allowable lot sizes, widths and setbacks do not afford needed protections (25,000 sq. ft. minimum lot size and only 100 feet lot widths in Moderate Intensity shoreline, for instance).
The original Vermont land use law, Act 250 and its successor Act 200 should be seriously studied by the Agency, said several of its members. Provisions in Vermont for a steep capital gains tax on speculative real estate transactions and a land transfer tax may be applicable in New York. Agency member Peter Paine suggested that various fiscal and tax policies in the state which encourage land to remain in a forested or agricultural condition, such as the Forest tax law, are currently not working together very well, and need greater emphasis and coordination. Benefits to the Adirondack Park would flow such state wide review and improvements.
Agency member Elizabeth Thorndike initiated several steps which the Agency plans to take right away: 1. asking staff to draft a strategic plan for assessing environmental health of the park, including its ecological health and environmental data such as where development has occurred since 1973; 2. asking the Governor to support improved state-wide open space tax policies; 3. requesting additional staff resources for the APA.
Meanwhile, the Adirondack Council wrote Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders recommending a study commissioned by the governor ‘to assess the full implications of present development trends and impacts’ in the park. At the same time, the Council urged the Legislature to impose a one-year moratorium on all subdivision of three or more lots involving 250 or more acres outside of Hamlet areas.
Patten Corporation, with a regional office in Lake Placid, simultaneously announced a one-year moratorium on further subdivision of its holdings in Resource Management. It urged others to follow suit in order to allow the APA to implement long-term planning for these areas.”
Photo: Gov. Nelson Rockefeller signs the APA Land Use and Development Plan in 1973. With him are Richard Lawrence, APA Chairman (left), Assembly Speaker Perry Duryea (center), and Senate Environmental Conservation Committee Chair Bernard C. Smith (rt.) Photo by Paul Schaefer.