Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Robert Moses and the Lake George Park Commission

Almost every park and camp ground in New York State is administered by the Office of Parks and Recreation, with the exception of those in the Catskills and the Adirondacks. The Department of Environmental Conservation manages those.

Wint Aldrich, a Deputy Commissioner for Historic Preservation at Parks through four administrations, once explained that anomaly to me. “The Conservation Department didn’t want Robert Moses anywhere near the Forest Preserve,” Aldrich said.

Moses, who had controlled everything even remotely related to New York’s parks since 1924, was notoriously averse to wilderness preservation.

He was the man who wanted to build a highway along the shore of Lake George at Tongue Mountain, a plan that conservationist John Apperson foiled. Legend has it that Apperson, who knew Governor Franklin Roosevelt through his wife’s brother Hall, took Roosevelt on a boat ride through the Narrows and persuaded him that a highway along the shore would desecrate the lake. The governor agreed, and the plan was shelved.

I recently came upon another example of Moses’ distaste for environmental conservation. He was the only figure of prominence, inside state government or out, to oppose the creation of the Lake George Park Commission.

Moses’ objections to the 1961 legislation creating the Commission were based in part upon the fact that the bill gave the proposed group “no power to develop parks or recreational facilities,” the only two things which, to his mind, justified the conservation of natural resources.

Since 1987, the year the state legislature empowered it with new functions, the Lake George Park Commission has (among other things) regulated marinas and private docks, drafted new rules to protect water quality and waged war on invasive aquatic species.

But as conceived by L. Judson Morhouse, the chairman of the New York State Republican Committee who owned a house on northern Lake George, the Lake George Park Commission was to be something unprecedented in New York State at that time: a regional zoning agency.

“I have been working a year on the new Lake George Park Commission,” Morhouse wrote to one of Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s aides in January of 1961. “It permits people to establish areas where the scenic character and natural attractions will continue to be preserved.”

The zoning was to be voluntary, or “Do It Yourself” zoning, as the commission’s first members called it. Property owners in places such as Rogers Rock, Sabbath Day Point and Assembly Point were to be granted the authority to ban commercial development in their neighborhoods through restrictive covenants.

The fact that the zoning was to be voluntary did nothing to diminish Moses’ objections to that aspect of the proposal.

“It should be borne in mind that the State has always refrained from entering the field of local zoning – a power which has been delegated to the towns and villages,” wrote Moses.

Moses believed that a regional zoning agency would set a dangerous precedent; and, in fact, it was viewed as a precedent, but a desirable one.

The enabling legislation, wrote the counsel for the state’s Office of Local Government, “embodies a new type of attack on the problems of preserving the natural beauty of lake waterfronts.”

(A few years later, legislation incorporating voluntary zoning for the entire Adirondack Park was developed, but died. In 1971, of course, the legislature approved the Adirondack Park Agency act, which mandated rather than permitted zoning.)

What truly annoyed Moses, though, was not the proposed Commission’s failure to adequately promote recreation, or its infringement on local zoning powers, but the fact that he would not control it.

Here, he suggests as much: “it is without logical relation to existing regional State park commissions.” Those regional state park commissions, it should be noted, were controlled by a State Council of Parks, of which Moses was, of course, the chairman. (He was also president of one of them, the Long Island State Park Commission.)

Governor Rockefeller ignored Moses’ opposition, and signed the Lake George Park Commission bill into law in 1961.

A year later, Rockefeller asked Moses to resign as the chairman of the State Council of Parks. If he did, he could remain at his four other state posts (as well as president of the 1964 World’s Fair and in his three New York City jobs.) Moses rejected the offer, and Rockefeller stripped him of all the power he had aggregated to himself through forty years of government service.

Moses didn’t know it at the time, but his opposition to the Lake George Park Commission was the beginning of his end.

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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.

4 Responses

  1. Dave Gibson says:

    Thanks, Tony, for such an interesting piece on Moses. Thanks too for correcting what I thought Paul Schaefer told me – that Apperson toured Gov Al Smith around Lake George, which led to the blocking of the Tongue Mountain “scenic” highway. I am glad to know it was FDR.

  2. Tony Hall says:

    Dave – As I said, “Legend has it;” I’d put more faith in Paul Schaefer than in local stories. Hall Roosevelt did, however, share a house with Apperson and other GE people on Lake George, and there’s a great photograph of Eleanor and Franklin at the house, which was the old Lake View hotel south of what is now the Algonquin restaurant

  3. AG Gabriels III says:

    In reviewing Frank Leonbruno’s book he indicates it was Gov. Al Smith that Apperon toured through the Narrows and subsequently rejected the road along the lakeside of Tongue Mountain. Two other 80+ long time Bolton residents concur with that prevailing thought.

    FDR was also known to have stayed at the Loines Estate in Northwest Bay once.

    AG Gabriels

  4. Tony Hall says:

    Thanks Z and Dave. Any future version of this footnote to history will be corrected to reflect Smith’s role.