Months after approving the largest subdivision in its history (Adirondack Club and Resort), the NYS Adirondack Park Agency (APA) has approved another residential subdivision on substantial acreage in Resource Management – the Park’s most protected private land use classification. In August, APA approved a 13-lot subdivision off Styles Brook Road in the Town of Keene, part of a beautiful farm and landscape of 1,336 acres lying between the Hurricane Mountain-Jay Mountain Wilderness Areas, parts of the NYS Forest Preserve.
Moreover, the subdivision lies in an area identified by the Northeast Wilderness Trust as important to protect a wildlife movement corridor linking the Split Rock Wild Forest along Lake Champlain to the Jay-Hurricane-Giant-Dix-High Peaks Wilderness areas to the west.
Six of the permitted lots allow new single-lot residential development fairly close to the road, while four other lots already have existing single family homes. The applicant, Highland Farmers, LP, limited development on the six lots to just one building by deed restriction, but was unwilling to legally restrict development elsewhere. They stated that there are no plans to build anything else to the south closer to the Forest Preserve “in the foreseeable future,” and promised that historic land uses of forestry, agriculture and open space recreation will continue as they have. The Agency staff noted the owners have been good stewards of their land over several generations, an assertion nobody disputed.
The applicant had significantly scaled down a 2006 APA application for 19-lots, with new homes on 16 of them. That application was withdrawn after the Agency staff asked good questions about how that application complied with purposes, policies and objectives of Resource Management “to protect the delicate physical and biological resources” and “preserve the open spaces that are essential and basic to the unique character of the park.”
Yet, last month APA approved the 6-new homes and the 13-lot subdivision with the proviso that before Lot 10 (536 acres) or Lot 12 (252 acres) are contemplated for further subdivision the owners must submit an “open space plan and implementation measures for the permanent protection of open space resources as appropriate.” The staff wrote that permanent protection for some of the Resource Management is “critical to a finding of compatibility” with the land use classification. Other lots also have potential to be developed more intensively beyond “the foreseeable future”, yet the Agency did not require such a plan on those lots, just on lots 10 and 12.
APA Commissioner Richard Booth did not understand why the future planning requirement did not include all lots with large amounts of open space and building potential under the Agency’s Overall Intensity Guidelines for Resource Management, which on average allows 15 principal buildings per square mile, or roughly one house for every 43 acres. Why aren’t we requiring planning for all lots – when the potential density (the applicant has 21 other potential building opportunities under the guidelines) can be shifted from one lot to another, Booth asked. Furthermore, he asked why are we requiring separate open space plans for both lots 10 and 12 which abut each other? The purpose of planning is to take into account the land’s characteristics as a whole, he said. Shouldn’t an application for development on one lot trigger planning for both lots?
Staff explained that would require the future owners of subdivided Lots 10 and 12 to cooperate with each other in developing an overall conservation plan, which staff felt they were not in a position to require. APA Chair Lani Ulrich explained “we don’t want to tell the applicant how or what to plan for.” The Agency voted for the permit, with Commissioner Booth holding out for a more comprehensive planning approach, which the APA Act encourages.
So, another good-sized landscape in common ownership in Resource Management has been subdivided into multiple ownerships, with long-term planning for a portion put off to some uncertain date. Integrated study and conservation of a contiguous landscape therefore becomes far more difficult.
Project letters on the Agency’s website reveal that the staff urged the applicant to tell them now what future land uses were contemplated, what lands would remain protected permanently, and what mechanism would be used to protect the land. Staff wrote to the applicant that APA needed this information to determine what the cumulative impacts of development resulting from an overall plan or scheme might be. The applicant refused, pointing to their historic good stewardship. They wished to keep options open. They characterized any future planning requirement as onerous, burdensome and beyond the Agency’s regulatory authority (which is untrue). I can appreciate their proprietary interest and viewpoint. The APA has a larger set of public responsibilities to the Park’s natural resources, which the law says are paramount. Yet, as with the Adirondack Club and Resort, the Agency backed down and gave preference to applicant interests over broader public interests. APA allowed the land to be subdivided now, imposing a future planning requirement on just two of the largest lots, which was certainly better than nothing at all.
What could APA have done differently? The Agency could have held a simple legislative public hearing to gather public input, or a more elaborate adjudicatory hearing to gather evidence. It could have deemed the 13-lot subdivision application incomplete until plans were described for how and where the remaining development potential on the land (21 lots) would be allocated and how permanent protection of some of the open space would be achieved. Or, it could have made such plans a precondition of this 13-lot subdivision permit.
APA is perfectly within its legal authority to expect master plans in advance of issuing subdivision permits in this most sensitive of private land classifications – as the state’s courts have ruled. The Agency required such master plans for Whitney Park’s proposed subdivision at Little Tupper Lake, the Adirondack Mountain Club at Heart Lake, the subdivision of Butler Lake in the Town of Ohio, to name three in the past. Why not require such comprehensive planning in advance of a subdivision of over 1300-acres of Resource Management situated between two Forest Preserve wilderness areas (Hurricane-Jay Mountain) which also helps make an important ecological connection all the way to Lake Champlain?
It is encouraging that the new development permitted on the six lots was analyzed by the APA’s biological resources staff in ways which reflect lessons learned from the Adirondack Club and Resort debacle. APA staff member Mark Rooks explained efforts to determine what the ecological impact zone of each the six houses, driveways, lawns, etc. would be, utilizing research models and findings or Drs. Michale Glennon, Heidi Kretser who appeared as witnesses at the ACR adjudicatory hearing. Staff felt that the houses permitted to Highland Farmers, LP, were clustered and their impacts overlapped sufficiently to avoid much unnecessary spreading of negative impacts to species of specialized Adirondack birds and mammals known to be acutely sensitive to exurban development, defined by Drs. Glennon and Kretser as “low density, rural residential development on large lots (~5 acres or larger) outside of urban boundaries.”