Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Upland Development: Highlands At Risk

Upland Development: Highlands At RiskIn a field bordered by forested hills and rocky ridges, Dan Plumley unfurled a zoning map of the Adirondack Park. The color-coded map was a reminder of how much private land lay before him, and how potentially fleeting the natural views from Marcy Field could be.

He pointed to a bald patch on Corliss Point above the valley, where lights from a house inconspicuous by day blaze into a flying saucer at night, one of many signs that growth in the backcountry is creeping higher.

“Hundreds of thousands of people drive by on this road every year,” said Plumley, gesturing toward Route 73. “They see this view and think it will always be there. I’m here to say that the way this land-use plan is being implemented, the transcendental beauty and ecological integrity of this scene is in jeopardy.”

With available lakeshore land disappearing, more people are turning to the uplands of the Adirondacks to build their dream vacation home. Four decades after the Adirondack Park Agency was created to manage development of private land in the Park, the standards for building at higher elevations remain inconsistent. The APA regulates projects above 2,500 feet, but less than 1 percent of private land sits that high. The result is that the APA and a patchwork of local governments decide piecemeal what gets built in the hills, putting the Park’s overall scenic character at risk.

For instance, while the town of Day regulates building on the hills above Great Sacandaga Lake, the town of Hadley next door has no zoning rules at all. “I would hate to drive around the lake and see bare areas with houses on the mountains,” said David Cox, a retired engineer who heads Day’s planning board. And yet, without a coordinated Park-wide plan to address building in the uplands, the number of bare patches in the hills are growing year by year. Farsighted actions in Day and other communities could be undone by towns with little or no zoning.

To look closely at Plumley’s map is to appreciate how much private terrain exists in the Park, and how many McMansions could fit into the wild scenery that draws more than 7 million visitors each year. The downside of upland development is not just a loss of majestic views. Building on steep slopes and at higher elevation causes erosion and raises the risk of septic-system failure, potentially degrading water quality in the streams and lakes below. Homes built into the hills may also be vulnerable to sliding, depending on soil type and weather. The landslide that heavily damaged two homes on Keene’s Little Porter Mountain in spring 2011 has been partly attributed to the glacial soils below becoming saturated from several seasons of heavy rain and snow.

The growth in hillside development has been well-documented on Lake George and in Keene, but examples can be found around the Park: Great Sacandaga Lake, Crane Mountain, and the Fulton Chain of Lakes, among other places. On a drive through Essex County, Plumley, a partner with the environmental group Adirondack Wild, identified half a dozen homes perched prominently on hills. In Elizabethtown, a large home loomed over the hamlet, visible from Route 9N miles away. In Jay, a vacation home near the top of Black Mountain Road welcomed visitors with a sign at the driveway: “Whiteface Views Welcome.” In Keene, Plumley stopped at the town dump to show off the view of the Great Range. A metal roof sparkled on the horizon, marring a vista that draws Plumley’s congregation to the site each spring to celebrate Easter Mass. “How much that house detracts from the view is open to debate,” he said. “But you have to remember, this is not a town resource alone. This is a Park resource.”

How widespread is the problem? With no one tracking upland development, much less able to define it, it’s hard to say. The words upland, ridgeline, and hillside do not appear in the APA’s land-use rules. When reviewing project proposals, it is up to local government or the APA to make a judgment about a project’s relative elevation and impose restrictions to protect views and water quality. “When you talk about upland development it’s not like the shoreline where you can define what’s broken,” said John Banta, a former attorney and planner for the APA.

Evidence of good and bad decisions abound. Most of the Park’s backcountry uplands in private ownership are zoned Resource Management or Rural Use, the APA’s most restrictive land-use categories, which allow only low-density development. APA approval is needed to create subdivisions in either area, but while approval is needed to build a single home on RM land, that is not the case for RU land: if a landowner meets the 8.5-acre lot requirement and forty-foot height limit, the APA may have no power to impose the restrictions it normally applies to higher-elevation homes, including non-reflective windows and roofing, natural paint colors, downward facing lights, and limited tree-clearing. Planning decisions are left to the towns when the APA lacks jurisdiction, and some of the more conspicuous upland homes in the Park exist in towns that lack comprehensive zoning, such as Elizabethtown and Keene.

The loophole was not intentional, said George Davis, the APA’s deputy director at its start in 1973. In the beginning the agency expected that each town would develop a zoning plan to regulate lands outside hamlets. But a majority of towns continue to lack the resources or political will to create a comprehensive zoning plan with planning and zoning boards to administer it. Just 17 percent of the Park’s 103 towns and villages have an APA-approved land-use plan (though more than three-quarters now have some form of zoning).

Local government plays a powerful role in shaping growth, and the uplands are no exception. Towns and villages approve more than half of all development that occurs in the Park, according to a study of 1990s growth trends by the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks.

High above Lake Champlain, Westport is one town that guards its views closely. In its recent approval of a private club on the former Bessboro Farm, the planning board laid out strict conditions for preserving vegetation on the bluffs above the lake. The town’s code-enforcement officer will make sure promises are kept. “This particular piece of shoreline is pristine and, practically speaking, undeveloped, and the community would like to keep it that way,” said Bill Johnston, the board’s chairman.

Just over the town line in Elizabethtown, with no zoning beyond the hamlet and no land-use boards, code-enforcement officer John Hudson splits his time between Elizabethtown, Jay, and Keene. When asked about the house overlooking the hamlet, Hudson tried without success to locate the file in the paper records he inherited a year ago after taking the job.

The APA provided a fuller picture. After receiving a complaint about the house on Mohawk Way, the agency investigated and found that owners Daniel and Gayle Alexander had built their home taller than the forty-foot limit. Once it had the power to intervene, the APA was able to negotiate a settlement. In 2008, the Alexanders agreed to plant trees and shrubs to screen their house, bring their septic system up to code, and pay a $2,500 fine. As the vegetation grows in, the house should become less noticeable, said APA spokesman Keith McKeever.

Plumley, of Adirondack Wild, argues that the regulations should be changed so that the APA automatically reviews projects like this from the start. “These issues only come up when a McMansion goes up in a highly visible place, but this is happening all over the backcountry. Land is being carved up without adequate review.”

The town of Webb, home to much of the Fulton Chain of Lakes, has struggled to handle heavy development pressure with limited resources. Many of the seasonal homes built on the steep slopes above First, Second, Third, and Fourth Lakes, an area known as Hollywood Hills, are built on tiny lots that predate the town’s zoning law. Mudslides have been a problem, said zoning-enforcement officer Andrew Getty. He also worries that accumulated septic-system releases and storm-water runoff are polluting the lakes below with nutrients and silt. At budget time, Getty asks the town board each year to fund an environmental study, but the estimated cost, more than $250,000, is prohibitive in a town under intense pressure to keep taxes down.

In the meantime, hillside construction has moved elsewhere, including above Big Moose Lake. A nine-thousand-square-foot mansion under construction will soon be visible from the water and Martin Road. “Right now it’s just a big hole in the mountain, but as soon as the roof goes up I’m sure this office will start getting calls,” said Getty.

Not everyone sees a problem in the uplands. “We have a reverse development problem: nothing is coming here and everything is going away,” said Edinburg Supervisor Jean Raymond, whose town abuts Great Sacandaga Lake.

Photos: Above, The Fund for Lake George says hillside development allows more runoff to reach the lake (Courtesy Fund for Lake George); below, Dan Plumley worries that upland development could mar the views from Marcy Field (Photo by Kim Martineau).

More stories about the Adirondacks can be found in each issue of Adirondack Explorer, the non-profit news magazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park.  Get a full print or digital subscription here.

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Kim Martineau writes about science for Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, part of Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Follow Lamont-Doherty on Twitter (@LamontEarth), Facebook (Lamont.Doherty) and the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog.

31 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    “The APA regulates projects above 2,500 feet, but less than 1 percent of private land sits that high. ”

    The APA regulates development at all elevations withing the Adirondack Park. Kim, I don’t understand this?

    • Kim Martineau says:

      An APA permit is needed if you wish to build on land above 2,500 feet–even if the land wouldn’t otherwise need APA approval. The point here is that a rule designed to protect the highlands applies to only a very tiny amount of private land.

      • Paul says:


        Thanks. Most land including everything above and below 2500 feet, with the exception of small amount of land within hamlets, is under APA jurisdiction. It isn’t a tiny amount amount of land, it is most of the land within the Adirondack Park.

        One issue we have is that there are strict regulations designed to move development away from wetlands and waterways. Including very strict regulations on Wild Scenic and Recreational Rivers. It seems like that would “push” development to higher ground in those areas.

        • Lily says:

          Paul –
          You said: “Most land including everything above and below 2500 feet, with the exception of a small amount of land within hamlets, is under APA jurisidiction.” If what you mean is that a permit or variance is needed for everything that happens in those areas, you are flat-out wrong! But don’t let the facts get in the way of your opinions.

          Too bad the APA rules are so complicated that the regular person walking the street – let alone most attorneys practicing in the Park – has no idea if they need APA approval for their house, business, garage, etc., etc., etc. What a setup for mass violations! And given that APA enforcement is a joke, the Park is NOT adequately protected.

  2. Snowshoe steve says:

    Abolish the APA

  3. TiSentinel65 says:

    Where in the U.S. constitution are you guaranteed an unblemished view? Maybe your neighbors could voice their concerns about how your residence has “ruined” their view. You have no ground to stand on. You are discriminatory in your findings.This article is the same old “sky is falling” talk, that preservationist and environmentalist groups love to showcase as need for action. I climbed Pillsbury Mt. the other week. I looked west and could see nothing but wilderness. You need to get away from the computer and get lost in the woods. Believe me contrary to what your article says there are plenty of places in the Adirondacks where you will not see the the makings of man.

  4. Gtcraft says:

    I grew up and continue to live in the Adirondacks ( more than 50 years) and there has always been one constant theme from the APA. That is , I’ve got mine but your not going to get yours. The APA has continously failed to recognize that the Adirondacks is where we make our living.My greatgrandparents came here in the 1800’s so this area has always been ans will hopefully always be my home. My point is this, if the APA had their way then no one but them would be able to live here.

    • lived here longer than you says:

      My ancestors came here 1700s, and I believe your anti-APA argument is ridiculous. I wish you 19th century new-comers would move back to the suburbs.

      • Gtcraft says:

        Do your homework. The only people here in the 1700’s were native americans who didn’t live here but used it as hunting grounds. By the way I never said I was anti- APA. Ther needs to be regulation but regulation with common sense and people sens.

        • lived here longer than you says:

          Smarten UP! Read the 1790 Census. It is no wonder you are so wrong about the APA. You can not get the basic facts straight. People like you are what is wrong with America. Loud mouths who do not know what they are talking about.

  5. George King says:

    What part of private property don’t you people understand. A zoning agency (which the APA is) can only go so far, and it seems they have begun to realize this. It is unfortunate, but those that desire it cannot use the APA to force people off their private land.

  6. Meemyself Andeye says:

    where is that picture taken???

  7. Pete Nelson says:

    Wow wow wow. The APA is trying to drive people off their land. The APA wants no one but them to be in the park (I don’t even know what that one means).

    I forget now: what percent of APA permits are passed? Oh yeah… almost all of them.

    This kind of issue drives me crazy because we don’t talk about what is really going on.

    If all goes well, in a couple of years I will have a small domicile on a piece of land I’m eying that will have from its porch a sixty-mile vista on a good day. And I will enjoy that vista and not apologize for it. You bet.

    But this modest structure will be completely invisible from view, unnoticeable to anyone not standing right near it – otherwise I absolutely won’t build it.

    Why? Because I’m not a selfish ass with McMansion envy who not only doesn’t care what people have to look at, but who quite possibly wants people to glory and be humbled and impressed by their majestic eaves and windows.

    Seriously, wow.

    Oh, btw, the APA has approved my plan.

    • Paul says:

      Pete, I agree building in a way that is pretty well concealed is not that difficult to do. The trick is seasonal. We have a number of new homes you can see on the Saranac Chain (not huge but nice) now that the leaves are off but they are well concealed in the summer months. The trick is probably using more evergreens for yearlong concealment. This summer I finished paining a camp that I have Adirondack brown (as I call it), you have to be well onto my property before you can see much of it.

      But it does take more land to make sure you are building in a way that hides a house, especially when you also have to worry about wetland, boundary line, and shoreline setbacks. I think what some people with smaller parcels are thinking is, with setbacks (also many groups say increase these) for wetlands and shorelines and now suggested upland restrictions, that at some point you have nowhere left to build.

      • Pete Nelson says:

        Good comments, true enough. As always, balance is called for. But most of that has to be a matter of conscience and care and thoughtfulness, not regulation.

        In this regard I find permanent residents are so often much more thoughtful and considerate than seasonal owners who will throw up some colossal horror on a ridge as though they are showing off.

  8. dave says:

    A zoning agency can not force people off their land… and no one suggested it could.

    But what a zoning agency can do – indeed is designed to do – is set parameters for how that land is used, and how that usage affects others.

    There are disagreements about where those parameters should be set. That is fine. Let’s discuss those parameters and those disagreements.

    But let’s also stop with the hysteria and the hyperbole. No one is being forced off their land, no one is being told to leave the Adirondacks, the constitution is not being shredded.

    • Paul says:

      Dave, see my comment above. I agree to some extent. But zoning restrictions anywhere can at some point render land worthless from a development perspective. There is a large amount of Adirondack land where they have set the “parameters” at NO building.

      • dave says:

        A large amount of private Adirondack land can have no buildings? That is not my understanding. Where did you get that information?

        I can’t fathom how this would be an issue unless you are somehow counting land that is also part of a larger plot. As in, an 8 acre property allows for one home… so technically the other 7 acres of land can have NO building (because the plot already has a home on it)

        For a piece of private property to truly be set to no building, I imagine it would have to be a pretty unique – almost certainly small – piece of land that fit squarely in the middle of setbacks and other restrictions. Are such chunks of land common? Or even allowed to be created? I was under the impression that there are subdivision rules that try to prevent such plots of land.

        • Mightymike says:

          County assessment rolls classify land with no buildings as vacant land or foresty land. There are lots of them here. Check out the APRAP report. They the put info on this together for whole park.

          • John Warren says:

            I happen to have my copy right here – 25.9% of land in the Adirondacks is classified as vacant.

          • dave says:

            Are you talking about land that currently has no buildings – or land that is not allowed to have buildings? There is a big difference.

            Paul suggested that there is a large amount of land that can have no buildings due to zoning restrictions.

            For example, I own vacant land in the park. I have to assume it is part of these vacant land assessments. However, I could build on it if I wish.

      • Lily says:

        More often, the natural features of the land itself render it “useless” for many people’s unreasonable, impractical plans for development. Maybe a mountainside lot with steep slopes, rocky soils and a stream is truly only suitable for a lean-to, or a seasonal one-room cabin and an outhouse. Instead, what often happens is someone with lots of money wants to showcase their wealth and hires an architect, engineer and lawyer to find a way to get what they want where they want it – it gets built, then they pay the meager APA fine – – a small cost built into their original development budget.

  9. TiSentinel65 says:

    Pete I don’t think they are showing off, they have money and can do the things that I can’t, and maybe you can’t do, due to financial limitations. My family owns a very nice parcel over looking Lake George, but nobody ever talks about running a road to the top and building a house. It would take a ton of money, and besides we like it the way it is for the hunting. The views are outstanding. I am sure some wealthy person would love to aquire it just for that reason. The irony here is the people in Hullets Landing with their beautiful houses high on the hill probably wouldn’t like looking at it. They might complain thier view has been spoiled.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      You and I may disagree on a variety of issues but you always seem reasonable to me. So I have a question for you: this ridge, with this view that you cherish, would you build a large, highly visible home on it, knowing what that would do to the view for others? I’m truly interested to know how you would answer.

  10. Marisa Muratori says:

    The photo is the upland development of Green Harbor…Like the Sagamore condos a few miles north, they have a decidedly lopsided and out of context appearance. Yet I have visited folks who live there when I was campaigning for office and I can tell you that they are not unmoved by their breathtaking view of Lake George. Some of my best supporters, who are quite sympathetic to environmental issues, live there. And we need local folks who feel that deep reverence for the park and want to participate in its stewardship. Let’s get real, we don’t ‘own’ land. Pay taxes, and have the privilege to temporarily care for it, yes. Policy that we can create to protect the environment and protect land ‘owners’ rights is quite simple: You ought to be able to do whatever you want on the land (in your name of which you are temporarily encamped) as long you are not creating externalities. So, in the ADK ‘s that would include not increasing stormwater runoff from the site. Also appropriate is protecting the view shed… if for no other reason, to maintain the special character of the ADK scenery, which draws visitors who support our economy. We used to know how to do this. We crafted structures that complimented the surroundings. ADK camps, and their driveways, used to build in context with the surroundings, and minimal use of a bulldozer carving into it. Above and beyond protective policy we need fitting examples of construction which blends tradition with impact-mitigating innovation. Adirondack Life Magazine has done much to sell the new Great Camp which comes with side affect encroachments ….We really need to promote a vernacular that manifests a true understanding and consideration for our milieu.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      “We used to know how to do this…” Indeed! I’m glad someone made that point.

      Well said. Thanks, Marisa.

  11. TiSentinel65 says:

    I would not build a house on it, though I could see the temptation. This land has been in my family pre Civil War. We are happy hunting it, and it has always been that way and hope to keep it that way. But that is how we value it. I can understand people like to see the mountains unspoiled however, land owners have rights. Is every project going to be vetted against the wishes of what our neighbors want? The hypocracy I constantly see on Lake George and in the Adirondacks is after somebody builds their dream house here, they are quick to stake a claim on what there neighbor should be allowed to do on their land.

    • Phil Brown says:

      Ti, you might not build on it, but if your family ever sells it, chances are it will get built on … unless you put a conservation easement on it.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      I utterly agree with the point about hypocrisy. It is part and parcel of the attitude I meant to illustrate in my first comment.

  12. TiSentinel65 says:

    Conservation would be much easier if land taxes were not so high.

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