Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Conservation Development in the Park: The Default Option

Butler Lake project, c. 1991“Let us develop as if human beings were planning to be around and live on this land for a while longer,” said Randall Arendt, the noted landscape planner and designer and author of numerous books about how to develop the land without ruining its natural, ecologically functional, aesthetic and economic values as open space, books such as Rural By Design. Arendt was one of the keynote speakers at the Adirondack Explorer’s one-day conference last week, Strengthening the APA (NYS Adirondack Park Agency).

Stating “there is no constitutional right to sprawl,” Arendt took it right to the APA. “I look forward to returning to the Adirondack Park when conservation development is the mandate and the norm, not the exception.” He argued that the APA should make conservation design of development the default option, and conventional lots which spreads development out the rare, special case.

In conservation developments taking place all around the northeast, Arendt said, the applicant can potentially get the same number of lots, but if well designed those lots will retain their value for the homeowners because they are contiguous to permanently protected open space, and the community as a whole will gain more value because of the managed forestry, agriculture, wildlife habitats, aesthetic appeal, or recreation that can take place on that protected land. The applicant lays out less money because houses are more concentrated in one area of the project, and thus roads and other infrastructure do not need to be as lengthy to reach these lots. “This is the way it should happen here in the Adirondack Park”, he said.

By visualizing what a town or local area would look like long before the maximum amount of development allowed by zoning actually takes place, a so-called “build out analysis, he maintained, the flaws in the way we traditionally develop by spreading out the negative impacts from one corner of a project area to another can best be understood. That kind of community visualization process is a very good way to begin conservation design in a community, Arendt said. From there, conservation design standards can be developed which, if mandated, can protect community values without giving up the equity people have in their land. Analyzing proposed development then begins with a site walk, and professional analysis of critical ecological resources, primary and secondary conservation areas, and a sketch map of what areas should be left as managed or protected open spaces, and what areas are best suited for home sites and infrastructure. These steps should be taken long before an applicant lays out significant money to engineer actual building lots.

Does the APA have the legal authority it needs to conduct the steps needed to design residential subdivisions in this manner? Yes, argues the organization Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, and others during the conference. According to the APA Act, residential development in resource management areas is allowed only “on substantial acreages or in small clusters on carefully selected and well designed sites.” The words “well designed” in the law, although now more than 40 years old, can and should be interpreted today as conservation design, in light of the basic purposes of this land classification, which are “to protect the delicate physical and biological resources, encourage proper and economic management of forest, agricultural and recreational resources and preserve the open spaces that are essential and basic to the unique character of the Park.” Substitute a few words, and the Legislature also established a similar set of concerns and design objectives for residential development on rural use where residential development “should occur on large lots or in relatively small clusters on carefully selected and well designed sites.” Combined, the two land use classifications constitute 87 % of private land in the Park.

During the Explorer’s conference last week, Adirondack Wild presented a set of APA permits issued between 1988 and 2007 for relatively large subdivisions which clearly showed APA staff consciously aware of their responsibilities under the Act, and steering each project towards a form of conservation design which conducted ecological site analysis to determine where development would pose the least adverse impacts, maintained large contiguous forest tracts free of development for forestry or open space recreation, while concentrating new residences near roads.

For instance, in 2002, APA issued a permit for Diamond Sportsmen’s Club, 2002, Town of Colton, APA Project 2001-217 which authorized a subdivision into sites for about 75 new recreational camps (41 already existed) on 3,283 acres of rural use and resource management land in Colton and Parishville, St. Lawrence county. The permit sustained two areas of 2,750 acres, or 84% of the land, as dedicated open space where no new land use or development was permitted and where forest management and open space recreation for hunting, fishing was encouraged. Permitted camps were to be clustered on 530 acres, 16 % of the ownership along existing roads. “Proposed camps will not be visible from public roads, all located on suitable soils and moderate slopes, in clusters along existing roads, away from sensitive resources.” The permit states “one of the objectives is to protect the open space and natural resources…only eight new camps will be located in resource management, the remainder will be in rural use…a quantitative biological survey will be conducted within three years of this permit prior to application for future land use and development” along with a resource and recreational management plan for the entire property. “Project…will not result in a fragmentation of the site. It will continue to be held in single ownership, which will allow for long-term management for hunting, fishing and other open space recreational uses, while still allowing for forestry use, wildlife management and natural resource protection.”

Adirondack Wild identified about seven other permits which similarly show the Agency felt it once had the existing authority and the awareness of its legal responsibility to protect large tracts of forested open space containing important physical and biological resources available for forest management or open space recreation and not parcelized, broken up or fragmented by house lots.

As we stated at the conference, this agency precedent contrasts markedly with the Adirondack Club and Resort permit issued in 2012, where over 650 residential units and 15 miles of new road, driveways and other infrastructure are spread across 6200 forested acres, 4800 of which is in resource management, and where no large contiguous forest blocks in single ownership and stewardship are protected anywhere on the site. ACR was truly, as conservation biologist Dr. Michael Klemens noted at the ACR hearing, “sprawl on steroids.” It is all the more egregious knowing the agency has done things so differently in the past.

The fact that the APA has the authority and the precedent to do far better than the ACR in its permitting of large residential projects does not mean that the staff is not looking for better policy guidance. As the APA staff prepared for the ACR project in 2004-05, memoranda from the project review staff was solicited by senior planners at the agency. These comments from early in 2005 clearly show a staff conscious of their law and seeking to be consulted and involved in setting vitally important Park policy that would transcend their own careers at the APA. The following quotes are taken from these staff memos, which are part of the official ACR Adjudicatory hearing record:

“For years there has been a great deal of talk about establishing a policy regarding open space protection, but no action. Unfortunately, the Agency and its staff have had to deal with the issue on a case by case basis…Undefined terms in the Act like “large lots” and “relatively small clusters” for RU and “substantial acreages” and “small clusters” for RM beg for quantification and clarification… “There are some notable projects that could be examined in developing this policy: Butler Lake, Monter (Oven Mountain), Whitney Industries, Persek, and Diamond Sportsmen. I certainly would be willing to participate in further discussion and work on this topic as part of an initiative to develop a clear open space policy.”

“The basic purpose of RM lands is to protect their physical and biological resources, encourage proper management of resources and to preserve the open space character of the Park. A policy on clustering and on substantial acreage in RM should be carefully developed to protect these purposes.”

“Another concept that should be considered when developing this policy is forest fragmentation. What would 50 to 100 acre lots mean to wildlife resources? Should boundaries for substantial acreage subdivisions be done on a resource basis? Should these types of subdivisions avoid the division of wetlands or even watersheds? Do natural boundaries need to be maintained to protect resources like water, wildlife, forestry, agricultural and open space? Does a ‘backcountry’ subdivision take away or significantly reduce the likelihood that the tract will be collectively managed in the future for resource protection, forestry management, agriculture or open space protection?”

“A policy on clustering, large lots and substantial acreage…will permanently affect the pattern of development…and the open space character of the park. It must be considered carefully, thoroughly and comprehensively.”

Institutional knowledge is a very valuable and underutilized asset. It may be worthwhile for the agency to invite some retired APA staff to join current project staff and Park stakeholders in a workshop setting to discuss how the agency has reviewed and planned for larger subdivisions in the past and what policy, regulatory or other changes may be needed to ensure that larger residential developments of the future will meet modern conservation development standards in the globally renowned and protected Adirondack Park. Let’s invite Randall Arendt back when conservation development here truly is the standard and the norm, not the exception.

Illustration: Butler Lake, an APA permit from 1991 located in the Town of Ohio, Herkimer County, which used an adjudicatory hearing and negotiations with the applicant to conduct conservation design, removing sprawl around the lake, avoiding critical ecological resources, creating large contiguous open space, and concentrating development in one area of the site most suited for it. Schematic courtesy of the Adirondack Council, 1991.

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David Gibson

Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

7 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    This obviously makes sense from an environmental perspective but I don’t understand this part:

    “Arendt continued, the applicant can potentially get the same number of lots, but if well designed those lots will retain their value for the homeowners because they are contiguous to permanently protected open space…”

    In the Butler Lake example you give they go from 90 lots to 25? Isn’t this just building less on bigger lots and keeping some away from certain areas (the water in this case)?

    Is there a design for that project that would allow 90 lots and accomplish what he describes?

  2. Dave Gibson says:

    Good point, Paul. Sometimes, but not always an applicant can gain the same number of conservation designed lots as he or she would in traditional layouts, depending on the landscape and resources involved. With Butler Lake, clearly that was not possible given the large number of special features and sensitive resources. The more intense the proposed development and the smaller the site, the more difficult it becomes to concentrate all desired development in ways that avoid sensitive sites and do not detract from conservation objectives.

    • Paul says:

      It is clear from the before map that this was just the classic cookie cutter lay out. But requiring the alternative here is a tough sell. It really is about decreasing the amount of development in the park given that much of the land has these sensitive sites. One thing that this could be combined with is things like alternatives to septic (for example composting toilets or holding tanks) that will also lessen the impact when you can’t decrease the number of lots drastically.

  3. Pete Klein says:

    As is always the case (or so it seems) when it comes to “development” within the Adirondacks, we seem to be talking about development for part-time residents.
    The only development that makes any real sense is development for those willing to live here full-time.
    As things currently stand, there is no need for more houses because the population is dropping.

    • Paul says:

      Pete, I know lots of folks that are living full time in the Adirondacks and they sell their land for second home development. Heck half the camps around where I have a place are summer camps of full time residents some even have their primary home at the other end of the same lake. It is more complicated that “us and them”. Many full time Adirondack residents have much of their equity tied up in Adirondack real estate. They are counting on using that equity for things like paying for their kids college and the like. To do that they have to sell it at some point. They are going to sell it to whomever offers them the best price no matter where they are from.

      • Pete Klein says:

        I’m just saying there is no shortage of houses, just a shortage of people.
        More houses empty for most of the year does not solve any economic problems and only contributes to the lessening of the rural landscape.
        By the way, I would love to see the IRS check and see how many part-timers rent their houses out to vacationers but never bother to include the income on their taxes.
        It will be interesting to see if some are taking the STAR exemption.

        • Paul says:

          “More houses empty for most of the year does not solve any economic problems and only contributes to the lessening of the rural landscape.”

          Pete, it actually works out pretty well in some places. Aspen, Vail, Steamboat Springs, and Lake Tahoe are a few examples.

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