Get out your torches and pitchforks, kids. Here comes a nice fat target to shoot at. I’m going to propose an updated land use policy and permitting process for the Adirondack Park Agency. I’m not going to go into a detailed explanation of it since I imagine that I will have ample opportunity to do that in response to the numerous comments I hope to receive.
Consider this a straw man that you can light on fire or eviscerate as desired. I don’t suggest for a moment that I have the one best answer or anything remotely definitive. But I aim to have something to talk about which I can defend on the basis laid out in the two previous commentaries in this series: common ground exists to a far greater extent than the usual rhetoric would have you believe and we waste time, effort and good will by playing politics when reasoned discussion and a rational process can get us to consensus far more often than not. So be ready, because I’m going to come back at any and all objections with direct challenges.
I have had the able commentary and critical review of an expert in writing on this topic: Michale Glennon, Science Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society Adirondack Program. Michale, who has her PhD in Environmental Science and Forestry from SUNY-ESF, is conducting core research on the ecological importance of private land in the Adirondacks. Her presentation at the Strengthening the APA Conference held in September was a highlight. While her comments have been most helpful and I thank her, nothing in this proposal belongs to her; it is entirely my fault. Thanks also to the other Adirondack experts who reviewed this before it went to publication.
First, with Michale’s assistance, let us disabuse ourselves of any notion that updating private land use policy is not important. Here’s her quote to me on the subject:
Private lands are extremely important to Adirondack biodiversity. Here, and elsewhere, large numbers of species make use of habitats on private lands to meet their needs. Although the Forest Preserve protects some habitat types very well, there are others in the Adirondacks that are disproportionately represented on private land and at the same time critically important to wildlife.
In other words, we cannot ignore private land in the ecological equation simply because we assume there is enough protected land in the Forest Preserve.
What then is the most critical issue with regards to the ecological health of private land in the park? Again Michale, along with her research partner, social scientist Heidi Kretser (from the Northeastern States Research Cooperative’s web site):
Low-density residential development of five or more acres per house causes ten times the amount of land-use change caused by urban and suburban development and is one of the primary causes of habitat loss in the United States.
So from an environmental perspective private land use policy as it applies to open space is unquestionably important. But it is obviously critical from economic and political perspectives as well, since it impacts development and therefore the well being of people and communities in the park.
None of this is lost on the APA, which takes its mission to protect open space very seriously. However the conception of open space in the APA Act is a forty year old construction and it is absent the greater understanding of biodiversity, forest integrity and wildlife habitat that an additional four decades of progress in the ecological sciences has given us. As Michale said in her presentation at the APA conference, “open space” is a vague notion that needs to be replaced by a richer concept of ecological health.
My assumption with the following proposal, per last week’s commentary, is that private land development that preserves ecological richness is compatible with private land development that is economically rich – that is, it’s profitable for the developer, for the community and for the overall economy of the Adirondacks.
Here’s the proposed policy.
Inclusive – The process brings developers and environmental scientists to the table early in the game. It is understood that each party’s interest becomes everyone’s interests. Specifically all parties work together to maximize two objectives: ecological health and profitability.
The question of exactly who sits at the table throughout the process of permitting a specific project is an open one; more on that next week.
Shared cost model – The cost to work through the process is shared by the parties. The ecological site survey is paid for out of a park-wide pool which is funded by businesses, environmental organizations and State Government. The fund is administered by the APA.
Incorporates the principles of Conservation Design – Following the ideas developed by Randall Arendt, the permitting process begins with a mandatory ecological site survey which then serves as input into the ongoing design process for the development.
Science-based – The ecological site survey is conducted by scientists selected from a suggested list developed by a coalition of parties and maintained by the APA. As third parties they reduce the possibility of bias.
It is important to note that the science surrounding things like disturbance zones is far from complete; nothing in this proposal or the process should be construed to indicate that I or anyone else thinks the science is definitive. But that’s okay: my goal here is not to lobby for specific disturbance zones. It is rather to promote a scientific perspective and approach. An ecological site survey provides useful information – some more solid, some less so, but all of important to the task of creating an informed design.
Predictable – The steps in the process are laid out clearly. Having both an ecological inventory and a development plan up front minimizes the chance for a “surprise” down the road that costs the parties time and money.
Flexible – There are multiple levels of site survey and design parameters depending upon the scope of the project.
Includes education as a core component – Jim Frenette, former APA Chairman, made a powerful point in his comments at the Strengthening the APA conference. In his view one of the main things lacking in previous debates over land use issues was education and outreach: people did not necessarily understand what they were objecting to or what the intent of certain proposals really was. Here, required educational sessions would be part of the process.
Does not require revising the APA Act – There seems to be general agreement that now is not the time to reopen the APA Act. This process would need to be implementable through regulation under the existing Act.
1. The developers submit a project application, plans and criteria to the APA. A key component of this submission is the ability to measure expected revenue over the life of the project, therefore the business plan must be complete enough to do allow this analysis.
2. The APA uses a set of objective criteria to determine the level of ecological site survey required for the project (more on how these criteria could be developed next week). These criteria include number of acres, number of lots, land classification, history and current status of the parcel, etc.
3. An ecological site survey is scheduled. An organization is selected to conduct the survey from an approved list. The organization is paid for the work out of a park-wide shared pool fund maintained by the APA. The developers may veto the selection if they can show cause as to why the selected organization will not be fair and/or effective. The developers, at their expenses, can nominate an outside party to join the team.
4. One or more educational sessions are held where developers, scientists and the APA review the proposed project, the particulars of an ecological site survey, the principles of Conservation Design and the applicable legal and regulatory framework . These sessions are open to the public.
5. The ecological site survey is conducted and submitted as input to a design process.
6. The APA holds design sessions with developers, the site survey scientists and outside experts as appropriate. Conservation Design principles are applied to design an intelligent layout which preserves the ecological integrity of the parcel to the maximum extent possible. Economic analysis is conducted concurrently to maximize lot value and maintain the revenue forecast the developer desires.
In order to accomplish this, specific strategies guide the process. These include:
a. The number of lots desired by the developer is maintained to allow the revenue plan to be successful.
b. Land not immediately part of a lot owner’s disturbance zone is to be placed under conservation easement which spells out specific rights to use by the owner. This allows large lots sizes and privacy while preserving ecological integrity.
c. A Recreational Plan is produced for land not subdivided into specific lots. This land is to be placed under shared ownership with a conservation easement which spells out specific rights to use by the owners, per the recreational plan. This creates a great deal of added value and allows for marketing a virtual lot size far greater than the individual lot size.
d. A variety of lot sizes are incorporated ensuring an average lot size per APA land classification requirements.
e. Individual lot lines are drawn last.
7. The process moves forward only when the parties in the design process reach consensus on a final design. Any party in the design process has veto power over the proposal.
8. Only once consensus is established does the APA continue with appropriate review and adjudicatory steps consistent with current regulations to approve the project with appropriate conditions. Because of the robustness of the process it is anticipated these conditions are already understood and agreed to.
We can have a healthy debate over this proposal on its merits. A separate question is whether or not it is feasible: could the APA actually implement such a policy? What would the process be? Could it be done without revisiting the APA Act itself? Tune in next week when I discuss these questions and other questions.
Bring on the comments! Make them good.