Now in its forty-second year, the Adirondack Park Agency is facing a critical time of public evaluation. Has it fulfilled its original mandate to protect millions of woodland acres and thousands of miles of waterways in the Adirondacks? Or has it fallen short, pressured by development interests and weakened by outdated regulations and inadequate funding?
These questions will not be put to rest easily, if ever. Local governments, developers, state authorities, environmentalists, and ordinary citizens will continue to struggle with competing interests and old grudges even as they face a growing number of challenges.
At a recent conference sponsored by the Adirondack Explorer, called “Strengthening the APA,” various experts discussed strategies for protecting the Park’s water quality and wilderness character.
Held at the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center on September 26, the conference grew out of a yearlong series in the Explorer titled “Assessing the APA,” which examined the agency’s handling of the Park’s most pressing environmental issues. The conference participants included experts from the Adirondacks and as far away as Lake Tahoe and the New Jersey Pinelands. More than 150 people attended, including several APA officials.
The Explorer has uploaded videos of the event on its website. In all, there are thirteen videos, each devoted to a segment of the conference. Click here to see the video page.
Dick Beamish, founder of the Explorer, said the APA’s approval in January 2012 of the Adirondack Club and Resort, a massive development planned on the outskirts of Tupper Lake, was one of the catalysts for the series and the conference. That project, he said, will cut up thousands of acres of open space into sprawling “Great Camp” lots.
“That helped to trigger a lot of concern,” Beamish said. “If they could approve that—kind of get rolled over by the developer—it’s clear that something needs to get done to improve the APA.”
The conference included two panel discussions, a morning session on water quality and an afternoon session on land use. The keynote speaker was Randall Arendt, one of the foremost proponents of conservation design, an approach to development that seeks to preserve open space and ecological integrity. There also were presentations by Philip Terrie, the Adirondack historian; Keith McKeever, the APA communications director; and Willie Janeway, the executive director of the Adirondack Council. Other highlights included an individual interview with Assemblyman Dan Stec and a joint interview with Jim Frenette and John Collins, both former APA chairmen, and Bill Kissell, a former APA counsel and commissioner.
Terrie, the first speaker, said the state has done a good job of protecting half the Park, through acquisitions for the forever-wild Forest Preserve and through conservation easements. “But what about the other half?” he asked. He went on to say that shorelines, the uplands, and the privately owned backcountry are inadequately protected against development. “Private shorelines have largely been lost over the last forty years,” he asserted.
McKeever, who followed Terrie, said the APA’s Land Use and Development Plan, enacted in 1973, is designed to channel growth to appropriate areas in the Park, which he described as conservation design on a regional scale. He also offered examples of developments that were radically altered by the APA to protect open space. “We are and have been practicing conservation subdivisions for a long time and on a regional scale,” he said.
During the morning forum, Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, and Chris Navitsky, the Lake George Waterkeeper, identified storm-water runoff as the main threat to water quality in the Adirondack Park.
Bauer said that the APA Act, because of political compromises during its making, “actually channels development onto lakeshores.” Roads, driveways, and lawns, he said, serve as “perfect conduits” for silt and pollutants such as fertilizers, pesticides, salt, and oil. Among other things, the runoff contributes to aquatic-plant growth and algae blooms.
Although 95 percent of the watershed around Lake George is forested, Bauer said the storm-water runoff from the remaining 5 percent that is intensively developed is damaging water quality. He predicted that the runoff problem will worsen as climate change brings more rain and warmer, wetter winters.
And yet, he said, the words storm water appear nowhere in the APA law. “Now is the time to act if we’re going to protect the most important economic asset in the Park, which is water,” he said.
In a short rebuttal afterward, McKeever said the APA does take storm-water runoff into account when it reviews development proposals.
Navitsky said developers should be required to “build to the land,” disturbing it as little as possible and minimizing storm-water runoff. Where appropriate, he added, basins can capture runoff and let it seep into the ground. And he recommended that developers pay a fee for impacts to water quality.
Julie Regan, external affairs chief of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, explained how federal, state, and local officials have worked together to restore the water quality of Lake Tahoe, which straddles the California-Nevada border. The basin came under severe stress as a result of a development boom in the 1960s that followed the Squaw Valley Olympics.
It took many years of wrangling, she said, but eventually “a common vision did emerge.” Now, there are sewers throughout the watershed and all wastewater is exported out of the basin. As a result, the lake’s clarity, still quite remarkable, is gradually improving.
In response to a reporter’s question, Regan said her agency has a staff of sixty-eight to oversee an area of five hundred square miles. In contrast, the APA has a staff of fifty-eight and oversees some nine thousand square miles.
Eileen O’Conner, director of environmental health for New York’s Cayuga County, discussed her county’s law requiring that all septic systems be inspected periodically—a law passed after the closure of beaches in the Finger Lakes region due to coliform pollution. Homeowners pay private companies a fee—usually $60 to $80—for the inspections. She said Cayuga is the only county in the state to require septic-system inspections.
After a lunch break, Randall Arendt gave a thirty-minute presentation of developments around the country that have incorporated the principles of conservation design. The basic idea is to soften the impact on the natural environment and wildlife. This is done by, among other things, clustering homes to minimize the need for roads and driveways and setting aside most of the land in a development as open space.
“There is no constitutional right to sprawl,” remarked Arendt, who has written several books on conservation design.
He urged the APA to adopt conservation-design principles as the baseline for planning.
The APA Act does give the agency the authority to require clustering when subdivisions are proposed on private lands classified as Rural Use or Resource Management. However, it also allows, as an alternative, building on large lots.
Arendt asserted that the large-lot approach, known as low-density development, is not advisable as it fragments the landscape without regard to the effects of roads, tree cutting, lighting, and other intrusions on the otherwise wild habitat.
He said planners and developers should take the following four steps before ground is broken:
■ Identify conservation areas, such as wetlands, important wildlife habitat, and steep slopes, where no development should occur.
■ Identify suitable sites for clustered homes within the remaining land.
■ Map roads and trails.
■ Draw the subdivision lots.
Arendt said a good cluster development will not compromise the privacy of homeowners. He added that conservation design usually is less expensive, because it requires less infrastructure.
In the forum on Conservation Development and Design that followed, Michale Glennon of the Wildlife Conservation Society said great strides have been made in conservation biology since the APA’s creation in 1971. She urged the APA to map the various habitats in the Park and identify those most in need of protection.
“We’ve got the rocks and ice [the high summits] pretty well protected, but it’s not ideal habitat for many species,” she said.
Glennon also voiced support for conservation design. Before a project is approved, she said, an ecologist should inspect the site with an eye toward identifying natural resources and wildlife habitat that should be left undisturbed.
Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the New Jersey Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said conservation design is required in his state’s pine barrens when development occurs in lands zoned Forest Area or Rural Development Area. “If you want to see clustered development, it has to be mandatory in some fashion,” he remarked.
Montgomery said the rules set development densities and lot sizes and encourage the preservation of contiguous forestlands. Builders must make use of existing roads and situate development in proximity to other housing projects. Well-designed projects are allowed to exceed normal development densities.
Dave Gibson, one of the partners in Adirondack Wild, contended that the APA already has the authority to mandate conservation design. He provided several examples where the agency used its power to force improvements in subdivision layouts. These included Butler Lake in 1991 in the town of Ohio, Oven Mountain Estates in 1995, and a project in Horicon in 2004 (which was also cited by McKeever).
The problem, he said, is that the Adirondack Park Agency doesn’t always force developers to follow conservation design principles. Regarding the Adirondack Club and Resort approval, he said, “The APA did not follow precedent.”
The town of Day overlooks Great Sacandaga Lake and has taken steps (with APA assistance) to preserve its uplands from unsightly development. In 2005, the town adopted an ordinance that puts a number of building restrictions on its mountainsides and ridges. For example, it limits the amount of tree cutting and requires homeowners to paint their houses natural colors.
“Our greatest asset is our beautiful mountain scenery,” Dave Cox, chairman of the town planning board, told the conference.
Cox said town residents are largely supportive of the law.
Frenette made the point that controversy over development in the Adirondacks is nothing new. In 1968, before the APA existed, a proposal for a huge vacation-home development near Tupper Lake was aborted after running into opposition from state officials and others. Noting that government decisions often create controversy, Frenette said the APA must do a better job explaining its mission to the public. “Educate people as to what you’re trying to do,” he said.
Kissell said the agency has been understaffed and underfunded throughout its forty-two years. “I’d like to see the day when we have a governor and legislature that step up to the plate” by giving the agency the resources necessary to fulfill its mission, he said.
Collins said the APA has acted more aggressively in the past, using its authority to enforce cluster zoning and waterfront setbacks on developments. But he said the agency has great leeway in its decisions, so the Park would be better off if stronger environmental safeguards were written into the APA Act. He said the APA was sometimes sued by developers during his tenure, but the agency won every time.
Willie Janeway, the new head of the Adirondack Council, gave the day’s final talk, asserting that the economic health of the Park is linked to its environmental health. Ten million people visit the Park each year, he said, attracted by its natural beauty and wild character.
“We don’t need a study to tell us what to do,” he said, adding later: “We need to build a better Adirondack Park. If we all work together, we can do it.”
The reforms suggested by the participants—such as better managing storm-water runoff, mandating conservation design, and restricting upland development—might necessitate changing the APA Act or at least adopting new regulations.
Assemblyman Dan Stec, a former Queensbury supervisor, warned during the conference that local governments may be apt to resist more regulations, so it’s important to get local support for any proposed changes. He also questioned whether the state and local towns have the money to implement and force new regulations.
“The elected officials in those towns are more concerned about the economy. They’re not sure that more regulation is what’s needed for their towns. So it’s a conversation that we need to keep having,” Stec said in an interview with Brian Mann, a reporter for North Country Public Radio.
Chester Supervisor Fred Monroe, who heads the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, was miffed that his organization was not invited to take part in the conference. “We’re not on the panel, we’re not involved in this in any way, and we’re not at all happy with it,” he said. (Monroe and other local leaders were invited to attend the conference, though not as participants.)
Monroe expressed reservations about conservation design, saying it might be “good for wildlife, good for developers,” but might not be good for the average worker who wants to buy a home. “The question I ask is what’s the impact on affordable housing? Local governments are generally looking for affordable housing,” he said. He pointed to Lake George, Lake Placid, and Old Forge as places where the price of housing is out of reach for average citizens.
Beamish said it’s time for a concerted push for APA reforms next year. The Explorer plans to issue a special publication based on the “Assessing the APA” series and the conference.
“There are now more than ninety thousand houses in the Adirondack Park, compared to sixty thousand when the APA plan took effect,” he said. “Subdividing, clearing, and building will likely continue at that rate far into the future.”
The APA’s job, Beamish added, is not to stop development, but rather to regulate it in order to prevent pollution and protect natural resources. “The agency needs our help in regaining its edge and fulfilling its purpose.”
Photo by Pat Hendrick.