Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Lake George Zipline Project Will Scar French Mountain

macchio 2.02-10-06The gap between legislative intent to protect the open space resources of the Adirondack Park and the APA’s analysis of project impacts in accordance with the law widened into a chasm in 2012 when the agency approved the Adirondack Club and Resort by a 10-1 vote.

Now, the Agency has also approved by 10-1 vote a Zipline thrill ride down scenic French Mountain above the Village of Lake George at the entrance to the Adirondack Park. That development will not engender statewide publicity nor, I suspect, a lawsuit. Nonetheless it requires the cutting of a 900-foot swath, 35-50 feet wide, down a steep and wild mountainside. According to Agency staff, the steel cables would be highly visible from many vantage points; in some views the cables would be silhouetted above the mountain, and the cut would resemble a utility line. The thrill ride benefits exactly one business in a resort community.

Although smaller in scale and scope than the ACR development, the easily approved Zipline does further damage to the integrity of the Adirondack Park Agency and the Act which created it. The Zipline will permanently scar a mostly undeveloped, highly visible, scenic and historic mountain which presents from I-87 the first tangible evidence to travelers that the sign Entering Adirondack Park means something important and distinguishing – both legally and aesthetically. The contrast of seeing this steep, undeveloped mountain looming above Lake George after traveling the sprawl along the Northway exits to the south could not be greater.

French Mountain from I-87APA project staff admits all of this and more. They are highly competent group and very cognizant of their law and of the significance of French Mountain at the Park’s entrance. In their memorandum to their members, APA staff state that:

“The project involves the introduction of a tourist attraction onto an undeveloped and forested mountainside. The proposal, particularly the visual impact associated with the clearing of vegetation for the project will contrast significantly with the natural setting.”

“An evaluation of the project’s potential visual impact in relation to the pertinent development considerations indicates that potential impacts to Open Space resources, vegetative cover, unique features, aesthetic resources and adjacent land uses do exist. Staff believes the project produces adverse visual impacts that are contrary to the objectives of the pertinent development considerations.”

The impacts listed above are five of the most significant development considerations which the Agency is compelled by law to consider in rendering a decision. Staff goes on to quote the law’s admonition to protect the views from major travel corridors which define the Park for the traveling public.

Staff also noted that the top of the mountain where the Zipline construction begins is classified as Rural Use, described in the APA Act as areas:  “where natural resource limitations and public considerations necessitate fairly stringent development constraints. Those areas are characterized by a low level of development and variety of rural uses that are generally compatible with the protection of the relatively intolerant natural resources and the preservation of open space. These areas and the resource management areas provide the essential open space atmosphere that characterizes the park.” [emphasis mine]

Yet, staff concluded last Friday that these many impacts are sufficiently mitigated by the applicant’s willingness to allow some vegetation to remain below the Zipline. Thus, the impacts are not “undue.” Staff recommended approval with conditions, but then stated that  “The consideration of an undue adverse impact within the context of this project is ultimately a decision for this Agency board.”

Indeed. In reviewing the web broadcast of their meeting, it appeared to me that staff invited a challenge to their recommendations. One member, Richard Booth, did challenge them. He could not reconcile the level of impacts recognized by the staff with a decision to simply approve with mitigating conditions. He voted no. The other 10 members all voted for the project’s approval. The chairwoman, Lani Ulrich, told the media she did not see any concerns. Nine other members apparently agreed with her, seeing no overriding concerns with their approval of a thrill ride scarring an iconic mountainside zoned Rural Use at the entrance to the Adirondack Park. Several members wanted to justify their vote by saying that Lake George was already developed, so what difference would another visual intrusion make. The trouble with that thinking is that the Park law members are responsible for upholding says nothing about a Lake George sacrifice zone.

Could there have been alternative ways to route the Zipline that did not scar this mountain and cause quite so much visual impact? Perhaps, said the Agency’s staff counsel, but the only way to determine that would be to hold a public hearing. Remember that the APA cannot deny a project without holding an adjudicatory public hearing in which sworn testimony is admitted, and on which evidence the Agency is supposed to make its final decision: yes, no, or yes with conditions. Of course, the Agency blatantly ignored much of the evidence at the ACR adjudicatory hearing. But I and others have gone over that ground many times.

macchio 14.02-10-06Given the admitted project impacts, it was astounding that members directed no questions to the staff about why a public hearing for the Zipline wasn’t recommended. Was the project controversial? Yes. Through a hearing process might the applicant have come up with viable project alternatives which would significantly reduce aesthetic and other project impacts? Very possibly. Were the legal thresholds of calling a hearing met? Easily. Even the Towns of Lake George and Queensbury have held hearings on the local impacts of this project.

Yet the agency charged with overseeing resources in the context of a six million acre Park of national and international significance failed to call a hearing. Basically, under Governor Cuomo this APA does not wrestle with broad public considerations. Instead, it continues to behave like a Ray Brook planning board, reducing their examination of impacts to the metes and bounds of an actual project footprint, perhaps looking out several miles beyond, but failing to consider cumulative impacts and failing to act as the legally constituted regional planning agency for the entire Park.

The losers are all New Yorkers who trust that the APA is looking out for their interests and setting a high standard by preserving the natural resources, iconic wildlife, scenic and open space character which makes Adirondack Park different from anyplace USA.

With its 10-1 vote, the APA has shown, once again, that they are not deserving of the public’s trust.

Editor’s Note: In 2005 the Macchios were entangled in numerous legal disputes after roads were built on French Mountain without a permit. Those road remain a visible scar seen from both directions of the Northway. Background information can be found in two stories by the Glens Falls Post Star here and here. Lake George Waterkeeper Christopher Navitsky has explained the problems with permitting the road to be used for this new commercial development in a letter to the Queensbury Planning Board [pdf]. More detailed opposition to the project by a nearby camp ground is outlined here [pdf].

Photos: Top and bottom, portions of roads built in about 2005 without a permit (now designated “forest roads”) that are expected to serve as  commercial access roads for the new development. Middle, French Mountain from the Adirondack Northway. In winter the road to the top is still visible curving along the left side of the mountain;  the road is much more visible in summer.

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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.

23 Responses

  1. John Henry says:

    I do not like it but think some crucial information is missing. What is the ownership of the mnt? Past use and how it was purchased do matter.

    Even though I do not like it and would not want it, would you kill every new ski run from being opened? even a road to private cabins or hunting area? I do not think you can kill it all in good faith mixed use, local towns and private owner rights.

    Are you as one opposed willing to raise the funds or pay for it yourself to not be developed? At some point you cannot just say you cannot do what the zoning allows and not compensate the landowner for new restrictions.

    No I do not want to look at it, but many other parties have rights also in this one. I kind of look at Lake George village area as our tacky disney zone, not so much the ADK wilderness experience. I am not saying it is all bad but it does fill a desire that brings many their first exposure to the park, as long as that is held to one place it is ok with me.

    So follow the rules, get the permits and if you self fund it with no tax or government give backs ok with me.

    • John Warren says:

      Ah, small point here. The “zoning” doesn’t allow it, obviously, but that did not stop them from building the road up there in the first place without a permit. If there is one place in the Adirondacks where the view-shed should matter I think it’s the most seen mountain view in all of the Adirondacks. In my view, if you don’t protect this spot, you might as well admit that the idea of protecting any view-shed is simply a joke.

      • TiSentinel65 says:

        The idea of free enterprise seems to be lost on people these days. If you feel your view should be protected, no pun intended, you could garner up support and tender an offer to the owner to buy the land and then do with it as you wish. Think of the possibilities.

  2. Paul says:

    “The thrill ride benefits exactly one business in a resort community”

    Dave, this is a ridiculous thing to say.

    This is no more true than saying that a hiker going to the High Peaks only benefits the Adirondack lodge that charged he or she to park their car. Only Whiteface benefited from a skier on a particular day? The list is endless.

    I don’t like the sound of this thing but what you said there certainly isn’t true.

  3. Paul says:

    “Thus, the impacts are not “undue.””

    This is why the law is a wide open door to rule in any direction they see fit.

  4. Tony Hall says:

    I would not exaggerate the visual impacts of this project. It’s not visible from Lake George Village or the lake, and according to APA staff, it will be visible from the Northway for only a few seconds – between Great Escape and Magic Forest. If, as Dave and John say, the mountain side is a visual introduction to the Adirondack Park, why wasn’t it added to the Forest Preserve decades ago? I myself found it odd that the Adirondack Council echoed Dave’s comments. It supports mining on public lands near the heart of the park but opposes an eco-attraction on private lands at the edge of the park?

    • John Warren says:

      I just looked at this headed south. This project is already visible for many miles from the top of the hill south of Warrensburg most of the way to the mountain itself – not for only a few seconds, but for many minutes. French Mountain is also one of those mountains that the highway sees from a distance and passes very closely to. It is the billboard of the Adirondacks for millions of people coming north and the last great view headed south. It’s already a natural signpost that millions of people seek out to mark their way into the Adirondacks. I’m not much for sentimentalist claptrap, but I think this view is one of the most culturally significant in the entire park.

      Except for the Cell Tower recently installed on the shoulder of the less-traveled backside, French Mountain is the last undeveloped mountain from the south. Many know that it’s also historic. (Not that it matters. It’s recently been revealed that development has destroyed a portion of the historic military road where Ephraim Williams and King Hendrick and their men died defending this very route to Lake George from the French). It’s a bit of an irony that for the past several weeks I’ve been working with someone on a menu for a Lake George restaurant. One of the dishes is “French Mountain Poutine”. That’s part of the cultural significance that’s destroyed when the dollar rules over common sense planning in cases like these. Does anyone remember the name of the fort on the hill that was destroyed by the hotel at Exit 21? Imagine the possibilities if the investment in Lake George’s history had been made there instead of an investment in someone’s pocket book.

      What’s likely to happen here is that the developers will destroy a culturally significant spot by expanding it little by little until this site is confused with a ski resort. And why not add tubing, and lights? Knowing what poorly designed development has wrought in the south, and seeing it creep into the very park itself is pretty disturbing. A part of French Mountain is already scarred, perhaps permanently, this will finish the job.

      Asking why it wasn’t bought already is another issue altogether, and doesn’t provide a reason to support the project or oppose it. There are probably 50 reasons why this was not purchased, maybe one of them was the Macchio promise to never build on it. Maybe upland development is only gradually becoming as important as it should be. The bike and snowmobile path at the foot of French Mountain is already public, but culture and history have no advocates.

      The bottom line for me is this. There are better places for this kind of development. Places that won’t cause a few million conversations about how over-developed and out of character Lake George has become as visitors drive by and see this for the first time.

      To have smart growth you have to make smart choices.

      • Tony Hall says:

        John, Do you know where, precisely, the ride will be constructed, and at what elevation? The photo you used suggests that it will be from the summit and down the rock face. I don’t know if that’s true. But if it were, it would be visible for the amount of time you suggest, and not the few seconds asserted by the APA. You’re right, the lack of interest in the mountain by the state or a nature conservancy does not justify its improper development. More telling is the fact that APA zoned it rural rather than resource development, indicating that it was aware that this mountain has been heavily used since the 19th century. I think a properly situated zip line is compatible with its historic uses.

      • Paul says:

        From your comment and other info this does sound like a bad idea. But in my opinion it is probably a bad idea in any location. But I guess they think it is a good idea and it is their land and it does allow this type of development.

        It looks like the idea with this type of thing is that it has to go in a place where there is a good view. So no matter where you put it this is going to be a problem and generate the same conversation.

        They tore down a historically significant fort to build a hotel?

        • Tony Hall says:

          It was a breast work erected in the 1758 campaigns and later named Fort Gage. It was situated on the west side of Route 9, near exit 21.The Ramada Inn was built on the site in 1970. Nothing was visible prior to that date, but I don’t know how extensive the archeological work was at the time of construction.

  5. Hope says:

    Property is designated Rural Use. I guess they could of just subdivided it and built some homes there instead. Maybe they still will.

    Maybe NYS should acquire all the view shed up the Northway to keep these major “eyesores” form happening.

  6. adkDreamer says:

    I do not see a whole lot right about the zip line project location, but then again it is Lake George – one of the the commercial entrances to the Adirondacks, the other being Old Forge. I would like to know an alternative location that provides similar access, amenities, etc within the Park.

    Lake George is a magical place and accessible to so many different people – so the zip line in my view belongs there, somewhere, to provide yet another reason to begin visiting the Adirondacks – they are popular! Are there any votes for installing the zip line at Frontier Town? Lake George is an eclectic mix of attractions that appeal to a lot of people, some who will return…

    So when the zip line fads away for some, perhaps they will venture father into the rugged interior of our Park and find other less harmful ways to enjoy the Adirondacks, and begin searching for another attraction.

    Not everyone begins their Adirondack experience with the ideals of Park Protection – for many of us it begins with the attraction, the magic and the simple accessible friends and family fun. We’ll reap the benefits later on from those that return later, with a renewed interest far away from the glitz that attracted them here in the first place.

    Just my thoughts.

  7. Mark says:

    As mentioned by an earlier commenter, the view from I-87 is very brief. Many of the other locations from which this new project might be visible are already well developed by other commercial enterprises or expensive homes so I wonder who’s viewshed would be protected?
    I think this was a very good and moderate decision by the APA. This an excellent example of balancing property owner rights and land use regulations.

  8. Joe B says:

    This will cause Visual Impacts ???!!! Take a look around Lake George and the overdelopment of this historic lake and then tell me about visual impacts. McMansions with manicured lawns and seawalls. What happened to the natural shoreline? Houses built up on hillsides smarring marring the view from the lake and we worry about a visual impact of the zip line that may not be as bad as one thinks.

    The zip line creates little enviromental impact and if the business folds, then its not hard to take down the cable and have the tress grow back giving no impression the line was there . We can not say that about shoreline or uphill development . Try to gain back the natural shoreline to “as it was ” before a seawall and an man made beach was put in do to an owner not wanting a rocky shoreline . You can laugh, I have seen it .

    How can you say the zip line benefits one business. When visitors come to a resort town they look at “things to do ” on the towns touism site. there might be a grpip that just likes to try out zip lines in all areas. They will come to Lake George to try the one on French Mountain and in turn take a ride into Lake George (that they may have never seen before) take a cruise on one of the tor boats , eat and shop in town and tell thier friends an family about it and , “bingo” more tourust come to town to spend money all because of one zip line . So one can not say the zip line will benefit just one business.

    I am all for it even though I don’t zip line and believe there are greater concerns around the lake then this project that will have little enviromental impact .

  9. Scott van Laer says:

    Sorry to deter from the discussion…if anyone is familiar with a plane crash (Cessna) on the west side of French Mountain on 12/3/1965 please contact me. I have very little info, not sure if wreckage is still present.

    • Judson Witham says:

      There was a Mohawk Airliner that crashed on Pilot Knob Mountain during that period. Would this be Your Plane Crash ?

  10. Dave Gibson says:

    To all – I do appreciate the thoughtful and in many cases knowledgeable commentary to my piece today. It is true that not everyone begins their Adirondack experience with the ideals of park protection. They may lead themselves in that direction over time through their heightened consciousness, sense of place, and experiences here and elsewhere. The context of this Zipline is Lake George, I agree. And I admit my statement that the Zipline benefits exactly one business was probably wrong and definitely not relevant to my overall purpose – which is to shine a spotlight on the APA’s performance, and its refusal to even discuss, publicly, the value of a public hearing for this project – which is the only way a meaningful discussion of possible alternative locations and avoidance of the admitted serious impacts of the Zipline could take place – in view of its law and regulations, broad public interests as well as economic considerations.

  11. Hank Kinosian says:

    The issue is how do we promote development that is sensible, intelligent and consistent with the regional character. Allowing unplanned development without considering its impact on adjacent properties or upon the community may be simpler for the developer, but results in an inferior final product in the long run. The report that the developers of this site have already built roads without proper permits is a red flag suggesting that they do not have the basic professional competency needed for any such development. The zipline project on French Mt. could benefit from a public hearing and I’m sure that there are many interested people who are also experienced in planning who could offered valuable design advice for the project.

    Interestingly, Mr. Macchio, the owner of the property, was quoted in the June 23, 2006 edition of the Post Star, “As long as I’m alive, there will never be a building on the top of the mountain.” Apparently, he has changed his mind.

  12. Jimw says:

    Why no links to the APA documents? I’d like to read for myself.

  13. Charlie S says:

    Just think of all those beautiful trees that will come down just so mindless people can have fun for a few seconds coming down that mountain at a high rate of speed.Just so another source of income can be had by our capitalist local leaders.This doesn’t surprise me one bit.Yet another extension of our arrogance.

  14. Dave Gibson says:

    JimW, Go to http://www.apa.ny.gov, and under Search APA enter Bear Pond Ranch, or French Mountain Bear Pond Ranch and the permit comes right up.

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