We just went through an election season that featured not one, but two Adirondack-related amendments to the New York State Constitution. One was complicated and one controversial. Both were the subject of intense local debate and media coverage. The controversial one is still in the news.
The Adirondack region could be forgiven for having a little amendment fatigue. Yet I think we ought to do it again and as soon as possible. So do a number of people who have been working hard to do just that: to give us another proposed amendment to ponder. What could they possibly be thinking? Allow me to explain.
Everyone reading this commentary has witnessed the massive spread of real-time information to the point where it is ubiquitous – smart phone technology being the most obvious example. But as the saying goes, you ain’t seen nothing yet. There is a quantum leap in immersive, interactive power headed our way in the next few years. Among other advances, this wave of immersion will take teleworking to a completely different level, from the current “it’s doable” to being able to be a full participant at gatherings anywhere on the globe while sitting in a room at home. Analysts predict a huge surge in remote work, which will become the predominant paradigm for many businesses.
All this immersive power takes massive amounts of network bandwidth, ushering today’s 10 Mbps speeds towards the obsolescence of dial-up. The only transmission medium capable of keeping up with the demand is fiber optic cable. Consequently, forward-thinking communities across the country are wiring for fiber as rapidly as they can.
I sure would like the Adirondack region to be able to reap the full benefits of this evolution now, rather than be years behind other areas of the country. I think about the myriad benefits of luring telecommuters to the park , a natural environment nonpareil to which people will surely want to come if they can work from within it. I imagine the potential economic shot in the arm for many of our struggling communities.
Alas, even though many are working to wire the park, for many places in the Adirondacks this future isn’t in the cards.
With dwindling resources, global political upheaval, deleterious environmental impacts and massive inefficiencies, centralized energy production from fossil fuels is increasingly problematic. Communities throughout America are responding with more local and green energy solutions such as micro grids, shared solar, biomass plants and small hydroelectric dams. I would love the Adirondack region lead in this area, as it should.
Alas, in some of our communities it will be all but impossible to craft these kinds of solutions.
People can argue all they want about the causes of climate change but the data shows that we are getting warmer, precipitation is up and the frequency of violent storms in increasing. Based on obsolete descriptors Irene was a “hundred year” flood; now multiple studies, including this one, show that events of that magnitude are likely to occur every 3 to 20 years. Many communities in America are already adapting to these changes: building bigger bridges, wider culverts and stronger walls. The Adirondack Park, with its thin soils and fast running mountain streams and rivers, needs these upgrades more than most regions.
Alas, in many places in the Adirondacks the work will not be done. Why? It can’t be done because it’s unconstitutional.
Count me out of the small chorus of voices that lays problems in the Adirondacks at the feet of Article XIV, our landmark “Forever Wild” constitutional amendment. “We have too much protected land,” they say. “The restrictions are too stringent,” they say. “Local economies are strangled,” they complain. These complaints errantly call into question the very thing that makes our region unique, even while none of our problems are unique but rather shared by rural areas across the country. Article XIV isn’t the problem; it is, as it has always been, a gift and a great opportunity to sustain a region that can serve as an example to the world of how to coexist with nature.
But that doesn’t mean Article XIV is perfect. No laws, even the constitutional laws we exalt above all others, are perfect. And so we have a mechanism to amend them. But caution is in order: history shows that we must make the choice to amend constitutions with wisdom and restraint, lest we risk damaging the high ideals they enshrine. The recent NYCO amendment is a case in point, having left a bad taste in many mouths, including mine.
After last year’s election season and all the consternation around NYCO you might think now would be a poor time the test the waters with another proposed amendment. But the world doesn’t wait while we twiddle our thumbs and Article XIV, conceived well over a century ago and thus the product of nineteenth century thinking, won’t evolve by itself. Of course for the vast part of its spirit and content Article XIV doesn’t need to evolve. But a hundred and twenty years ago no one was thinking about climate change, micro grids and fiber optic cable. Most fundamentally, the 1890 version of a road right-of-way looked nothing like the 21st century version we need in order to support today’s utilities and improvements.
To deal with this understandable deficiency in Article XIV, the Common Ground Alliance Amendment Working Group has designed a proposed constitutional amendment, a Community Utility Modernization Amendment. They released a white paper describing it and a FAQ document which continues to expand. The proposed amendment is complicated; I will not attempt to describe it fully here. Rather I refer readers to the white paper and FAQs available here. On that site any member of the public can weigh in with comments, so please do.
The proposed amendment has two parts. The first part is a use amendment which would allow pipes and cables used for common utilities to be placed under and along state, town and county roads which pass through the Forest Preserve. Currently this is a violation of Article XIV because prior use amendments were only about crossing the Forest Preserve for transportation purposes, not utilities. This amendment would not change any ownership: the land would remain Forest Preserve with all its other protections in place.
The second part is a modest land bank of 500 acres to deal with the numerous situations where the footprint of a project needs to change – i.e. a road is not wide enough, a culvert is not large enough, a bridge is not substantial enough.
For some people the term “land bank” is a reflexive “No,” because it is seen as a taking of Forever Wild land that removes such a weighty decision from the purview of the people of New York and hands it indiscriminately to administrators and bureaucrats. But in truth it depends upon how the land bank is crafted. There are two land banks already part of Article XIV, both added roughly sixty years ago and both dealing with roads. The more well-known land bank was established for building and maintaining the Northway. It has a very specific scope and has worked without controversy, whatever one may think of the Northway project itself. The other land bank is not as well known. It established 400 acres to allow for modernization and improvement of state roads (but not utilities) traversing the Forest Preserve. This land bank has worked as intended, also without controversy.
The proposed land bank would be similarly scoped and managed. Among the uses it would allow (quoting from the white paper):
- Environmental projects along town and county roads where projects such as storm water drainage, larger bridge and culvert replacements designed for fish and wildlife habitat connectivity and to handle larger water flows that come from increasing precipitation related to climate change, and water treatment facilities which would involve necessary expansion onto Forest Preserve lands
- Utility reconfigurations associated with a road project which are necessary for public health and safety or environmental purposes will be allowed for all State, County and Town roads
- Public health, safety and welfare projects not associated with roads, such as water wells and water distribution, airport safety, additions to cemeteries, transfer stations, fire and rescue buildings
- Projects that facilitate renewable energy sources, such as restarting existing small hydro dams and shared community solar
- Short aerial utility lines, of no more than 4 poles, where no buried option is possible
In other words, these are specific, targeted uses for the public benefit.
Finally, to stay true to a spirit of protecting wild land, the proposed amendment would require that the State add 500 acres to the Forest Preserve as compensation for the land bank before it became operative.
No doubt some changes are needed and the proposal can be improved. I encourage all of you to get involved, review the white paper and provide feedback to the working group. But on the whole the Proposed Community Utility Modernization Amendment has been carefully thought out, it is being fully vetted and it is eminently sensible. The issues it addresses are important already and are rapidly becoming more important. It deserves wide support and prompt action.
Photo: Utility lines frame Burtons Peak.