An article in the Post Star on July 16 by reporter Amanda May Metzger announced that the Zip-flyer, the thrill ride from the top of French Mountain in Queensbury-Lake George, has received its final Town of Queensbury approvals.
The 900-foot ride on three inch steel cables running down a 35-50 foot wide swath cut on the north face of French Mountain at the very entrance of the Adirondack Park has been controversial from the moment it was proposed. Adirondack Wild asked the NYS Adirondack Park Agency (APA) to convene a public hearing on the project because only through a hearing could all the impacts and viable alternative routes for the Zip-Flyer be discussed comprehensively and openly. APA Staff did not recommend a hearing, and APA members, to my memory, did not even raise the possibility of a hearing. Adirondack Wild strongly disagreed with the APA’s decision in March to issue a permit in the absence of a hearing. Several actual or anticipated project impacts, including visual impacts along State Route 9, loss of the scenic values and hiking opportunities on the summit, consistency with the area’s Rural Use classification and Towers Policy, and rigorous analysis of alternatives, among others, went largely unaddressed in the APA’s discussion and permit conditions.
Later in the spring, Lake George RV Park, a neighboring owner on French Mountain, took the APA to court claiming that the APA’s permit was arbitrary and not based on a full and fair application of its law.
Adirondack Wild staff recently hiked up French Mountain from the Town of Queensbury bikeway. While privately owned, French Mountain is a wild, forested mountain with prominent scenic, aesthetic, recreational and open space values. It is a gateway mountain – the first mountain prominence that tourists entering the Park see from Route 9 or the Northway, with great historical significance dating to the French and Indian War.
We were particularly struck by the beauty of the mountain and the impacts the project would have on its stunning views to the north, west and south of Lake George. A neighboring landowner has for a very long time maintained a hiking trail to the summit of French Mountain. However, the Zip-Flyer tower and launch, fencing and attendant use of ATVs to bring tourists to the launch point will significantly change the summit’s environment.
It is an interesting that the APA and the towns appeared to favor the economic claim’s of one business sponsoring the Zip-Flyer over those of a neighbor who felt that keeping the mountain “forever wild” benefited his tourist-related business and that mountain development would actually harm his business. At least that neighbor’s viewpoint deserved equal time in a legislative or adjudicatory public hearing. APA denied him that opportunity.
The controversial, litigated road built to the summit of French Mountain in 2005, a road on which the proposed project depends for its operation, has caused violations of local and state laws in the way of run-off, erosion and downstream sedimentation. In the absence of a hearing, APA should not have authorized a project so dependent on a steep mountain road that has caused such impacts. In all, there was more than a sufficient basis, including public controversy and the strong possibility of mitigating impacts through study of alternatives, for the APA to hold an adjudicatory or legislative public hearing.
One aspect of the APA’s review that actually matched the nature of the proposal was the Agency’s definition of the zip-line as a tourist attraction. That is exactly what the Zip-Flyer is and that is how the Town should have continued to define it, dependent as it is on mechanization, motor vehicles and road access, and large, fixed steel structures for its operation. Its purpose is a high speed thrill-ride. That is its attraction for tourists.
By lumping thrill rides like the Zip-Flyer together with outdoor recreational uses the Town of Queensbury may adversely affect in future many homeowners in residential zones and town visitors in LC zones throughout the Town. The Town risks harming the very tourists it seeks who visit the southern Adirondacks, in part, for its mountain majesty, history, scenic beauty, quiet mountain solitude, clean air, high water quality and relative public safety.
Now, Lake George RV Park has also taken the Town to court over its decisions in this matter.
At least the Town of Queensbury held a public hearing on the Zip-Flyer, and held that hearing open for several weeks. I attended part of the Queensbury Planning Board discussion on July 15, which went late into the night. It served as a useful reminder of the very difficult, thankless job volunteer Planning Board members do every month. The Post-Star’s reporter quoted the Planning Board Vice Chair as saying: “The visual impact is the legacy of the project. I think that’s how this project is going to be remembered. If it turns out that it’s very visible, and it’s a bit of an eyesore, it’s going to be perceived very negatively. If it turns out it’s almost invisible, I think everyone will be very pleased,” said Planning Board Vice Chairman Stephen Traver.
The unfortunate fact is that after all the professional visual analysis it appears the Planning Board’s own Vice Chairman really could not glean from the evidence if there would be significant visual impacts, or not. Many planning decisions appear to be a crapshoot, with the weight of real or perceived economic benefits riding on the outcome. Experts debate and disagree on harmful impacts, and they appear to cancel each other out. Insiders gain an edge in this game. Unfortunately, in many cases this is because the evidence presented is insufficient, too scanty, or too slanted.
And this is, in part, due to the fact that the regional land use agency responsible for the entire Adirondack Park – the NYS APA- usually refuses to hold a hearing which is that rare opportunity for the public to weigh, sift and test evidence in public, and to introduce new ideas, new information and new possibilities for reducing regional project impacts. It is time for the State Legislature to review the performance of the APA, including its legislative responsibilities to hold public hearings, undertake project review, and assess project impacts.