Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Commentary: More Badly Designed Development

Woodworth, north shoreSeptember, 2013 was the high point in the Adirondack Park Agency’s history of engagement on conservation development for new subdivisions.

By January, 2015, as evidenced by their actions in support of New York Land and Lakes corporation’s project for 24 residential lots that parcel out two water bodies (along with streams and wetlands, all on Resource Management lands), APA had lost interest.

Yes, APA staff confidently asserted that they had influenced the location of the building envelope and driveways on 18 of the 24 approved building lots at Hines Pond and Woodworth Lake in Fulton County. No doubt they had. But judging from their own words at the agency’s meeting last Thursday, those staff changes were undertaken strictly to avoid direct impacts on wetlands, vernal pools and steep slopes.  APA staff acted much as a glorified local planning board would in telling the developer “don’t build directly on ‘constrained’ lands”. The changes APA staff made were not part of an overall design intended to reduce or avoid a range of direct and indirect impacts of the development.

Not a single question about conservation subdivision design was asked by the APA board members at their January meeting, despite the fact they had learned about it in September 2013 from experts in the field. At the APA’s own request Heidi Kretser and Leslie Karasin of the Wildlife Conservation Society presented on the topic on September 12th. Two weeks later, Randall Arendt, the foremost expert on conservation designed subdivisions, spoke during the “Strengthening the APA” conference, which was well attended by APA staff and members.

Not one APA member asked their staff biologist Mark Rooks a crucial question derived from the lessons of the 2013 conference: do the building and driveway envelopes themselves overlap much with each other in order to reduce the overall fragmentation effect from spreading of impacts on Resource Management lands?

APA members might have remembered that Mr. Rooks had made a significant point about the importance of such overlap during the agency’s review of the Highland Farms project in Keene in the summer of 2012. APA approved that subdivision after praising this aspect of the staff’s analysis and the design of the lots. Less than three years later nobody on the APA apparently cared to remember the staff’s analysis of the Highland Farms project, or wished to pursue its example elsewhere in the Adirondacks.

As Randall Arendt had pointed out in 2013, with conservation designed subdivisions you can reconfigure the lot lines and the building envelopes in order to gain conservation value, gain overall public values, gain re-sale value, and keep approximately the same number of lots.  The process begins with a field walk of the site, a sketch map and a complete analysis of not only the wetlands and steep slopes – the constrained lands – but also the secondary conservation objectives so crucial to the overall integrity of the land in question. These include aesthetic, biological, ecological, recreational assets on the land (such as conservation areas and public commons), and how they may be integrated, enhanced, and restored through a design process that begins with basic data collection and only ends much later in the process when lots are finally laid out. No significant expenditures on lot layout and engineering are made until that time, which makes sense from a developer’s standpoint.

In the case of New York Land and Lakes, conservation design was either not in the APA’s vocabulary, or if it was, then it was quickly dropped because the applicant maintained that such an alternative design failed to meet their economic expectations. For today’s APA, that assertion by any developer is enough to end the conversation. Yet, isn’t the APA, as a regulator, in a perfect position to influence applicants to see their designs differently?  For fear of being at loggerheads with applicants APA is ignoring the economic benefits of conservation subdivisions cited by national experts during presentations itself sponsored. Today’s agency seems incapable of advancing its own mandate to conserve lands in Resource Management through conservation design despite its many examples of doing exactly that in the past.

Woodworth Lake and the approved subdivisionLet’s take Randall Arendt’s recommended start of the process, a full site survey, assessment, and analysis.  On January 15th, APA Member Art Lussi asked his staff a good question about New York Land and Lakes project, which I took down as: “there has been much criticism about the lack of much biological inventory or survey. How do you envision improving that?”

Staff quickly responded: “it was not needed here. The natural resources were unremarkable, and given the cost and time required, we felt such a survey was unwarranted.”

Art Lussi then simply said: “I have to respect your conclusion.” Well, he didn’t have to respect it. The APA members had been in receipt of a number of letters and other communications that suggested that the natural resources at Woodworth Lake and Hines Pond were not unremarkable and deserved much more scrutiny than they had received. At the APA however, there appears to be a rule not to pursue a line of questioning that might lend to an appearance of skepticism.

Following the bad example of the Adirondack Club and Resort, APA staff again failed to insist that the applicant conduct a comprehensive site survey early in the process, before an application was deemed complete. Instead, the applicant waited until the fall of 2014 to collect natural resource data, when all the residential lots were already laid out and just months away from final project approval.

APA had given the applicant virtual permission to expend money on a subdivision map without having studied or sampled the site during a single growing season.  As the Wildlife Conservation Society put it in its letter to the APA:

“A conservation design approach begins with the very fundamental and irreplaceable process of a full ecological survey and analysis of the site that occurs prior to the site design. While we are extremely grateful that the developer reached out to us and sought our input, we believe that seeking such input from us or another entity at this stage of the process is too little too late. With large expenditure already invested into a site design, it is probably unrealistic to expect this developer or any other to make significant changes to a design at the request of any well meaning and ecologically-informed person or organization.”

Returning to September, 2013, APA member Sherm Craig asked the Wildlife Conservation Society this helpful, direct question: “Does our staff do a satisfactory job with ecological site analysis?” WCS staff member Heidi Kretser responded: “With respect to wildlife analysis, your Development in the Adirondack Park guidelines (“DAP”) are insufficient. There is lots of room for analysis that goes well beyond the presence of wetlands, etc. We would be glad to help APA to improve the guidelines.”

APA had a year to work with WCS and others on this question. I don’t know if they actually did, but I doubt it. In 2014 WCS produced 15 pages of alternative analysis of New York Land and Lakes, while other organizations also presented many pages of critique that was not unmindful of APA’s staff efforts, but deemed these insufficient given the Adirondack Park’s Resource Management land where the protection of “delicate biological and physical resources” is paramount.

On January 15th, APA Chairwoman Ulrich asked staff if they would comment about the letters asking APA for a public hearing where design alternatives could be meaningfully explored. According to my notes, they responded: “Nobody would benefit (from a public hearing). There was no need for one. There were no outstanding issues.” The staff of Adirondack Wild can think of a few outstanding issues, including many brought up by the APA’s own staff in earlier days, a staff that recommended badly needed definition and standards to follow for protecting Resource Management lands, without which APA would fail its Legislative mandate to conserve the open space so essential and characteristic of the Adirondack Park. An APA that is “open for business” however, has little apparent interest in stepping up its game as a planning agency.

Instead, APA voted in favor of New York Land and Lakes and in favor of fragmenting another 1,000 acres of Resource Management land with a badly designed residential development.

Randall Arendt told the “Strengthening the APA” conference that: “I look forward to returning to the Adirondack Park when this type of conservation design of subdivisions is the norm, not the exception.”

We’ll all have a lot more time to wait.


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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.

15 Responses

  1. Greg M says:

    When we consult with clients at our company, we have rule: If you ask a question of a client, you also give them a recommendation/answer.

    There has been a lot written and questioning about the Land and Lakes development, which appears to be entirely legal–particularly noting the lack of tangible arguments written in the past few months.

    So, if we agree (or assume for the moment) that this is not a legal issue, how would you recommend that Land and Lakes subdivide this land? What would your map look like? They, as a land owner, have the right to make best use of their land within the law. Using the existing road/infrastructure as your starting point, show us your vision.

    Dave: this is not directed solely at you and Adirondack Wild, but all the groups that vocally against this subdivision.

  2. Dave Gibson says:

    Greg M, a fair critique. Yes, Adirondack Wild or any private organization could show a different “vision” to use your word, or design if you will of a subdivision at this location. In fact, at least one, perhaps more than one, of the Park’s nonprofit conservation groups already did that last summer. From our perspective, all of that effort did little good. Either APA found no merit in the redesign suggestion, which I tend to doubt because as far as I know APA has not critiqued that alternative either in private or in public, or APA decided that the path of least political resistance was to ignore the alternative input, not hold a public hearing where a range of alternatives could be publicly aired and tested as actual evidence, and get the best they could from the developer, which was essentially no redesign at all.

    • Greg M says:

      Interesting. From my perspective (I keep current, but am not on the inside of an organization of either side), arguments about how this subdivision has been approved have centered around the ‘process is broken’ and need for additional studies. To me, nothing has made me believe the subdivision is illegal (which is a good thing…the APA needs to follow law) or more importantly what substantive improvements an alternative plan would yield.

      Is that design publicly available? I’d love to see it and how it compares to the approved version and more importantly what would have been materially better.

      • scottvanlaer says:

        I do know the applicant worked with WCS on an alternative designs and many maps were generated. However, as the article suggests, that work was very 11th hour. Despite the good faith effort by WCS, the developer went so far as to say in his response to the APA’s “notice of incomplete application” fraudulently, I might add, that he contacted WCS and received no response.

        In my opinion a major problem with the process is the APA’s deeming of a permit as complete and moving to the consideration phase without a full or adequate biological assessment. That puts a lot of pressure on the board to approve a permit without having all the information.

    • Paul says:

      Was the suggested redesign marketable? It has to be something that buyers want. If it is great.

      • scottvanlaer says:

        Having viewed alternative maps for this and ACR, I would say yes. That is considered in alternatives as well. While there is clustering there is usually a natural “screening” applied so you would really only know it’s clustered by looking at an aerial photo. In a Conservation subdivision the lot lines are the last thing actually created. In a traditional subdivision this is one of the first things done.

        While a biological assessment would costs a developer money, often times the end marketable product can be the same, in terms of number of lots, homes etc…The design just mitigates the impacts. There is also a “market” if you will for these developments. If I can make the analogy of a home buyer looking for a L.E.E.D. certified home. A “Conservation Design” can actually increase the value of a property.

  3. adkDreamer says:

    Dave – The New York Land and Lakes corporation’s project appeared to be fast-tracked for approval. When was this project application submitted? What was the total contact time at APA for review? – Thanks in advance.

  4. Dave Gibson says:

    adkDreamer, I believe the project was first sent to the APA early in 2013. APA staff mentioned last week that they visited the site several times that summer. I would not say the project was fast-tracked. APA review during all this time improved the subdivision, but at the margins. How is the review time spent becomes the question. As the Wildlife Conservation Society points out, everything keys off of an initial comprehensive understanding and analysis of what is living and growing on the site, and its context. According to everything we have been told or can ascertain, this was not done early in the review process of this subdivision. Nor was it done at the Adk Club and Resort, despite the staff’s repeated requests to the applicant. Then it falls to the lead administration of the APA to demand that it be done. And that is not happening.

  5. adkcamp says:

    APA navigated this approval with one goal – to avoid the delays and scrutiny and controversy that the ACR generated. They are rubber stampers with increasing lack of inquiry, imagination, guts …. They seem tired and timid – giving up on the big impact projects and then micro-managing every detail and dimension on the little guy’s permit.

  6. adkcamp says:

    Looks like someone wants to use my name which has been my email for over about 15 years.
    To clarify my position(the real adkcamp): it really matters little over what or was not done by the APA or others; there are groups who believe that any private development within the Park is detrimental to its survival. I smell “red herrings”.

    • John Warren says:

      adkcamp is hardly an inventive name, you figure no one else ever thought of adkcamp as an e-mail address?

      You should use your own name to avoid confusion rather than assuming the motives of others and jumping straight to a conspiracy.

      • Paul says:

        It is a bit like “Camp Wood” I see those signs all over the Adirondacks. Seems like everyone has named their camp “camp wood”? Or perhaps it has something to do with the racks of firewood at some of those “camps”?

  7. mike says:

    I am glad to see the labeled ‘commentary’. So it is apparent now that these projects are legal. No issue there. And what Dave Gibson advocates for is a whole different design and permitting process to be enshrined in law. So then, the next step is to try to draft such changes in the law and see if you can find support for it. Complaining is not helpful, in my opinion.

  8. adkcamp says:

    to the “real” adkcamp – no one is trying to misrepresent your point of view or to hijack an unimaginative name which is probably the “john smith” moniker of the Park. There is plenty room for everyone’s point of view on the APA and no one is interested in taking time to wage a conspiracy against you.
    To differentiate yourself from all the other people who have their own rightfully acquired adkcamp email addresses decades ago, you are welcome to post a photo such as John Warren does.

    • adkDreamer says:

      Hey, I am liking that idea. Anyone please feel free to use my non-copyrighted “adkDreamer” name and use a different picture – then we can all dream together and act like a totally unorganized ‘comment flash mob’. Readers would be totally confused as opposing viewpoints manifest themselves in these pages – the proverbial Who’s on First?

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