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.
Let’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.