Sunday, March 8, 2015

A Push For Clustering Of Developments

Woodworth_lots Courtesy of APAEnvironmentalists say the approval of a housing development at a former Boy Scout camp underscores the need for tighter regulation of privately owned backcountry lands in the Adirondacks.

All four of the Adirondack Park’s major environmental groups opposed a plan to subdivide 1,119 acres in Fulton County into twenty-four building lots, most of them bordering two water bodies, Woodworth Lake and Hines Pond.

Nevertheless, the Adirondack Park Agency board voted unanimously to approve the subdivision in January.

APA officials said the project had been modified to lessen its impact on the environment. Ariel Lynch, an environmental program specialist, told the APA board that most of the proposed locations for homes were changed based on recommendations of the agency’s staff. Under the conditions of the developer’s permit, she said, all the homes will be at least a hundred feet from the waterfront. Other permit conditions aim to protect wetlands, streams, and water quality.

“The agency’s extensive review resulted in a permit that concentrates where development will occur and ensures best-management practices are used to avoid the fragmentation of wildlife habitat and minimize impacts to waterways,” APA Chairwoman Lani Ulrich said after the vote.

Critics argue that the APA should have required the permit applicant, New York Land and Lakes Development LLC, to follow the principles of conservation design, an approach to development that minimizes the disturbance to the environment.

Conservation design begins with a thorough ecological survey of the property to identify critical wildlife habitat, including wetlands, ponds, streams, and vernal pools, as well as terrain unsuitable for development, such as steep slopes. All of these areas are then marked off limits to development.

In a conservation-design subdivision, a large portion of the parcel—up to 60 percent of the land—is held in common ownership and kept undeveloped. This open space benefits wildlife and can be used for outdoor recreation. The rest of the land is divided into lots with houses clustered close enough to mitigate environmental impacts but far enough apart to ensure privacy.

“We are confident the APA could have accommodated a similar number of new homes on a much smaller footprint,” said Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council.

The council and other green groups fear that if the APA continues to approve similar subdivisions, developers will fragment the privately owned backcountry—that is, timberlands classified as Resource Management, the agency’s most-restrictive land-use category (most of the former Boy Scouts camp is designated Resource Management).

Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said he is working with the council, the Adirondack Mountain Club, and Adirondack Wild on changing APA regulations to make conservation design the default approach to development on Resource Management (RM) lands.

“We hope to see something introduced into the state legislature,” Bauer said. “We know it’s a steep climb because the APA is not interested in improving the regulations.”

Woodworth lake in Winter photo by Dave GibsonAPA spokesman Keith McKeever said the agency already considers clustering and other elements of conservation design when reviewing projects. “The agency also imposes strict permit conditions to ensure the open-space character of the Adirondack Park and its unique natural resources are protected,” McKeever said in an email to the Adirondack Explorer.

The Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan lists residential development as a “secondary use” on RM lands, though it is allowed “on substantial acreages or in small clusters on carefully selected and well designed sites.”

One complaint of environmentalists is that the APA has never defined “substantial acreages” or “small clusters.” Another is that the agency regards the language as merely a guideline, not a mandate—a view recently upheld by the courts.

Critics say the Woodworth Lake subdivision adheres to neither criterion. The homes will be built along a lengthy access road and around the two water bodies, and the lots range from three acres to 145 acres. Virtually none of the land is held in common.

“When you have camps strung out over a mile on the property, no way can you rationally call that a cluster,” Bauer said.

Sherman Craig, chairman of the APA’s Regulatory Programs Committee, defended the design approved by the board, saying it makes use of existing roads and clearings to minimize disturbance of the forest and leaves the great majority of the land in open space. He added that the staff looked at nearly fifty criteria in evaluating the environmental impacts.

“To simply focus on how close the houses are together, that puts one criterion over all the others,” he told the Explorer.

Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, conceded that the project has its good points, but he said conservation design should be the default option on RM lands. “Clustering any development of Resource Management land is the superior choice and best complies with the Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan, the purpose of which is to maximize the conservation of backcountry lands,” he said.

Fred Monroe, executive director of the Local Government Review Board, which has a non-voting seat on the APA board, said the criticism of the agency’s decision “was based on a wish that the law was different and wasn’t based on what the law is.”

Although Monroe supported the decision, he said he can see the value of clustering on backcountry lands in that it preserves open space and reduces the amount of roads and other infrastructure that must be built. He said he might support a clustering requirement if it were coupled with a proposal to allow more development, especially affordable housing, close to communities.

“It comes back to balance,” he said. “If it had both of those elements, it could make sense. You’re supporting both wildlife and people.”

State Senator Betty Little, whose district includes most of the Park, also is open to the idea of promoting cluster development. “She does see a need to reform the APA Act so that clustering isn’t discouraged and is in fact encouraged,” said Dan MacEntee, her spokesman.

MacEntee said Little also is concerned about sprawl. She has sponsored a bill, now on hold, that would allow landowners to transfer development rights from backcountry lands to more settled areas near hamlets. The idea is to promote clustering on a landscape scale.

It’s uncertain when legislation would be introduced, but Woodworth observed that “we would rather have stronger laws in place before we have another RM subdivision.”

In the meantime, a scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Saranac Lake says environmentalists need to work with the APA to encourage it to embrace conservation design. “This landscape is important and valuable enough that we should use the best science that is available to us to protect it,” said Michale Glennon, the WCS Adirondack Program science director.

Photos: Above, a map showing the lots, the access road, and (in red) driveways and building sites (courtesy of APA); and below, Woodworth Lake in winter (courtesy of Dave Gibson, Adirondack Wild).

This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.

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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

11 Responses

  1. Scott says:

    Dont ask the government to provide everything and to control everything. To protect land from development, purchase the land before the developers buy it.

  2. Mark says:

    The APA made a moderate and well reasoned decision consistent with the law when they approved this subdivision. It seems to me as if the environmental groups wanted the agency to deviate from the law and make a more restrictive decision based on a wish list.
    The fact that the homes are to be built along an existing road is a fine compromise for the developer. The pre-existing road clearly has not bothered the wildlife.
    I think there are those who think that “clustering” requires building homes on top of each other in a suburban style. I’d suggest that building in such a manner actually interrupts the movement patterns of wildlife more than building a handful of homes (and this really is just a handful when compared to the total acreage) with large open acreage in between. Just yesterday I was at home located about 900 feet off a town road and situated on 104 acres of forested land. This is a classic example of minimal invasiveness. In the period of an hour, I spotted 5 deer and two turkeys and I wasn’t there to count wildlife. One home on 145 acres is not going to bother the wildlife in such a manner they won’t breed or be able to find ample food.
    While I agree the SLUMP could use a review and update, I think the environmental groups need to recognize that we have a unique relationship between private and public lands in the park. Furthermore, private property owners have a right to reasonably use their land without more onerous restrictions and frivolous lawsuits. There is a reasonable balance. If these environmental groups want to see less private land, they should spend their big $$ buying up land instead of spending it on lawsuits and rhetoric.

  3. Bruce says:

    We’re asking politicians to go against the grain of the money flowing into their war chests from wealthy and influential supporters? How inconsiderate of us.

  4. Paul says:

    From the map it looks like two clusters? At some point if you make it too clustered nobody will buy it?

    Not sure that folks looking to purchase lake front property in the Adirondacks are too interested in being clustered?

  5. mike says:

    To my eye, these homes appear clustered along an existing road, leaving largely open space with no further building allowed. I don’t see a problem with it.

  6. Curt Austin says:

    If I look at the shoreline of nearby Loon Lake (Warren County), I see some homes built and maintained with no sensitivity at all to the environment, to Adirondack esthetics, or any esthetics at all. Not many, but they’re real sore thumbs. No one is allowed to do this anymore. Very good.

    There are other structures that are visible, built very close to the shore, or where too many trees were cleared. These are unwelcome to my eye, and there are a lot of them. This sort of thing is no longer allowed. Good.

    I must pause and say clearly: People, do not paint rocks white. Do not purchase orange kayaks. Do not make me gag by naming your camp “Waters Edge”. Do not rake fallen pine needles. Do no landscaping. Eschew the phony bow front architecture. Find a classic Adirondack camp with tasteful owners, and follow that example – it will look neglected, which is the correct look.

    Back to Loon Lake: There are many cabins, in classic brown, set so far back into the pines and hemlocks that you can barely see them. These cabins are allowed, although not as densely as they exist on Loon Lake. Good.

    The current rules prevent what is unsightly on Loon Lake which, to a nature-oriented visitor in a canoe, is certainly a “ruined” lake – esthetically; there are no water quality issues, and plenty of un-trampled land for wildlife in the general vicinity – such as the thousands of diverse and largely vacant acres across the road, where I live.

    I’m approaching the issue from one side – seeing something bad and asking what would make it much better, prevent it from happening elsewhere. We have that – the APA act was successful and is being carried out reasonably well. From the other side – the view of a pristine lake that is currently entirely unspoiled by human presence – the situation seems quite different, I know, especially if one has a vision of the Adirondack Park becoming more like most parks.

    I don’t think the test is what a chipmunk sees; I don’t think chipmunks care (unless you own a cat). For lake property, I think the test is what you see from your canoe, and from this perspective the issue boils down to this: Do you insist on a look that suggests there are no people around? Or is it OK to glimpse cabins through the trees? I’m OK with glimpses, but I would add rules about the orange kayaks, etc.

    Something to keep in mind: the Adirondack Park is not a haven for wildlife so much as it is a refuge, available only because most people don’t care for the harsh conditions. The real environmental catastrophes are taking place in Clifton Park, alongside the Hudson in Albany, and in other lowlands – places where most animals would prefer to live, just like us. The chipmunks are doing well up here in the Adirondacks, in comparison.

  7. Charlie S says:

    “The real environmental catastrophes are taking place in Clifton Park…”

    The way things are going all along Rt 9 and the Northway,through Clifton Park and beyond,it will be only a matter of a few years before housing developments,drug stores,car lots,etc…. are going to be right up to the Blue Line. Woods and fields mean nothing to our erected puppet leaders. To them woods and fields are not safe havens for the already repressed wild animals in these areas they are tax havens.
    It’s a crying shame what our corporate leaders are doing to the landscape.It’s too bad we don’t have more people that really care.This society is chock full of couch potatoes,people who get more out of sports players and actors than they do things with real meaning. I know a lady in a small town in Massachusetts who takes it upon herself to fight Town Hall to stop developers from bulldozing beautiful fields on corner lots…and wins.She is an anomaly. This is the silent generation,the do-nothing generation.Most people fritter away their time in an inane sorta way while some special few achieve enormous productivity.
    I can see the protections in the Adirondacks slowly being chipped away Curt. Real environmental catastrophes in the Adirondacks are coming.You wait and see….even if it isn’t in our lifetime. We have a society that is increasingly urban and industrialized. To most people the Adirondacks is a dreaded place,a place to be avoided at all cost.There is not the appeal there as say a mall or a movie theater.Or a car wash! Why should a zombie nation care about a wilderness when they have a handheld device to entertain them? Stopping to smell the roses is already a thing of the past.

    • Curt Austin says:

      I watched a growing finger of development creep up past our property along I-71 in Loveland, northeast of Cincinnati. I’ve watched the same thing along I-87, but much more slowly – this is upstate New York after all. Clifton Park was “new” back in the ’70s, when I lived in Troy and Exit 7 was for a place called “To Be Built”. The finger reached Queensbury/Exit 19 about 15 years ago (look for big box stores). The next exits are for Lake George Village – nothing bad can happen there. Price Chopper just built a store at Warrensburg/Exit 23. That’s it, 50 years after the Northway – one small supermarket.

      The next potential exit is mine, Chestertown/25 – a good grocery store would be wonderful, we have the worst of all Tops. The Northway bypassed Chester; this would just be a little compensation, but I don’t expect it for decades – interstate fingers are slow to reach 75 miles, if at all. Enrollment at our school is dropping.

      So, I believe it’s premature to worry about encroaching development.

      Another factor is indeed the reduced physical activity of humans generally, which is making all forms of outdoor recreation seem rather quaint and less popular. Overall, that’s bad for health and local prosperity. But it means migration towards cities, not the woods. Again, enrollment in our school is dropping.

      The low population density and low economic development of the Adirondacks is not a fragile condition – it’s always been this way, going back hundreds of years. The Adirondacks is a harsh place and it enforces its own rules. I don’t want to be misinterpreted – I like Article 14, I like the APA, I like the rules (the UMP process is absurd, however). I’m happy that they are in the middle of unavoidable conflict, not on one side or the other.

      All this is very firmly entrenched, physically and legally, and I’m happy where it is (except for the orange kayaks). The slope is not slippery; it is as rough as the Adirondack terrain. I’m not worried.

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