How best to protect the private backcountry of the Adirondacks while allowing for suitable development? How can we prevent future monstrosities like the resort project approved for Tupper Lake?
Here’s one way. A bill before the state legislature will help to preserve the biological integrity, wildlife and wildlife corridors, and the wonderful open-space character, of the Adirondack Park. It would require the state’s Adirondack Park Agency (APA) to mandate “conservation design” for future subdivisions over a certain size, starting with an ecological and forest stewardship plan for the entire property. The developer would then concentrate building lots for minimum impact, ensuring that at least 75 percent of the tract remains in contiguous and intact open space.
When the APA set up shop in the early 1970s, its land-use law required that residential development be done on “substantial acreages or in small clusters.” Since then, environmental thinking has evolved. Conservation science now recognizes that the spatial pattern is at least as important as the density of development and that subdividing land into “substantial acreages” is ecologically damaging.
When the APA approved the Adirondack Club and Resort (ACR) on six thousand wooded acres near Tupper Lake, the agency seemed frozen in the past. Much of the seven-hundred-unit development will be concentrated at the base of Mount Morris, which is good; what’s bad is that two dozen “Great Camp” lots, ranging in size from twenty-five to more than a hundred acres, will be spread around the entire property. While the ACR developers claim this is the best way to preserve a natural landscape, much of the vast tract will be compromised by roads, driveways, houses, guest accommodations, garages, cars, pets, and human activities.
Each dwelling will create an “ecological-effect zone” that reaches well beyond the immediate building site. For birds, habitat disruption can extend for thirty acres, and the impact goes well beyond that for small mammals such as marten, fisher, and fox.
Concentrating development, and overlapping the impact zones, is clearly the preferred alternative. This practice is known as “clustering,” which does not have to mean crowding houses together. In the Tupper Lake project, for example, five-acre lots would have provided plenty of privacy while preserving up to 90 percent of the entire tract in continuous, commonly owned open space. (The drawings with this article illustrate the right and wrong way to develop.)
What are the prospects for the conservation-design bill? Over the decades, the Republican state Senate has tried to weaken or abolish the APA—while the Democratic state Assembly has successfully resisted. Alternatively, bills to strengthen the APA always originate in the Assembly and die in the Senate. So how about this time we sweeten the pot a little? Along with mandating conservation design, why not offer the developer a 10 percent bonus of extra lots/units beyond the APA’s density limitations?
This painless compromise might finally gain Senate approval for better protecting our Adirondack Park against destructive fragmentation.
The bill number is A05451. Please urge your state senator and Assembly member to enact it.
The drawings from Randall Arendt’s book Conservation Design for Subdivisions show the right and wrong way to design a housing development. In the cluster development (top), most of the land is left undisturbed.
This Viewpoint was first published in the November/December edition of the Adirondack Explorer. Subscribe here.