A new major subdivision project is under review by the Adirondack Park Agency (APA). It’s the first to use the new application process developed by the APA earlier this year for large-scale subdivisions.
The project is shaping up as an important test drive of both the new review process and to see if the APA can convince a major developer that has undertaken a series of conventional checkerboard subdivision projects across New York to do business in the Adirondacks differently by utilizing land use development practices that protect open space and natural resources.
The developer is New York Land and Lakes Development based on Oneonta. They have completed dozens of projects across New York where they take large forested tracts of hundreds or thousands of acres and carve them up into dozens or hundreds of lots. Three years ago they secured a permit from the APA for the 1,100-acre Woodworth Lake project where they strung out lots from one side of the property to another. The APA issued that permit, rejecting calls for a public hearing and rejecting calls by scientists to utilize conservation subdivision standards that would have clustered development and protected open space.
The new 1,197-acre project rings Woodward Lake and is mostly in the Town of Northampton, with a small chunk in neighboring Mayfield, both in Fulton County. The lands border the Collins Gifford Road in the foothills west of Route 30 and the Village of Northville. This area is near the new Northville Placid Trail where it runs through the West Stony Creek river valley. Woodward Lake is a dammed lake and is about 100 acres in size. It sits at 200 feet in elevation, while some other parts of the property rise to 1,800 feet. The lake has no known invasive species and no rare, threatened or endangered plants or animals are known to be on the lands. The applicant proposes to locate 35 buildings on 460 acres of lands classified as Rural Use and one residence on 607 acres of lands classified as Resource Management, though a number of options remain under consideration. It’s important to note that the APA zoning density is not the final word because the Town of Northampton actually has stricter zoning over much of this property than the APA. The applicant sought a variance from the town, which it received, for a few more lots. Under current state-local zoning and with the obtained variance the applicant could pursue around 50 building lots.
The developer is seeking to create 37 building lots for 35 single-family dwellings and one common lake access lot. There is one existing residence on the 1,200 acres. Under the current preferred option 17 lots will ring Woodward Lake in a typical piano-key-lot format. Eighteen lots will be located off the lake but will have lake access through the common lot on the lakeshore. A homeowners association will be formed to own and manage new roads and own a 130-acre common lot that includes the lake, dam and access parcel. Parcels will range from 5 to 200 acres. Lakeshore lots will be smaller, many less than 10 acres, and some of the back lots will be 100 to 200 acres. In addition to changes wrought by the subdivision, roads and buildings, the property will also be managed in the future by three dozen different landowners. If this development is approved the land use decisions of 35 different landowners will fragment a forest area that has been uniformly and cohesively managed for decades.
Earlier this year, the APA revised its application procedures for large-scale subdivisions for the purpose of trying to improve its review process. Under the new procedures, the APA now conducts an initial review of proposed project site to detail important natural resources on the lands and undertakes a conceptual review of the developer’s plans and alternatives early in the process. This involves an analysis of a series of easily accessible natural resource inventory data about wetlands, habitat type, breeding birds, slopes, soils, among other things. This all takes place before the application is deemed complete and the APA is locked into both a strict timetable for a decision and a final set of data to evaluate impacts. Importantly, the APA included public comment as part of this initial review. In theory, this process for large-scale subdivisions, which are being undertaken by major developers well versed in land speculation, will allow the APA to better inform applicants about alternatives for subdivision designs that utilize conservation subdivision principles and practices and allows for the consideration of alternatives.
The application is now available for public comment, which runs until September 28th. The APA has provided all available application materials on its website for public review.
The application involves a preferred option and three alternatives at this point (here is preferred option, with alternative A, alternative B, alternative C). Because the application fails to cluster development in any of its alternatives, more than half of the 1,200-acre project site is impacted by development, from both roads and houses. None of the four options at this point involves a serious clustering alternative. New York Land and Lakes Development has not shown any interest in clustering development in any of its projects. This project is a conventional chopped-up-landscape type of subdivision, similar to the one the APA approved at Woodworth Lake. It appears the company is simply seeking to redo what worked three years ago.
The APA has invited the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Adirondack Program scientists to present information about the benefits of clustering and using environmental impact zone analysis on numerous occasions. The APA has invited noted landscape architect and planner Randall Arendt, author most famously of Rural by Design, to hold a workshop on conservation subdivision. Arendt has pioneered the practice of conservation design where subdivisions are analyzed to identify the most important natural resource features and these areas are then protected in a conservation lot. All residential structures and supporting infrastructure, such as roads, utility lines, and housing, are clustered in order to consolidate and limit their impacts. Despite multiple presentations on the benefits of conservation development, neither the applicant nor the APA has chosen to utilize these practices at this time. This is unfortunate because this project cries out for conservation subdivision.
After the pubic comment period ends, the APA will provide all comments to the applicant who has the option to respond. Within 15 days, the APA will issue a letter to the applicant that responds to public comments and commences the formal review. The APA will detail in this letter what additional materials it needs and will enumerate its concerns. The applicant is under no timetable to respond and can either stick to its current plans or seek to redesign the project in its response. Once all required materials have been submitted, the application will be deemed complete and a second public comment period will commence. The APA will then have 45 days to make a decision to approve the project or send it to a formal adjudicatory public hearing.
This project is the first major test of the APA’s new subdivision application procedures. The months ahead will reveal the effectiveness of this new program. The big questions going forward are whether this project will utilize conservation subdivision practices based on clustering and protection of open space or whether it remain a standard piano-key lot subdivision that rings a lake with houses and fragments a forest?
The Adirondack Park deserves the highest level of development. The APA has approved a string of substandard, controversial subdivisions that fragment the great forests of the Adirondacks with large numbers of far-flung backcountry lots or degrade lakeshores with standard piano-key lots. Protect the Adirondacks and many others have urged the APA and state leaders to move the agency to require conservation subdivision practices for major projects. The APA leadership has a lot riding on its new major subdivision review process. The APA rebuffed efforts by the NYS Legislature to pass legislation to require conservation subdivision practices for all major subdivisions. The legislation was sponsored by Assembly Conservation Committee Chairman Steven Englebright, who remains committed to seeing reforms at the APA. Now, we’ll all be able to see if the APA can manage to implement conservation subdivision standards or if it will continue to approve substandard subdivisions.
The Woodward Lake project is a major project and should not be approved unless it is a genuine conservation subdivision that clusters development and protects the aquatic resources of Woodward Lake and the thousand acre forest that surrounds it.