Monday, November 5, 2018

Gibson: Large Scale Subdivision An Important Test of APA

Applicant's preferred design of subdivision at Woodward LakeCurrently on the Adirondack Park Agency website ( are links to “large scale subdivisions currently under review,” an entirely new feature. What is that new feature all about?

Earlier this year, APA adopted a new application for large-scale residential subdivisions, as the agency defines them. In the green land use color, Resource Management, large scale subdivisions are defined as 5 or more lots or parcels in a given project. In the yellow land use color, Rural Use, they are defined as 10 or more lots or parcels. In the orange, or Low Intensity use, they are defined as 25 or more lots or parcels. All subdivisions in those colors meeting those size thresholds, says the APA, must meet new application guidelines.

Why did APA adopt this new application? Since the 2012 approval of the 700+ residential units called Adirondack Club and Resort the APA has come under pressure to improve its project review performance. Improvements have been needed in lots of areas, particularly in the quantity, quality and utility of the biological and other resource information provided to the APA (and to the public) by applicants. “Know what you have” on a project site is the first rule of intelligent land use planning review of development. In his testimony at the Adirondack Club and Resort 2011 adjudicatory hearing, conservation biologist and Adirondack Wild expert Dr. Michael Klemens described the problem facing the APA well:

“We are forced to spend time at this hearing debating the lack of biological data, which should have been compiled and assessed before deeming the application complete, while instead this hearing should be discussing the implications of a robust set of ecological information that actually informs how and where to site development. The absence of that data in the application is extremely disappointing, and unnecessary given how long this application has been under review.”

Improvements at APA were also needed in applying the data to condition how residential subdivisions, for example, are spatially arrayed on a given project site. Spatial distribution of new development has been shown as or more important, from an ecological viewpoint, as density of development upon which the APA Act was constructed 45 years ago. In other words, are the new homes sprawled all over the site, thus affecting a much, much bigger area than the actual footprint of each house, garage, or driveway?  Are the lots negatively affecting the efficient utilization, for instance, of forest resources? Or are the residential units arrayed, concentrated or clustered in areas most suited for them, on the best soils, with the least impacts on the environment or natural resources or, as ecologists put it, in places where the ecological footprints or ecological impact zones overlap each other, minimizing their spread into more sensitive areas such as identified wildlife migratory corridors, large wetlands, or large blocks of forest?

To address such criticism, the APA’s new large-scale subdivision guidelines require applicants to submit a lot of information before the application is deemed “complete.” All private developers can voluntarily consult with APA in advance of an application, submit early information about their desired project and receive “pre-application” advice from APA staff as to whether their conceptual project appears to meet APA legal definitions and guidelines, or how to collect data and to improve the project concept if it appears not to. Now, only large subdividers, as defined above, must go through this pre-application process. For this small group of subdividers, this process is no longer voluntary.

This pre-application information required of this small suite of the largest Park developers – which averages roughly 0-3 APA projects per year – includes a conceptual sketch of what the developer wants to do and where, along with alternative sketches which are “in accordance with the objectives of conservation design.” The guidelines also require applicants to submit a suite of natural resource and physical data about the project area early in the conceptual review process, data about wetlands, soils, forest blocks, sensitive features, etc. which would allow comment by APA staff about actual or potential negative impacts on those resources and which should, logically, lead to revisions in the sketches.

Finally, the new guidelines make the up-front data and the conceptual sketches public – the first time this has ever happened at APA – and allow a 30-day public comment period about the conceptual sketches and the applicant’s data. The goal is, of course, to improve the project in line with “the objectives of conservation design” before the application is deemed complete, presumably to make the project more approvable later on. After pre-application review, the project goes through the normal APA review process, which incorporates another 30-day public comment period.

Woodward Lake from the road at the north end, by Dave Gibson, Adk WildA key objective of Conservation Design is “to shrink the ecological footprint of a proposed development through innovative planning and site design techniques.  While the developed footprint and the ecological footprint are never equal, the goal of Conservation Design is to try to bring the ecological footprint into closer harmony with that of the developed footprint, while maintaining the development values of the parcel” (from Pathways to a Connected Adirondack Park – Practical Steps to Better Land Use Decisions, 2017 by Dr. Michael Klemens, Adirondack Wild’s Advisor in Landscape Conservation).

In furtherance of conservation design, APA’s Large-Scale Subdivision application states that “the preferred project design should minimize creation of new areas of disturbance to the greatest extent practicable and should concentrate development to the greatest extent practicable.”

As shown on the APA website, the first test of the new large-scale subdivision application is now undergoing part 1 of the pre-application process. The project is a 24-36 lot residential subdivision of presently undeveloped Woodward Lake in Fulton County, not far from Great Sacandaga Lake and the Village of Northville. The entire lake is proposed for traditional subdivision and development, both near the lake shoreline and back from it.  How is the pre-application review process working out so far? We know because for the first time in recent APA history the correspondence between the applicant and the APA is publicly posted on the website. This sunlight shed on the APA’s work is a big improvement.

The project sponsor submitted some basic desk top information about the project site, data on soils, forest cover types and wetlands, for example, and in letters to APA noted their intent to submit additional data about wildlife. However, in their several site visits APA staff has told the applicant they must go further and submit more detailed data sheets about the wetlands (there appear to be plenty of wetlands around the lake), and more detail about the methods, seasons and travel routes that would be used to collect data about wildlife, birds and amphibians, for example.

In short, APA, thus far, is expecting a higher quality and quantity of natural resource data and information in advance of deeming the application complete. This information, presumably, should be applied to revise the development concept. In fact, APA writes to the applicant that “APA staff will share feedback that may be useful as you make revisions.” This is positive. APA is demanding more advance information from this potential developer than they did of the Adirondack Club and Resort, and is expecting revised sketches. With ACR,  APA staff asked lots of questions about natural resources between 2005 and 2011, but received little substantive information in return and then gave up and went to public hearing without any signficiant change to the proposed lot arrangement.

Does the concept submitted for Woodward Lake meet key the APA’s stated objectives of minimizing areas of new disturbance and use of conservation design? Here I summarize what those members of the public who sent comments to the APA by the late September deadline are saying about it:

  • The development as proposed will disrupt the flow of wildlife;
  • It rings the entire lake with development;
  • It will severely damage the value and utility of neighboring properties;
  • It violates the environmental spirit and letter of the law in what should be a protected Adirondack Park;
  • It does not show how much open space will be protected and where;
  • It does not clearly show what will not be developed. It shows lot lines, but not contiguous, connected open space;
  • It does not show the landscape context around the project site. Is it developed? Rural? Wild? Will this subdivision contrast greatly with what’s around it?
  • It does not yet incorporate a conservation easement that would ensure future protection of what is not being developed;
  • It does not provide enough detailed resource information to judge if there will be undue adverse impacts to the local or regional environment;
  • It is not a clustered, conservation design. The house lots are not spatially arranged to minimize creation of new disturbance. Instead, they are arrayed to use up as much of the lake shoreline and project open space as possible;
  • It is not faithful to the purposes of the new application. It needs to be redesigned to avoid big resource impacts, protect wetlands, Rural Use and Resource Management as described in the law, and encourage forestry and open space recreation in larger, manageable forest blocks.

Adirondack Wild’s preliminary comments to APA can be found here.

The first test of any new system or procedure is always a big deal. APA is being tested and it knows it, having staked out new procedures and standards in response to past criticism. Once large subdividers know the APA is serious and come to expect new data and design standards, preapplications will eventually improve. But on this first test case, will APA hold the applicant’s feet to the fire in terms of substantive presentation of field and desktop data about what is living and growing on the site? Will they require the developer to apply the substantive data to the spatial design? Will they actually require a revised, conservation design at Woodward Lake?

Governors, State legislatures and the voters have made the Adirondack Park one of the most significant protected landscapes in North America, and APA has regional land use planning responsibilities for the entire 6 million acre Park. In the view of Adirondack Wild, APA badly failed its responsibilities at ACR and has only sporadically displayed faithfulness to the APA Act when it reviews other large subdivisions.

APA too often approves grid-like subdivisions that might be approved by a local planning board anywhere in the USA.  This is the Adirondack Park.  Will APA make actual conservation design of development in the Park the default standard rather than the rare exception? It has the opportunity at Woodward Lake to show that it will.

Photos: Above, the applicant’s preferred design of subdivision at Woodward Lake; and below, Woodward Lake from the road at the north end, by Dave Gibson of Adirondack Wild.

Related Stories

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 PreserveDuring 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.

3 Responses

  1. chris says:

    Thank you for this article. TL/DR unfortunately… a quick skim makes this look like a good move for better, more data-centric management that us conservation-minded appreciate?

  2. Boreasfisher says:

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention. All good questions, and past experience does not reassure that the process will lead to something that approaches a smart growth/ cluster development outcome…certainly not without further pressure and the appropriate level of public involvement. Glad the APA is at least starting the process in the right direction and is at least tacitly suggesting that conservation subdivision design need not be antidevelopment or a threat to home values.

    Seeing the kinds of sad and shortsighted development projects that historically have transformed the rural/water boundaries elsewhere in New England and the Mid Atlantic, it would be a terrible shame to see the Park continue down the same path.

  3. Paul says:

    This all sounds expensive, well suited for wealthy developers that can afford all the necessary consultants and “experts”.

    Sounds like it got only negative comments.

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox