My hometown of Ballston in Saratoga County is poised to make the principles and detailed process of conservation design the standard for major subdivisions. The town’s revised subdivision law comes on the heels of some disastrously bad subdivision approvals here, projects which sprawl new housing, roads and traffic all over this once wildlife-rich, rural, wet, heavily forested and formerly farmed part of town.
Later this month, my town board votes on whether “any major subdivision in the Rural District and Ballston Lake Residential District shall be designed as a conservation subdivision.” If so, that would mean that the Town planning board would require an applicant of five lots or more to conduct:
- Site analysis illustrating the location of environmental features including slopes, wetlands, vernal pools, aquifers, recharge areas, flood prone areas, lakes, streams, ag lands, critical environmental areas (NYS), historic structures, scenic locations, rare vegetation, significant habitats, rare, threatened wildlife, unique natural or geological formations, vegetative cover types, existing trails, infrastructure and easements.
- Conservation analysis describing the conservation value of all land on the site, and a conceptual plat plan showing land to be permanently conserved by an easement;
- A 4 step design process: 1. Designating primary conservation areas as protected where house lots cannot encroach as well as secondary conservation areas, which together would constitute the open space to be preserved with the remaining land as potential development areas; 2. Roughly locating house sites to be tentatively located within development areas which are buffered from the open space; 3. Aligning streets and trails bearing a logical relationship to topographic and other conditions; 4. Drawing lot lines on the least fertile soils, away from protected and agricultural areas, to avoid streams, drainage swales, floodplains, vernal pools, other wetland and their buffers.etc.
In brief, front-loading natural and other resource information, requiring conceptual plat plans which show where lands deserve protection, and only drawing in roads, housing locations and lot lines which avoid protected areas as the final step (not the first step, as too often occurs in traditional sprawl development) is a big change for my town’s planning board. It will mean more preparation and training of that board and probably new representation. If future planning boards are rigorous about the four step conservation design process, the town may avoid further wholesale changes to the landscape, such as the clear-cutting of all manner of forests, the destruction of vernal pools and other small wetlands, and the digging of large numbers of storm water basins to catch water pouring off of impervious surfaces.
Well practiced, conservation design can maintain wildlife habitats and connections between them and can expand blocks of contiguous forest and farmland available for recreational trails, aesthetic values, forestry, agriculture. Options for future protection as well as open space use are expanded. As the footprint of house sites is pulled in, thc corresponding length of roads, utilities and driveways can be reduced and therefore cost less in both installation and maintenance. House lots retain their value for longer periods of time because they can be sited adjacent to well designed, permanently protected open space. Incentives can be added to add more residences (project density increase) if open space percentages are increased.
To my knowledge, no other town in this vicinity has adopted conservation design as the standard to be followed, with detailed required steps. Because of New York’s home rule law, each town develops with little to no regard for planning and development patterns in neighboring towns. County planning boards have no regulatory authority. The result is the sprawl development spreading north from southern Saratoga County into Moreau and Queensbury. Then, we reach the Adirondack Park, where the Adirondack Park Agency has regional zoning and planning authority.
If the Town of Ballston can make conservation design the standard expected of its planning board, surely the Adirondack Park Agency, created to “insure optimum overall conservation, protection, preservation, development and use of the unique scenic, aesthetic, wildlife, recreational, open space, historic, ecological and natural resources of the Adirondack Park,” can make it theirs.
It’s been a stony path to reach that goal. APA approved the huge Adirondack Club and Resort in 2012 without a competent and comprehensive biological survey. As Adirondack Wild’s consultant Dr. Michael Klemens stated at the time, “the ACR development has been placed onto the site without any broad understanding of the ecological connectivity between upland and lowlands or large scale migration patterns, or of the species that actually occur on the site. How could such an approach be considered protective of the delicate physical and biological resources of the site?” In 2014, another large subdivision applicant in Fulton County only performed a cursory biological inventory in the fall season, and none in the breeding and growing seasons. He nonetheless received an APA permit in 2015.
APA knows how to conduct conservation design. We know because APA stated with some justifiable pride how, in 2004, the agency required a developer in Horicon to redesign a subdivision adjacent to the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness. The same number of lots were concentrated near road infrastructure, the length of roads significantly reduced, and most of the project site adjacent to public Wilderness was reserved for forestry and open space recreation.
Then, in 2018 APA finally took more systematic steps and introduced a new large-scale subdivision application. It states:
“The Large-scale Subdivision Application applies to all subdivisions involving five or more proposed lots, parcels or sites on Resource Management lands, ten or more proposed lots, parcels or sites on Rural Use lands, or twenty-five or more proposed lots, parcels or sites on Low Intensity Use lands…. The application process is intended to encourage the development of projects in compliance with the Agency’s review criteria, including protection of open space, wildlife, and habitat resources, and in accordance with the objectives of conservation design. “
The new application includes:
- pre-application consultation with the APA,
- desktop review documenting and overlaying natural, physical and cultural resources existing on the project site,
- transparent release of this desktop information to the public,
- public comment invited about early conceptual drawings and scope of actual and potential impacts,
- field visits by APA staff to augment the desktop review, followed by site work by the applicant,
- submission of adequate maps including of areas to be developed and areas to be protected from development based on the ecological site analysis,
- alternative sketches resulting in one or more ways that the subdivision could be spatially arrayed to avoid or minimize adverse impacts.
APA staff comment that these and other pre-application steps should be taken before the applicant spends money on detailed architectural drawings. Gaps in resource information are spelled out. The developer is given time to collect and map the required information and to amend the concept sketches to avoid adverse impacts before large financial commitments. The tight time clocks, by which APA must determine if an application is complete within 15 days of receipt, are relaxed. The clock is stayed during the concept phase until a sufficiency is known about the project site and about alternative ways it could be developed with the fewest adverse impacts. Theoretically at least, the permit process proceeds more expeditiously and with greater confidence because good data has been collected and analyzed in advance, and the best possible design selected as part of a completed application.
All this is a strong first step at APA, but the jury is out. Needed now is legislation to correspond to and complement the new application. Without a conservation design requirement in the law, future APA administrations may waiver in their expectations of a competent ecological site analysis and other steps in the process. A legal requirement assures all parties what they can expect during the mandated pre-application phase. During this phase flexibility is built in to take natural resources and other landscape features into account before significant money is sunk in one preferred layout. Legislation can also mandate an open space management plan for the protected portion of the designed subdivision to facilitate future forestry, agriculture and open space recreation.
A bill in the NYS Assembly to mandate conservation design at the APA for large subdivisions (at most there are just one or two of these annually) was introduced by Assemblyman Steve Englebright and then put aside by him to encourage an Adirondack working group to study the conservation design process and to improve the bill to address concerns. The working group met frequently for a year and in my opinion was both educational and productive. It led to a detailed list of potential bill changes still in keeping with its principles. The next move is in the NYS Assembly and NYS Senate to create a same-as piece of legislation for everyone’s consideration, including Governor Andrew Cuomo’s.
In 2013, noted landscape architect and author Randall Arendt came to Paul Smith’s College to address the Adirondack Explorer’s conference about Strengthening the APA, at which he stated:
“Let us develop as if human beings were planning to be around and live on this land for a while longer,” said Randall Arendt. Stating “there is no constitutional right to sprawl,” Arendt took it right to the APA. “I look forward to returning to the Adirondack Park when conservation development is the mandate and the norm, not the exception.” I look forward to Arendt’s speedy return.
Images, from above: Woodworth Lake subdivision in Fulton County, approved by APA in 2015; and Woodworth Lake before the 2015 subdivision permit.