Sunday, August 18, 2019

Viewpoint: Save the Adirondack Park Agency

APA Building in Ray Brook NYThe Adirondack Park Agency is weaker today than at any time in its 48-year history. That the fault rests with the office of Governor Andrew Cuomo is both unfortunate and surprising: unfortunate because the APA was created to protect the Adirondack Park from damaging use and development but is now falling down on the job; surprising because, at the national level, the Governor has become a leader in combating climate change, the greatest environmental threat to our planet in human history. Yet in a critically important way the Governor has neglected the world-class park in his own backyard.

At six-million acres, the Adirondack Park occupies one-fifth of the state. It is the largest park by far in the contiguous U.S. — nearly three times the size of Yellowstone National Park, as big as Vermont, and a lot bigger than Massachusetts. The Adirondack Park is unique in its ownership pattern: Almost half of it consists of public Forest Preserve, protected by the state constitution as “forever wild” and owned by all the people of New York State. Which means that all New Yorkers have a vested interest in preserving this natural treasure.

Before the APA was established by the NYS legislature, the private lands of the Adirondacks were wide open to any and all kinds of development, posing a threat to the adjacent public lands and to the integrity of the park as a whole. Thanks to the APA’s regional development controls, enacted in 1973, and to the forever wild Forest Preserve, which has enjoyed ironclad protection since 1895, the Adirondack Park serves as a model for how people and nature can co-exist in a mutually beneficial way. By protecting these woods, waters, mountains and wetlands, New York State is also nurturing the Adirondack economy, which depends largely on tourism and second-home ownership.

Sadly, however, the APA has fallen into disrepair. This tiny but essential agency (some 50 staff members overseen by an 11-member board) has been crippled by a combination of interference and neglect by the Governor’s office. Indicative of this failure was the agency’s approval of a 6,000-acre subdivision near Tupper Lake that included dozens of “Great Camp lots,” ranging from 25 to 118 acres, with access roads and buildings that would be scattered across a forested landscape.

This was the largest subdivision proposal ever reviewed by the APA, and it represented a classic example of the wrong way to treat Adirondack land. The agency could have — but failed to — require the developer to avoid “rural sprawl” and preserve wildlife habitat by concentrating development so that most the vast tract would remain in continuous open space.

The APA claimed it had no authority to do an ecological survey and require the necessary environmental protections, though it had previously, under a different governor (our current governor’s father), done just that with another potentially destructive development proposal. Yet when a “conservation design bill” was subsequently introduced in the NYS legislature, which would explicitly allow the APA to exercise such control over large subdivision proposals, the agency refused to back the legislation. Nor did the Governor’s office support this crucial step in strengthening and motivating the APA. As a consequence, the legislation, which was opposed by two influential Adirondack legislators, went nowhere.

The extent of mismanagement is also reflected in the plight of the APA’s governing board, which supposedly consists of three state-agency commissioners and eight citizen members appointed by the governor and subject to confirmation by the state senate. The current number of citizen members has now dwindled to five, four of whom are serving expired terms. Adding insult to injury, only two of them have any background in land-use planning and environmental protection.

In May, the acting APA chairwoman resigned, having served eight months without being paid for the full time work she was doing. In June, the state senate rejected a slate of four candidates that Governor Cuomo proposed for the APA board because they were clearly unqualified. These same candidates were, however, embraced by local governments and development interests, though they lacked any expertise in environmental science, law, regional planning or open-space protection — qualities essential to fulfilling the protective mission of the agency.

So please, Governor Cuomo, get the APA back on track. Appoint people to the agency’s board who represent the state interest in safeguarding this special place, and then give them the freedom to do the job.

Development will no doubt accelerate in the Adirondacks during the course of the 21st century, but it must be done with respect for the park’s natural attributes. The number of annual visitors to the Adirondacks has reached 12 million and will surely increase. Seasonal residents now exceed 200,000, another number that is likely to grow, along with the park’s permanent population, which is currently at 130,000. The increasing popularity of the Adirondacks seems inevitable in the decades ahead as global warming makes life south of the Adirondack Park increasingly hot and uncomfortable.

Properly protected, the Adirondack Park can accommodate this growth and avoid the perils of being loved to death. But we need Governor Cuomo’s leadership, and a strong, resolute Adirondack Park Agency, for this to happen.

Photo of APA Building in Ray Brook.

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Dick Beamish was a staff member of the Adirondack Park Agency from 1972-78 and the founder of Adirondack Explorer. He now lives in Middlebury, VT; he was a founding member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA).

39 Responses

  1. Todd Eastman says:

    Dick, thanks for that thoughtful piece.

    The Governor is failing the state and the region with his lack of environmental leadership.

  2. Joe quellman says:

    betsy devos, in another executive capacity, would again do wonders providing both vision and administrative oversight for the park’s present and future needs. i propose betsy unless of course cosmopolitan new york progressives like diblasio or aoc unexpectedly become available.

    • Stephanie Wilber says:

      Joe , I think you’ve missed your calling ! Writing for
      The Onion !

      • Joel Cummings says:

        All of the Adirondacks need responsible development. In almost all of the small towns there is nothing but blight. The people living there need opportunity in the form of jobs and income from tourism year round. The transition to seasonal ownership significantly changes the demographics of the Park; I suggest for the worse. It is unreasonable to expect the Legislators to do the right thing. Most only care about themselves and not about the people they represent and especially not the environment.

    • Vanessa says:

      Hi Joe,

      This cosmopolitan Bostonian cares about the park likely as much as you do, which is quite a bit – and I also agree that park residents should have fulfilling, well paid work. On the latter bit, at the very least I have it on good authority that AOC agrees too 🙂 (dunno if she’s ever been to the park, however)

      So relax with the stereotypes a bit, eh

      • yoshootmeagain says:

        aoc? she thought destroying the chance for thousands of jobs in HER DISTRICT would lead to having billions available for other things. please with this woman. clueless would be a kind description.

  3. William Shaver says:

    It’s useless, it’s not a park.. people live and work there. The state never seems to have any money but yet the Adirondack Park agency always has money to buy more land I think that’s strange.

    • Balian the Cat says:

      What land has the APA ever bought?

      • Steve says:

        I think he is referring the to state which is completely broke but continues to buy land so the people from the city have a place to come get some fresh air. Why would they care if people in the Park have good jobs as long as they can turn their noses up and tell everyone get over it.

  4. Stephen Kutney says:

    The APA is hated by people who live in the park. The people who live in the park have a right to economic development.

    • The people in the park should also be allowed to cut down trees before they fall on their homes/sheds/camps/block waterways. Ask people who have applied for permits and have been turned down… And who have then had huge insurance claims…The APA has had too much authority for too long.

      • John Warren says:

        A permit is not needed to cut down trees in the manner you’re describing – and certainly not from the APA.

        • Concerned NYer says:

          Yes, it is. Personal experience…

          • John Warren says:

            Nice try, but no it isn’t. Or I’m sure you can prove it by posting a copy of your denial of a permit from the APA? Never mind, we know you can’t because anyone with even the minimalist understanding of how the APA operates knows you’re just making this up.

            • yoshootmeagain says:

              how about if said shed is next to your pond?

              • John Warren says:

                Provide one example.

                • yoshootmeagain says:

                  “The shoreline building setback restrictions apply to all principal buildings and to all accessory structures exceeding 100 square feet in size, including garages, sheds, porches, decks, barns, gazebos, guest cottages, tennis courts and permanent swimming pools, but not including boathouses or docks.”

  5. Gary Hartwick says:

    Not at all clear to me that the APA should not just go away. It is a highly ineffective time and money consuming agency. It picks the weirdest projects to waste the taxpayer revenue on time after time. For a number of years it had two VICs ro explain its mission; it never did. Its functions just should be turned over to the DEC.

  6. Vanessa says:

    At risk of sounding like a bit of an idiot – to be honest, I am not 100% sure what the APA does besides decide on land use for the park? In particular, the big controversy seems to stem from whether it allows development appropriately. Is this correct?

    • Balian the Cat says:

      You’re going to have to get up earlier than this if you want to sound like an idiot around here, Vanessa. I think it’s helpful to consider the APA something of a “zoning” authority within the ADK Park. It’s more complicated than that, but the agency developed a State Land Master Plan to regulate “development” in the Forest Preserve and they work on land classifications. There are smarter folks here to help fill in the blanks / better state what I’ve written, but you aren’t wrong in your start.

  7. Paul says:

    It seems like we have come to an interesting time where there is a solid consensus. It seems like everybody is unhappy with the APA. The folks that are usually quite positive on the agency have turned on them.

    Dick, if the ACR was a prime example of “interference or neglect” how did it get approved 10-1? Almost everyone who reviewed and voted on the project was wrong on their interpretation of the Act? That’s a bunch of smart people. I think if there were real issues with the project it would have been more like 6 to 5.

  8. Boreas says:

    Politics is unpopular, thus the APA is unpopular. I suppose it is OK for Albany to bounce from one side of the road to the other, but the APA was intended to go beyond politics and create a steady buffer between residents, development, and the forest preservation. With Albany populating and guiding the APA board, the APA will have no real long-term direction. If the APA board is repopulated every time there is an administration change, I don’t see what purpose it has. May as well let the governor or state representatives call the shots and eliminate the APA board altogether.

    However, the APA could be a real guiding force within the Park if the board were appointed in a different way. Perhaps the board could be broken into Park districts and each district could appoint its own representative member with a few members being appointed by Albany to represent state interests. But somehow the APA board needs to develop a long-term objective and avoid bouncing between the guard rails. But bottom line is, it will never be popular with everyone at the same time – even driving down the center.

  9. JohnL says:

    Where’s CharlieS. Haven’t followed for a while. Hope he’s OK.

  10. Glenn says:

    What makes the Adirondack Park different from where I live just 20 miles north of the Blue Line is that…well, it’s a state park. A park needs protection from development, for the benefit of all citizens in the state, whereas communities outside the park do not need this same type of protection (I might also note that impoverished communities outside the park could use economic improvement just as much as those inside).

    It seems to me that the APA in its early years acted more like a protector of scenic beauty and the natural world. I think, for example, about the way Tony Delia’s mega-project in Loon Lake was handled. It’s easy to imagine that his project would have easily won approval today, just as ACR did. Same act; different interpretations. So the agency can and will be political. But the politics should strongly favor environmental protection.

    The APA is necessary to regulate private land use and approve what the DEC has in mind for the state land within the Blue Line. It doesn’t make sense to me to eliminate it. I’d like the agency to send development to communities like mine.

  11. Tom P says:

    All I see happening in this over regulated compound are more and more 4 wheelers on the rural roads, more and more beer cans on the trails, empty pot plastic bags, and more garbage.
    Economy is reversed course. ARC is broke, Malone is in severe blight, nothing but out of state people buying up 2 week camps everywhere.
    The apa is a past phenomenon.
    Time to sell the land, remove the dumb forever wild garbage and maintain the forest like it is in the Southern Tier.
    But I dare say hardly anyone from this area has the guts to travel to the state forests where you can walk under trees and not step over a thousand dead trees.

    • Concerned NYer says:

      There have definitely been down sides to the APA. Forever Wild doesn’t work. Has anyone read the research about why our tick problem has exploded in the North Country? Don’t anyone even go the climate change route. Read for yourselves how ticks’ natural predators can no longer get through such thick Forever Wild forests.

      Also, if a person is paying taxes on their land, and not doing anything unreasonable, who is the APA to tell them they can’t put a shed on their land? Or they can’t expand to a 2 car garage? Why would anyone want that added headache? How are either of these a problem? Ask the APA, as they’ve denied multiple people permits like these-and these landowners were nowhere near water or wetlands, in case you’re wondering.

  12. Susan says:

    I agree with your analysis. I live in Lake George and we have a neighbor allowing a local paver to dump truckloads of old parkinglot or driveway asphalt in her backyard. This is damaging the wooded area on her property and leaving a bad smell and terrible view to our backyard. They dumped such a large amount it likely crashed birds, rabbits and other small wildlife. We called the APA and the town and neither have done anything. We were told months ago it would be covered or removed. I thought the APA cared and enforced preserving the park.

    • Steve says:

      Unfortunately for you utopian views it is their land and they want to fill in an area to make it more usable. I’m sure by now they have better use of that filled in area. It is not illegal or harmful to use old blacktop as fill. BTW, I’m sure the “birds, rabbits and other little animals knew enough to move.

  13. yoshootme says:

    “the Governor has become a leader in combating climate change, the greatest environmental threat to our planet in human history. ”
    please with this stuff!

  14. Doug Winner says:

    We see what one of Cuomo’s buddies is doing to their property on Friends Lake. Got your number, Governor!

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