At this month’s Adirondack Park Agency meeting in Ray Brook, senior APA staff presented a review of large-scale residential subdivisions permitted by APA between 2012 and today. By large-scale, they meant the size thresholds created by the APA, mirrored in pending conservation subdivision design legislation in Albany: five or more lots in Resource Management (colored green on the APA Land Use and Development Plan map), ten or more in Rural Use (yellow), and 25 or more in Low Intensity Use (orange).
Resource Management (RM) being the most protected private land use classification in the Park, I’ll restrict my post to what APA senior staff said about the four subdivision permits issued for projects of five lots or more in RM from 2012 until today. There have been four such permits issued: Adirondack Club and Resort, Tupper Lake, in 2012; Highland Farmers, Keene, in 2012; New York Land and Lakes, Bleecker, in 2015; and Barille family, North Elba, in 2017.
In summary, APA staff reported that these four permitted subdivisions occurred on Resource Management project sites totaling 7,718 acres; permitted (again, just on RM) 123 new principal buildings in all; and involved 355 acres of development footprint, meaning new buildings, roads, driveways, or just 4.6 % of the project sites were developed, it was reported. By contrast, staff reported, 7,363 acres or 95.4% of all project sites were restricted from development.
95% of undeveloped land or open space remaining on four large Resource Management residential subdivisions looks and sound terrific and very “green.” I think it was intended to impress. Unfortunately, significant information about the design of those subdivisions, or the way the development footprints and the undeveloped lands were spatially arranged on the sites, was completely left out of the presentation. APA staff made no mention of the total ecological footprint and impact of the four large subdivisions. If they had, APA members and the public would learn that the ecological impact of the permitted units exceeded the development footprint by at least ten times.
The ecological footprint of a project is defined by Adirondack Wild’s consulting landscape conservation advisor, Dr. Michael Klemens, as “the area beyond the development footprint, where direct and indirect impacts of the development extend into adjacent undeveloped lands, affecting the ecosystem. This area of impact is much larger than the actual area developed.”
How much larger? I’ll come back to that question.
In brief, APA staff this month were reporting on the mere quantity of undeveloped land, or open space, of these four projects in RM and not at all on the quality of that undeveloped land or open space. The quality of the Park’s open spaces, from ecological, recreational and forestry viewpoints, are very much tied to its unfragmented condition, meaning that it’s not broken up into small, unconnected pieces by roads, houses, lawns, driveways, noise, pets, etc. Dr. Klemens refers frequently to the “illusion of green,” meaning land may look vegetated but because it is fragmented it may be ecologically quite unhealthy.
These omissions by APA staff at the November meeting struck me as surprising because from 2012 to the present APA has been highly aware of the distinction between quantity and quality (including spatial design) of Park open space and, indeed, have touted certain of their subdivision review and approvals on the basis that the residential lots were purposefully designed to minimize the ecological footprint extending beyond each buildable lot, driveway and access road.
To take the example of the 2012 Highland Farmers subdivision permit in Keene, according to my notes at the time APA staff resource analyst Mark Rooks explained efforts to determine what the ecological impact zone of each the six permitted houses, driveways, lawns would be, utilizing research models and findings of Drs. Michale Glennon and Dr. Heidi Kretser of the Wildlife Conservation Society as well as his own research and experience. Rooks felt that the houses permitted to Highland Farmers, the applicant, were clustered and their impacts overlapped sufficiently to avoid much unnecessary spreading of negative impacts to affect species of specialized Adirondack birds and mammals known to be acutely sensitive to exurban development, defined by Drs. Glennon and Kretser as “low density, rural residential development on large lots (5 acres or larger) outside of urban boundaries.”
APA has fully understood and, in the case of the Highland Farmers permit, acted upon the difference between the development footprint and the ecological footprint of a project. So, it is very curious to me why APA senior staff made no effort to distinguish the two in their recent presentation to Agency members. APA knows better. I surmise that what was included and what was left out of APA’s recent presentation to its members may touch directly on APA internal resistance to Conservation Subdivision Design legislation in the NYS Assembly and NYS Senate. I’ll return to this.
If the ecological footprint of a new house in this Adirondack forested landscape is greater than its actual development footprint, how much larger? Dr. Michale Glennon of the Wildlife Conservation Society answered the question this way during her expert testimony at the APA’s Adirondack Club and Resort public hearing in 2011:
“Impacts to wildlife from development result not only from habitat alteration but from human disturbance associated with residential construction and use of residential areas once constructed. We found that avian (bird) communities were altered up to 150 meters (492 ft.) from residential homes in the Adirondack Park. A single house in a one acre clearing, therefore, creates an impact zone of more than 17 acres… it cannot be assumed that because most of the land within exurban developments remains undeveloped, it is suitable for all species that would occur there if houses were not present. When the effects of a single home are multiplied by the number of homes proposed here, cumulative impacts are significant. We agree with the applicant that the proposed configuration results in a development footprint of
approximately 4% of the Resource Management lands in the project area. We disagree that the remaining 96% are preserved.”
In 2012, 80 principal buildings were authorized by APA on the Resource Management lands of the Adirondack Club and Resort project near Tupper Lake. This was “sprawl on steroids” according to Adirondack Wild’s expert Dr. Michael Klemens. According to APA, however, just 5 % of the 4,700 acres of RM would be developed under the permit, or just over 230 acres, so everything was just fine.
Yet, APA knew then (and now) that the ecological impacts of those principal buildings, cleared areas and roads spread across the 4700 acres, as well as the frequency and types of human uses on those sites affect far more than five percent. If a new residence on an undeveloped block of forest is restricted to a footprint of one acre, Dr. Glennon testified that a zone of more than 17 acres beyond the acre development footprint alters the composition of bird and small mammal species. If built out as proposed, much more than 50% of the RM lands on the ACR site would be affected by the subdivision.
Also, in 2011 APA’s own staff testified to the sprawling nature of the ACR great camp lots, their large ecological impacts and the need to better design the project to minimize or avoid their impacts. Dan Spada, then senior wetlands biologist at the APA, testified that: “the Great Camp Lots are arranged across the landscape in a relatively uniform configuration and the three-acre development envelopes are relatively widely separated from each other as in classic exurban development. To adequately protect the forest resources, the development should occur in a configuration that reduces impact zones from the development by overlapping them.”
The very next year, APA resource specialist Mark Rooks took the time and effort to work with an applicant to redesign the Highland Farmers subdivision in Keene to “overlap” the impact zones of each new house and roadway. This is conservation subdivision design. APA clearly knows about it and, occasionally, sporadically, applies its knowledge.
As far back as 2005, APA project review officer George Outcalt wrote a memo to his senior staff about the importance of reviewing alternative configurations for the ACR project in Tupper Lake. Mr. Outcalt’s memo was part of the evidence in the 2011 ACR hearing. He wrote: “in the case of Big Tupper (ACR project), alternative plans for clustering in Resource Management, for concentrating all of the development around the ski center and development proposals that involve different numbers of housing units, particularly a smaller number, should be developed and compared to the proposed project. The analysis should include both economic and resource costs and benefits of the project as compared to the alternatives.”
Very unfortunately, internal APA staff recommendations for alternative spatial designs of the ACR that would cluster the subdivision largely around existing infrastructure went unheeded by senior APA leadership at the time. At the hearing, it was left to private nonprofits to present expert witnesses to come up with alternatives.
At the hearing, alternative sketches and explanations were best expressed by landscape architect Harry Dodson: “I believe that this historical land use pattern typical of the Tupper Lake area and the Adirondack Park as a whole offers a strong precedent for the layout and design of alternative plans for the ACR featuring compact, walkable and dynamic village-style development surrounded by large areas of preserved natural landscapes and wilderness lands…The ACR plan is based on an outmoded model of resort development that is out of place in the Tupper Lake area and the Adirondack Park. It is out of scale with the site and surrounding area…I determined that the proposed ACR development program could easily fit into a much smaller land area that could leave large areas of the site undeveloped while creating the type of compact village center style development popular in today’s resort marketplace.”
Last week, senior APA staff showed one of Dodson’s alternative sketches, yet dismissed it because, if built as shown, some of the clustered residential units would violate provisions of the APA Act pertaining to wetlands and steep slopes. That was also APA’s explanation for dismissing these alternative designs in 2011. It is factually correct that Dodson’s alternatives could not be approved precisely as shown due to provisions in the Act and its regulations. However, it remains notable that in seven years of its own review the APA senior staff never required the applicant to provide alternatives of a smaller number of units clustered around or relatively near the ski center which avoided wetlands and steep slopes.
It is this highly uneven, occasional application of conservation subdivision design at the APA that has precipitated legislation which would mandate the practice for every large subdivision as defined. The bill would require the upfront ecological site analysis of the kind that APA staff employed at the Highland Farmers permit (and others in the past) but failed to apply at ACR or at New York Land and Lakes subdivision in Bleecker, where no hearing was held and no rigorous ecological site analysis ever performed. The legislation would require significant, contiguous blocks of meaningful, connected open space for forestry, open space recreation and wildlife. It would require upfront alternative designs – before any one application is deemed complete and before spending large amounts on one site plan.
APA staff and members have complained that they can administratively protect more open space on a given project than the legislation mandates. But the legislation merely states what the minimum amount of open space should be. APA can always require more depending on site conditions. Again, APA continues to overemphasize the quantity of open space and underemphasize its design and its quality, its ecological connectedness, and its utility for wildlife, open space recreation and forestry. APA knows better. They have the knowledge and they have occasionally practiced conservation design as reflected in prior permits. They should welcome the legislation so that conservation design principles are codified and consistently applied by APA staff working there today and far into the future.
Images, from above: Woodworth Lake before the subdivision; and Woodworth and Hines Lakes in Resource Management subdivided into 24 lots by APA permit to NY Land and Lakes developer in 2015.