George Davis is a visionary and practiced land use planner and ecologist. In the early years of the Adirondack Park Agency, George helped to conceive, draft, and implement the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan and the park’s Private Land Use and Development Plan.
George Davis comes to my mind now because of several proposed amendments to the APA’s Adirondack Park private land use map, the so-called “fruit salad” map displaying the private and public land classes. The proposed amendments to the map now up for a decision are for 34 acres to go from Moderate Intensity Use to Hamlet in Lake Placid, sponsored by the Town of North Elba, and for 105 acres to go from Rural Use to Moderate Intensity in Lake Luzerne, sponsored by that town.
George Davis was interviewed in 1976 about the early days of the APA and that interview became a chapter in “The Great Experiment in Conservation: Voices from the Adirondack Park” (2009, Syracuse University Press). Beginning in 1971, George said that: “The (park agency) staff began by developing a series of overlays depicting the physical, biological and social constraints using the methodology for an inventory of private land capabilities I had developed at Cornell. It was based on McHarg’s Design with Nature. The compilation of overlays indicated how much development the land could take and what would be the appropriate land-use category…As we finished, the really key step was that we insisted on field checking these areas. We wanted to make sure they made sense on the ground. Is this really resource management? Is it really moderate intensity development? …We drove every single road, and we checked…and corrected these draft maps. There are some mistakes in the final map, but we have really been amazed, when you stop to think of all the considerations that went into it, how few there are.”
Over the years there have been many small, merely technical changes made by APA staff. Larger changes, however, require a two-thirds vote by the APA members, signifying the central importance of the map to carrying out the Agency’s legislated regional planning mission.
The altered land use boundaries and classes cannot be for “spot zoning” favoring certain proposed or pending projects. The new boundaries must make sense from a regional planning perspective. Section 805 (2) (c) (5) of the APA Act states: “the Agency must find that the reclassification would accurately reflect the legislative findings and purposes of section eight hundred-one of this article and would be consistent with the land use and development plan, including the character description and purposes, policies and objectives of the land use area to which reclassification is proposed, taking into account such existing natural, resource, open space, public, economic and other land use factors and any comprehensive master plans adopted pursuant to the town or village law, as may reflect the relative development, amenability and limitations of the land in question. The Agency’s determination shall be consistent with and reflect the regional nature of the land use and development plan and the regional scale and approach used in its preparation.”
The burden for changes to the park map fall on the entity requesting the change. The proponent of the change must show how the change in potential development intensity and allowed primary and secondary uses of the land “fit” the land in question. They must justify the change. Did George Davis and his team miss something way back when? Is this or that portion of this or that town truly zoned appropriately as Resource Management or Rural Use or Moderate Intensity or Hamlet? Does some aspect of a town’s master plan require changing the land class to comport with the town’s declared plans and growth? Is the proposed area served by public sewer and water? Answers to these and other questions must be part of an environmental impact statement or EIS. That is where things stand now for map amendment proposals in the towns of North Elba and Lake Luzerne. The EIS for both changes to the map are prepared, public hearings have been held (via Zoom) and public comment deadlines end in late May and early June.
In my experience, the purposes and quality of these map amendment proposals vary a good deal, as does their justification. Persistence from the proposal’s sponsor also varies and matters. For instance, the Town of Westport requested an amendment in 2018 to move 32 acres from Resource Management to Hamlet. After being told by APA they would need to expand their sewer district and ordinance to require future sewering of all potential development there, the Town did just that and subsequently gained the amendment in 2019.
In the case of the two amendment proposals now before the APA, the one in North Elba seems quite well justified. The area in question appears to meet the character description and purposes, policies, and objectives of the desired Hamlet classification. Portions of it are already intensively developed. It is served by public water and sewer. The boundaries of the proposal appear to be of regional scale. There has been a lot of planning inputs from the Town, including a needs assessment for more affordable community and workforce housing that might be accommodated here in the future.
The proposal in Lake Luzerne appears questionable. Adirondack Wild questions how, given the absence of public sewer and water, few existing structures, 15 acres of wetlands and the good amount of forest, the area meets the description of Moderate Intensity Use. The acreage is also a portion of an 18,000 acre regionally important forest block, all zoned Rural Use. The contrast between this Rural Use area and curb cuts, camps, houses, and more significant nearby development along Lake Vanare, all zoned Moderate Intensity Use, is considerable.
One quick visit to Hidden Valley Road reveals the contrast. On one end of the road lies Double H Ranch camp facilities, as well as tourist facilities, cottages, camps and houses of all sizes.
On the Rural Use end, mostly woods. The 105 acres appear appropriately classified, reflecting the care the APA team took in developing the map. If the Rural Use area went to Moderate Intensity, the overall average development intensity guidelines would change from one principal building per 8.5 acres on average to one every 1.3 acres, on average. The impact of such a dramatic change on erosion of soil and water quality of streams entering Lake Vanare could be significant.
Public comment on the North Elba map amendment ends on May 30. Public comment on the Lake Luzerne map amendment ends on June 2. Go to www.apa.ny.gov for more information and the appropriate links.
Top photo: George Davis, with head lowered, and Peter Paine of the APA at a public hearing in the early 1970s. Photo by Paul Schaefer.
Editor’s note: The Adirondack Explorer is following this issue. Follow the link for recent coverage: https://www.adirondackexplorer.org/stories/apa-map-amendment-hearing.