A second-home developer of undeveloped private lakes and forests in Fulton County has worn down the Adirondack Park Agency over the past two years. Thus far, the applicant is succeeding in placing his real estate sales and marketing goals far ahead of the APA’s responsibilities for natural resource protection and solid site design of human development.
The application of New York Land and Lakes Development LLC (NYLL), Oneonta, NY, was declared complete by the APA on Dec. 14. The proposal calls for 34 new home lots, driveways, individual septic, and a new access road surrounding 100+-acre Woodward Lake. The subdivision sprawls across just under 1,200 acres of forest zoned Rural Use and Resource Management above Great Sacandaga Lake.
NYLL’s application to subdivide was first submitted in summer 2018 – which was also the year APA unveiled its large-scale subdivision guidelines. These were introduced to demonstrate to Park stakeholders that no legislative mandate requiring conservation subdivision design was needed. In lieu of a change to the APA law, APA staff would instead show us all how, administratively, it would require large subdividers to go through the same rigorous standard of conservation design that the legislation would entail. During a 2018 meeting with APA, we and others were assured that these new administrative requirements were mandatory, not voluntary.
The new APA application would lead large developers seeking 5 or more lots in Resource Management, 10 or more lots in Rural Use and 25 or more lots in Low Intensity through a pre-application, non-adversarial conversation about various sketch designs based upon solid information and maps of wildlife and plants living and growing in the project area. “Knowing what is there” in terms of wildlife habitats and other important resource values, and therefore where not to site homes, driveways, and onsite septic are first principles in a process called conservation design. The desired end-result would be an innovative design which quoting the APA application “shows proposed building envelopes, driveways, roads, limits of clearing, and other areas of disturbance, and avoids impacts to any sensitive resources identified through the Resource and Existing Features Mapping and Inventory. The preferred project design should minimize the creation of new areas of disturbance on the project site to the greatest extent practicable and should concentrate development to the greatest extent practicable.”
The goal was to choose among alternative sketches to select the one with least environmental impacts, respond to applicant’s economic objectives and to early public comments, and keep initial site plan design costs low until the preferred sketch was selected. Once the application was declared complete, the public and the applicant could be assured that the development, once engineered, would fit well within its environment, avoid big negative impacts, and meet the applicant’s objectives and other APA rules.
Through this process, applicant and APA would choose a mutually desired alternative that had already passed big environmental tests and thresholds and thus would most easily gain APA permit approval with little controversy.
The desired and promised scenario has not worked out well. Over the two years, APA issued NYLL three Notices of Incomplete Application, involving numerous requests for additional information and analysis of wildlife data, lake data, stream data, wetlands data and seeking for alternative configurations that did not ring the lake with development (all with private onsite septic and wells) and did not subdivide and fragment the adjacent 630-acre Resource Management forest into separate lot ownerships. The public could comment throughout the pre-application process, and could, for the first time, access all application documents directly off the APA website without need to submit a freedom of information request. At every stage, the applicant issued objections to some of the requests, debated the staff’s need for data, and released data and alternatives slowly.
What is the result that led the APA this month of December to declare the application complete?
- Identification of wetlands, streams and, after numerous habitats;
- Removal of three of the most poorly sited lots and driveways on steep slopes and practically on top of wetlands and streams;
- reducing the length of a new 3000 ft. new subdivision road by about 1000 feet;
- adjustments to numerous lot lines to allow for wider buffers around streams, wetlands, and wildlife habitats.
These might look like significant changes to a traditional, land-wasteful subdivision, but not for a test case showing how conservation design should work in this Adirondack Park. In essence the complete application that APA will review through its normal procedures and, therefore, the one most likely to be approved looks remarkably like the one submitted back in August 2018.
Two years into this supposedly innovative way to design large subdivisions:
- thirteen lots still crowd the shoreline of Woodward Lake, each with its own onsite septic tank posing challenges to future water quality, some with shared driveways, most without;
- eleven lots appear sited in upland forest above the existing roadway west of the lake, or below a new 2,000-foot road will be punched through the forest on the lake’s eastern side;
- the new road and the lots will badly fragment contiguous forest cover, making it less useful and usable by wildlife, foresters and recreationists;
- only nine new lots can be claimed to hug the existing roadway away from the lake;
- the Resource Management land, about 630 acres abutting forever wild Forest Preserve, is divided among 7 lot owners, making that most sensitive of APA private land classes less manageable for its legislated purposes: forestry and open space recreation.
Highly misleading are the developer’s claims that his project will result in only “28 acres of disturbance, or less than 3% of the entire property, leaving more than 97% or 1,142+ acres undisturbed.” This claim, also made by others (Tupper Lake’s Adirondack Club and Resort, most famously) ignores the scientifically- derived fact that the ecological impact of each of the 34 new homes and roadways in this Adirondack forest extend out several hundred meters on all sides of the actual home or driveway footprint. Ecologically speaking, the subdivision will impact a very significant percentage of the 1200 acres.
APA scientific staff are well aware of the ecological impact zone of new development. Therefore, APA staff tried to encourage the applicant to pull the houses and driveways closer together so that the overall ecological impacts overlapped each other rather than spread out. That concentration and overlapping of impact zones would be in keeping with principles of good conservation design.
Instead, the applicant spreads numerous non-overlapping clusters of development on all sides of Woodward Lake. Under their preferred sketch, development clusters are spread out. Insisting on 5 acre lots means that the ecological impact zone of each housing cluster cannot overlap with its neighboring cluster. That contradicts a basic principle of conservation design. So far, the applicant has successfully refused APA staff requests to “better concentrate development” and to “locate development to maximize overlap.”
This fall the applicant finally submitted what APA staff had asked for two years ago. Without comment or analysis, NYLL submitted a conservation design alternative sketch that eliminates new road construction east of the lake, places home lots west of the lake on smaller footprints and maintains the Resource Management in unsubdivided blocks of forest. This is the one conservation design alternative sketch which complies with the APA’s large-scale subdivision requirements. This is the alternative that APA should be working with the applicant to fully flesh out, complete and prepare for traditional APA review next month.
Very unfortunately, that is not what is happening. The one conservation design alternative for Woodward Lake is not going before the full APA. What is going before APA in January are applicant’s preferred 34 lots averaging 5 acres each, ringing much of the lake, with new driveways, roadways, and fragmented forests spread throughout 1200 acres of sensitive southern Adirondack Park landscape.
By stalling APA’s overly polite requests the applicant has, thus far, worn down APA staff resolve. He is proving that the so-called required large-scale subdivision objectives are toothless guidelines and proving why a legislative mandate to stop the sprawl and actually arrive at a conservation design is necessary.
That legislation, Assembly Bill 8123-a (Englebright) and Senate Bill 6484 (Kaminsky), has the support of a diverse coalition comprised of environmental groups, local government leaders, and forest industry leaders. The coalition got behind the bill because pre-application conceptual sketches that result in a conservation design alternative that keeps much of the land intact and useful makes so much good practical, economic and environmental sense. Good conservation design of human development is, as Assemblyman Englebright says, a “no-brainer.” The bill should be reintroduced in both chambers, passed, and sent to Governor Cuomo for his signature in 2021.
Written comments to the Agency about this completed application for subdivision of 1,169 acres into 34 lots around and above Woodward Lake are due January 15, 2021. They should be addressed to Ariel Lynch, NYS APA, Box 99, Ray Brook, NY 12977, or to her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and should refer to APA Project # 2018-0123.
Given that Woodward Lake and its adjoining blocks of wetlands and forest blocks constitute a unique resource likely to be negatively affected by the development as proposed, and given that there is strong public interest in the significant issues of approval pertaining to conservation subdivision design, and given the possibility the project should only be approved with major design modifications, by its own regulatory definition APA ought to send the project to an adjudicatory public hearing. Adirondack Wild will be calling for one.
Absent a public hearing, permit applications cannot be denied by APA. At this point in the process, the one true conservation design alternative (Alternative 2) which eliminates the new road, concentrates homes on good soils west of Woodward lake, and maintains unsubdivided blocks of forest above the lake on all sides can only be pursued through a hearing. The result of any hearing ought to deny the applicant’s preferred design without prejudice and direct him towards project Alternative 2 – or something similar.
Woodward Lake and its fringing marsh taken from the existing roadway. Photos by D. Gibson for Adirondack Wild