Coming tomorrow: A coalition proposes a new solution for Debar Lodge.
Before that, we’ll revisit the ongoing debate around this historic structure.
In the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer, we posed the question:
Is there a legal and practical solution for preserving Debar Pond Lodge?
By Steven Engelhart, executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH)
Historic buildings and sites can and do have a place in the Adirondack Forest Preserve. Sites like John Brown’s Farm, the forts at Crown Point, Great Camp Santanoni, Camp Intermission on Lake Colby where the state has an environmental education camp, and the fire towers on Hurricane and St. Regis mountains are all historic resources in the forest preserve that are used for public education and recreation. Classified as “historic” or “administrative” under the Adirondack State Land Master Plan, these resources are managed like any other forest preserve areas within their respective management units and are enjoyed by tens of thousands of people each year. The constitutionality of historic areas in the forest preserve has never been challenged and the public has come to see these cultural resources as wonderfully complimentary to the wilder places of the region.
That brings us to the fate of Debar Pond Lodge. Built privately circa 1940, the main building is an impressive 17-room, cedar log lodge, together with outbuildings, designed by William Distin of Saranac Lake. One of the most important architects in Adirondack history, his voluminous work includes: the Adirondack Community Church in Lake Placid, the 1932 Olympic Ice Arena, Camp Wonundra (now The Point), and Minnowbrook on Blue Mountain Lake. Debar Pond Lodge is an excellent example of his camp work and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.
Nothing legally precludes the Department of Environmental Conservation from using the complex for some administrative or public purpose, but DEC has determined internally that it cannot imagine an administrative, recreational or other public use for the lodge. This is reflected in the department’s recent draft plan to demolish the lodge and its outbuildings and to create a day use area on the site.
If DEC cannot imagine a use for this historic site, it seems that the only remaining alternative to save this Adirondack treasure is through a constitutional amendment. How would this work? A constitutional amendment is a long process that requires the state legislature to pass and the voters of New York State to approve an amendment to the state constitution that allows an exception to Article 14. There have been many successful land exchange amendments in the past. Such an amendment to save Debar Pond lodge would exchange about 6 acres of land around the lodge for at least 300 acres of new land to be added to the forest preserve. The exchange would also want to ensure that the boundaries of the parcel around the lodge are drawn in such a way to ensure continued public access to Debar Pond and its forest preserve surroundings for viewing, picnicking, swimming, boating, hiking, or cross-country skiing.
The lodge property would be conveyed to a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Debar Pond Lodge for the education, enjoyment and inspiration of present and future generations and to operate diverse education and recreation programs there that are open to the public.
Yes, this is a long and tedious process, but this particular land exchange amendment is a win-win solution on many fronts. It would save a magnificent work of Adirondack architecture; allow the property to be used for public education and recreation; enlarge the forest preserve by 300 or more acres; maintain public access to Debar Pond and its surroundings; help disperse usage of the forest preserve away from the overused High Peaks region; provide jobs and economic benefits to the local community; and save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in demolition and construction costs.
The bottom line is that this is an important complex of historic buildings, there is a tremendous amount of public support for its preservation and public use, and an amendment to the constitution seems to now be the cleanest way to save the lodge. ν
David Gibson, managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve
Historic and forest preservationists are at odds about the future of Debar Lodge, but formerly they joined hands. In 1983 their collaboration saved historic buildings at Camp Sagamore while expanding adjacent Adirondack Forest Preserve by amendment of Article 14 of the New York State Constitution and saved the structures at Camp Santanoni by legislation. Both are designated national landmarks.
Also, conservation easements have allowed structures in the Adirondacks to be maintained if negotiated before the land is purchased as “forever wild” forest preserve. Examples include the lighthouse at Valcour Island and the fire tower atop Mount Adams.
Unfortunately, no historic interest with needed financial backing stepped forward to accept an easement at Debar lodge. The legislative route is also closed. Today the only way to preserve the lodge on its current location is to approve an amendment to Article 14, Section 1 of the constitution that authorizes private parties to undertake the lodge’s preservation.
Designed by the noted architect William Distin, the 80-year-old lodge fits beautifully within its environment. It has been surrounded by the forest preserve since 1979. The land was acquired for the public, but the difficulty arose when the structures were leased to a private party for 25 years. That private reservation ended in 2004 when the lodge reverted to full public ownership as part of the forest preserve.
Up to 2004, an arrangement might have been struck with historic preservationists to keep the lodge out of the forest preserve and to maintain it through a conservation easement. While efforts were made, they were not successful. After 2004 DEC knew that Article 14 and the Adirondack State Land Master Plan required the structure’s removal. More time passed. Maintenance and tough decisions were deferred.
Like Debar Lodge, permanent retention of Santanoni’s structures on forest preserve was also impermissible.
In 1982, Assemblyman Maurice Hinchey introduced his bill to address Santanoni and put an end to the state’s acquisition of land containing historic structures. His legislation, today’s Environmental Conservation Law 9-0109, mandates that pre-existing structures on lands acquired for the forest preserve can remain only if all three of these criteria are met:
1. The land and structure were acquired by the state prior to 1983 and the structure was built prior to the date of state acquisition.
2. The structure is listed on or deemed eligible (by the state parks commissioner) for the state Register of Historic Places.
3. The state environmental conservation commissioner finds that the structure can be maintained for the public’s understanding and enjoyment of the forest preserve or for DEC administrative activities necessary for the protection of the forest preserve lands.
The Hinchey bill violates the constitution, as Article 14 says the lands of the state are to be forever kept as wild forest lands. No legislation can override the constitution. The bill also violates the Master Plan’s guidelines. However, it has never been litigated. Hinchey’s intent was to limit the constitutional impact of his bill by drawing the line at Santanoni and to prevent debates about the future of other buildings deemed “historic” on the preserve. Santanoni and Sagamore have also been blessed with committed people and private resources.
Debar Lodge meets the second test in
Hinchey’s law. It is eligible for listing on the register. But it fails the first and third tests. The land was acquired in 1979, but the structure itself, built in 1940, was reserved to a private party until 2004, long after enactment of the 1983 statute. Also, the DEC commissioner has never issued a finding that the structure can be maintained for the purposes described in the law.
DEC must honor Article 14 and the Master Plan, which has the force of law. Only a constitutional amendment and sufficient private resources can preserve Debar Lodge where it is.
Adirondack Almanack file photo