In an unprecedented reversal of its prior position, the APA is amending a long-standing 1987 permit to allow a large private residential septic system to endanger to a rare bog and degrade Upper Saranac Lake water quality. The APA has ignored their own 1987 permit requirements.
A coalition of conservationists, engineers, a wetland ecologist, and neighbors of a proposed development within the Class 1 wetlands on Upper Saranac Lake said today that the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) had, over the strong objections of environmentalists, engineers and local landowners, approved an amendment to an existing APA permit. The amendment eases the restrictions normally required for wetlands, and for only the last lot of the Deerwood Subdivision. This amendment allows for an on-site septic system 100 feet from a stream that empties into the Upper Saranac Lake and from the rare Category 1 wetlands boundary.
“The APA ignored its own statutory mandate; the Adirondack Park Agency Act, plus the Freshwater Wetlands Act and the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act,” said Chris Cohan, owner of the historic Lady Tree Camp in Saranac Inn of Upper Saranac Lake. “Yet, the APA approved the amended permit through an expedited review process and quick approval. The Agency even ignored 70 letters of opposition and reports from qualified engineers and wetlands ecologists on the disastrous impact to water, wildlife and recreation.” Letters were written by the Upper Saranac Lake Association (USLA), Upper Saranac Foundation (USF) and the Adirondack Council. Over 70 homeowners from around the lake, ranging from historically registered Saranac Inn Cottages and Great Camps all have voiced their strong opposition. There has not been one vote of support for this development, the group said.
“The Adirondack Council is disappointed that the Adirondack Park Agency missed its opportunity to fix the shortcomings in this proposal prior to issuing final approval for the permit,” said Adirondack Council Executive Director William C. Janeway. “Without a board chair and with several members of the board serving on expired, or soon-to-expire terms, the agency is sorely in need of the type of leadership that would have taken a second look at this proposal and worked more closely with existing residents.”
Upper Saranac Lake is one of the largest lakes in the central Adirondack Park, located between the villages of Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. It is home to one of the largest populations of common loons – a rare and protected bird species that has come to symbolize the Adirondack wilderness.
While shoreline development is limited on Upper Saranac Lake, residents have had challenges maintaining balanced water chemistry due to excessive nutrients getting into the lake from on-site septic systems and other sources. Residents worked hard with state officials to reduce those sources and improve water quality. However, they remain wary that additional development within these fragile wetlands will lead to new algal bloom problems and will greatly reduce home and water recreational value in their community. Development in a sensitive ecosystem will likely worsen this scenario because the wetland serves as a source of constant freshwater to Upper Saranac Lake.
The group of concerned citizens said the APAs’ approval of a permit amendment for Lot # 9 of the Deerwood Subdivision on Upper Saranac Lake would harm the rare Category 1 wetland and numerous homeowners’ rights and water quality in the North Basin of Upper Saranac Lake. Lot 9 is a small, limited-access building lot within the freshwater wetland – the state’s highest priority wetlands. The proposed development would include an on-site septic system (vs. the previously approved off-site location) less than 100 feet from the wetlands boundary and running cold-water streams.
Suzanne Carrillo, Deerwood homeowner states, “this wetland, called the “Deerwood Fen” is rated a Category 1 wetland by governing standards, even though the APA has referred to it as a category 2 based on outdated 1988 data. The APA has not done their own analysis as required, before issuing the amended permit.” Unique ecological communities within the lot 9 wetlands make up the “Deerwood Fen.” This Fen includes hydrological communities of a bog pond, inland fen, medium fen, northern white cedar swamp, and cold-water streams both above and below ground that run directly into the North Basin of Upper Saranac Lake. In addition, a rare orchid, “Dragon Mouth” species as well as threatened animal species (common loon, bald eagles, northern cricket frog, and bobcats) all call the Deerwood Fen their home. Suzanne Carrillo adds, “to date, the current homeowners within the Deerwood Subdivision have complied with the permit conditions. The newly amended APA permit for the development of lot 9 now poses the most threat to this wetland and water resources of Upper Saranac Lake. By permit, no vegetative cutting or disturbance was to occur.”
According to Howard Kern, adjacent landowner, “a series of regulatory and legal missteps by the APA have enabled the owner of lot #9 to bypass full Agency review of the permit amendment requests. Most notably, APA staff members chose to designate as “non-material” certain changes to important core conditions of the existing permit. The designation of these changes as “non-material” allowed the Applicant to avoid submitting a full application for a new permit, as should have been required, and having the matter fully reviewed by the community and the APA’s board. We have documentation that APA staff had guided the applicant to ‘segment’ their project requests into separate applications, thereby avoiding consideration of the cumulative detrimental impacts upon the wetlands, water quality, wildlife, shoreline aesthetics and value to our properties.”
A nearby landowner who was involved in the 1986-88 discussions of the current APA Permit 87-74 notes in a letter to the Acting Deputy Secretary for Energy & Environment at Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, “I realize that the APA is often in a difficult position with competing interests. But, when a compromise like Permit 87-74 is worked out it creates a terrible precedent if it can be unilaterally modified, particularly where there have not been compelling circumstances supporting the change.” This is especially concerning in that this unilateral decision at the Agency staff level allows for significant material changes with no opportunity for review or public comments.
In a recent letter to the APA Board, Larry Koch, President, Upper Saranac Lake Association (USLA) representing over 500 Saranac Lake homeowners, states, “APA Agency Staff has determined that the Leinwand project on Lot 9 consists of “non-material” changes. However, our Association strongly disagrees with this position, and believes the project should be considered a “material change” to the original permit. From our perspective, the proposed amendments to enable the development of Lot 9 in the Deerwood Subdivision are a “material change” to Permit No 87-74.”
Guy Middleton, Lake Manager, Upper Saranac Foundation (USF) discusses the impact of these material changes relative to the water quality of Upper Saranac Lake, “Water quality supports our quality of life, it is vital to our economy and defines who we are. The wetland tributary in the Deerwood Subdivision represents a valuable but very vulnerable source of water supply for Upper Saranac Lake. When the Deerwood subdivision was originally approved in 1988, the APA clearly understood the unique and sensitive characteristics of the property. They recognized that the 25-acre wetland complex and pond had tremendous significance to the water quality of the USL.”
An example of the extraordinary measures APA has pursued to enable this development include relaxation of permit-required setback distances for septic systems. Written into the original permit was the requirement that on-site septic systems be placed a minimum or 200-feet from the wetlands on all lots and that lots 9 and 10 specifically, have their septic systems installed in a separate lot located more than 200 feet upstream of the wetlands.
Adds Margaret Sheridan, homeowner of historic Fern Cottage of Saranac Inn, “the configuration of lot 9 as presented in the original permit was never designed to meet the 200-foot minimum setback requirements, which reinforced the original permit requirement that lot 9’s septic system be installed off-site in an upgradient location. APA has ignored these original permit requirements for an off-site septic system and instead is not only allowing for the installation of an on-site septic system on lot 9 but is further relaxing the minimum setback requirements. This change alone should have necessitated a new permit and all appropriate scientific inquiry regarding the impacts this change would have to the wetland and receiving water body.”
Suzanne Carrillo, further implores the APA to make the right decision and halt any further development of lot 9 in Deerwood until a fair and objective analysis by the APA is completed. The unprecedented APA “Notice of Expedited Review” for the amendment of the original Permit 87-74 eliminates important safeguards for the wetlands. “With their recently issued Letter of Permit Compliance for lot 9, APA has established a new precedent that will promote irresponsible development in one of the most environmentally sensitive areas along Upper Saranac Lake. While the original APA Permit 87-74 served to protect the fragile ecosystems within the Deerwood subdivision, with this new amendment permit action, APA has become an advocate for an out-of-state developer without regard for the fragile ecosystem APA is mandated to protect. If the APA believes the proposed development as designed offers the same or better level of protection than offered by the original permit, then APA should be willing to defend their technical justification through a new permit review process with all required disclosures to the public and the APA Board and Commissioners.”
Editor’s note: This was submitted by a group of organizations and individuals going by the Upper Saranac Lake Association Community. The contact for this coalition is Suzanne Carrillo, 908-922-6289
Please note that comments and commentary included on the Adirondack Almanack are those of the individuals and not the Adirondack Almanack or Adirondack Explorer.