Thursday, July 1, 2021

Upper Saranac coalition: APA ruling endangers wetlands

upper saranac 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.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

22 Responses

  1. Tim says:

    Several questions. 1. Who owns that parcel? 2. Is this a case of wealthy, well-connected land owners getting their way? 3. What is the APA side of this issue?
    I no longer reply to requests for public comments from the APA. They are often ignored.

    • Balian the Cat says:

      Tim – Sadly, I am of the opinion that the call for “public comments” has morphed into “what do the special interest groups think?” as far as the relevant state agencies are concerned.

  2. Boreas says:

    Environmental protection only works when the regulations are followed. APA needs to follow their own rules. Unless the lot was grandfathered, the APA regulations were in place when it was purchased. Buyer beware.

  3. Todd Eastman says:

    Follow the money…

    … likely some ethical, and perhaps legal, boundaries were crossed…

  4. Ethan says:

    Any information containing “wilderness area”, “expedite” and “developer” are flaming red flags that should put everyone’s radar on high alert. Hope I’m wrong but sure sounds like someone has a friend in high places. The APA has some explaining to do.

  5. Joan Grabe says:

    Could we please dispense with the class warfare rhetoric ? Wealthy, well connected land owners do not always get their way. And they value the purity and quality of the lake water
    Why would anyone want to degrade the place where they live ? This is Upper Saranac Lake, however, where private donations have maintained the dam at Bartlett Carry and subsidized our Lake Manager and Milfoil eradication program – from vaguely half of current lake side owners. That is a discussion for another time. As is reform of the APA and special tax districts etc. I am sure that there is an equitable solution to this problem as it is too important to ignore – civil courts perhaps ?

  6. David Gibson, Managing Partner, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve says:

    The 1973 APA Act, and in particular its shoreline regulations are highly imperfect. So may be the land use map at this location of Upper Saranac Lake. The 1987 9-lot subdivision permit and its sanitary conditions were also imperfect, including Lot 9. On top of this, an embattled, ever smaller, ever more pressured APA staff in 2021 are always tempted to consider lot changes like this one as mere administrative, immaterial changes – which this change is clearly not since important shoreline wetlands and their benefits are put at risk with a 100-ft setback from an engineered on site septic system on a postage sized lot. The Upper Saranac Lake community is responding as they should, and as soon as the APA again allows in-person meetings again I’m sure they will personally show up and let the Agency members know their thoughts about this administrative, very material and very damaging permit amendment

    • Suzanne says:

      David, there are many on the lake that are opposed to this extreme development on the lake. We only wish for the owner to build per the existing permit, and not cut trees near or in the wetlands. This is all that anyone asks. However, this new APA amendment for this one lot owner only, places a septic system 100 feet from a moving body of water and a category 1 wetland, and this very stream empties into Upper Saranac Lake. This is against APA current policy and DOH for a very low perc rate as well. Yet, the APA approved this amendment at their lowest staff level, as NON-MATERIAL and did not review any 3rd party wetland or engineering assessments. No wetland assessment was performed prior to this decision by APA. Further, this decision did not even reach the APA Board for review, although the APA received over 70 letters of opposition. In fact, the APA cross-functional team did not want to meet with the community or review the data. In the meantime, the owner is now clearing the trees from his property. Members of the community did show up at the last in-person APA meeting and made their case known – but to deaf ears at the APA. This is a very damaging permit amendment, but the APA does not seem to care about that, or any detrimental impacts going forward.

  7. nathan says:

    sounds like someone was bought. the law is getting to only apply to those who are not multi-millionaire people or corporations!!!

  8. Paul says:

    The law also needs to be updated to consider technology improvements in how to deal with waste and waste water since the 1970’s. Maybe they can have a safe system that doesn’t really “endanger” the wetlands as this opinion article implies? Maybe they are not proposing some sort of 1970 style cesspool, there is lots of information that maybe is not here in this article. This nonsense about people being “bought” – that is all totally unfounded and unfair to the agency.

    • nathan says:

      all politicians get money for campaigns by “donations” AKA bought and sold by big money. Wake up paul!

    • Mark says:

      “Maybe” people who want to tear up pristine and unique wetlands should have more responsibility for preserving the wetlands as they found them.

      “Maybe” placing any septic system in a rare wetland, no matter how technologically advanced is not responsible. Technology is not infallible.

      “Maybe” the developer should not place any septic system so close to a wetland and would want to consider other available options in order to protect the valuable aquatic resources of the wetlands, streams and water quality of Upper Saranac Lake and it’s watershed.

      “Maybe” tearing out over 500 feet of trees in dense forested wetland just so you can have a view, is destructive and irresponsible.

      “”Maybe” if a person wanted a lakefront lot, they should have bought one, instead of a deep woodland lot within a wetland.

  9. Paul says:

    Does the “upper Saranac Lake Association” maybe just not want another house on the lake they probably have their houses or camps on? I don’t want any more development on the lake my camp is on.

  10. Charlie Stehlin says:

    ” …. 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. ”

    All indicators are that the Adirondacks is “game” for fresh new faces, for celebrating diversity (meaning bring in people from all walks, as many as possible.) Of course the root of this desire (I believe) is more about filling the town coffers, or to sell our wares so as to keep up with our Adirondack lifestyles, to pay the bills as it were, or to build up our bank accounts. This is fine as we all need to live as comfortably as we can before we die, but……. Where do I begin without coming off like an old broken record? Or an ‘old geezer’ as louis curth would say.

    As I am always aware….the more people the more problems. People bring their ways with them, and it’s not as if them ways are all bad but generally speaking our needs are needs that have not the least interest in the environment that surrounds us. And then there’s this general trend of late, ie…people hankering to move away from the more populated areas. I have this gut feeling that in the very near future the Adirondacks is going to be the next great boom place where thousand lots of new homes are going to start rising on that sacred acreage. With them homes a population increase. Indeed, when I drove up last week I saw off to the sides of Rt. 28, between Warrensburg and Indian Lake, large sections of woods carved out in spots here and there in preparation for new homes, and also there were mobile homes on some of those carved lots…..squatters. This is very new and a sign of things to come whatever them things may be. Time will tell!

    We may rant on about how fragile our Adirondack wetlands are, but will we do enough to place them ahead of us, will we go to any length, and at whatever cost, to preserve them? I have my doubts. I mean how do you stop progress? If that’s what you call it! I call it regress. The APA’s actions above remind me of how ‘giants without hearts’ operate. They subtly throw things out… a septic system here, a small home there. They test the waters to see how much of a resistance they will be up against before they start proposing a Walmart here, a Resort there.

  11. Doug Kroeger says:

    Do I remember reading that the make-up of the APA has changed significantly under the current governor? I’ve seen a trend in government agencies adding people from diverse & lay backgrounds – people who may not be true to the mission of the APA.

  12. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Joan Grabe says: “Why would anyone want to degrade the place where they live?”

    Absence of mind. Gremlins within. The earning of profits. Un-enlightenment. Detachment from the Great Spirit!

  13. JB says:

    I’m not as familiar with this exact area of the Park, but the septic system that they propose putting in sounds like a textbook example of what not to do. There is no technology that exists, even for large-scale multi-million dollar wastewater treatment plants, that would make effluent safe (or justifiable) to discharge into the ground this close to an upstream Adirondack wetland of this type. About all that such a system would possibly prevent from reaching surface water is nitrates and fecal coliform, and even then there is good research that functioning OSWTS cannot even do that in this type of installation. Phosphate, having been phased out from most laundry detergents (but not necessarily dishwasher detergents), would not even be the greatest concern here. It would be other, more mobile polar ions and organic compounds (pharmaceutical and personal care products), xenobiotic toxins to both humans and wildlife that do not belong in any Adirondack waterway. It does indeed seem like the State government, under economic pressures and fear of partisan anti-environmental pushback, is failing to fulfill its own constitutional obligation to do what they had successfully done for a century–meeting the moment to protect the Park from threats as they arise. Granted, today those threats are insidious. Overdevelopment and overuse are being acutely exaggerated by economic realities, modern technologies, novel pollutants, and a more mobile population, unforeseen in the 1890s or 1970s.

    I understand that people often expect too much from their governments, and the State does not have a magic wand that they can wave to make these problems disappear. But when we talk about things like “protecting wilderness character”, which has given us the Park as it is today, we need to place a great deal of faith into the managing agencies, faith that they will in turn make judgements in good faith to fulfill the overarching vision of the Park. And I often wonder…If those in charge did have a magic wand in the 21st century, what would they use it for? Would they subdivide every plot into a manicured grid of trails and campgrounds and radio-collared animals that can be capitalized upon and studied? Is the idea of “wilderness character” already dead? Certainly not for some of us, who are in awe of this place and equally disturbed by the looming wave of development and degradation that we see on the horizon. For, it is very easy for our society, in its technological dominion, to develop a plot or to carve a path where none has been made, but it is fiendishly difficult to do nothing and impossible to restore an ecological community once it has already been degraded.

    I digress, but I did so in the hopes that some will understand why there are those of us who are so high-strung about these issues. The Adirondacks is basically the end of the line as far as intact Northeastern forests go.

  14. Boreas says:

    I hate to keep heaping blame on the APA, when the blame lies mostly in Albany. The current administration has not only left the Agency with too few appointees to function properly, but the people it HAS appointed are primarily developers. Long-seated environmental appointees have left in frustration because they are usually the only dissenting voice on any decision. It is no longer functioning as conceived.

    Once development has been approved and in place, it cannot be undone. It is forever. But environmental protection is always under attack. Many feel the environment has been spared for several administrations and to “balance” that history, it must be undone with decisions that are anathema to environmental protection principals. This is a destructive philosophy, as again, it cannot be undone. If you want to get to your destination, one shouldn’t drive down a road by bouncing off the guardrails (destructive), but rather, try to maintain direction with SMALL adjustments to the wheel, throttle, and brakes. Stay in the middle. Make restrained decisions, which can only happen with a well-rounded agency.

    The current APA is farcical – it does not even honor its own guidelines from the past because there is not a balance of ideology within the group. The APA cannot function as-conceived with the current lopsided staff and open positions. Until there is a balance, there should be NO APA DECISIONS! I feel until there is a balanced staff that pass both environmental and developmental muster, there should be a moratorium on any APA decisions.

    Listening Albany?

  15. Adirondack Observer says:

    Sounds like the Upper Saranac Lake Association and its attached “nonprofit” Upper Saranac Foundation is at it again with their targeted NIMBY lobbying and letter writing campaigns against single property owners and businesses. First the marina and now a single private residence. When is the state going to do something about these faux environmentalists abusing time, resources, and nonprofit status who want the Adirondacks just for themselves? Are they properly registered with the IRS for all of these lobbying activities? Maybe it’s time to report these activities. Start looking into how they’re spending their money, you’ll find a lot of their funding going to pet projects and special perks for their supporters. Wonder who in the USLA is having their property impacted this time by this single lot? Someone doesn’t want a new neighbor. Investigation should take place into this “nonprofit” and its umbrella group USLA. Let the state do their job. Time to stop hearing from these “environmentalists” who all have a hidden agenda that has nothing to do with the environment.

    • Suzanne says:

      This is not about a single lot. It is about a 25+ acre Category 1 Wetland that is also a rare Fen. No one is saying not to build their camp in the wetland. Residents only want the developer to build responsibly. Don’t put a septic system 100 feet from a stream that empties directly into the lake. There is already a site for the septic, upland and away from the wetlands. Don’t cut down the trees in 500 ft. of forested wetlands for a view of the lake. If the owner wanted a lake front view, they should have bought a lake front property. You should read the article. It is about protecting a valuable resource and protecting the water quality of Upper Saranac Lake.

  16. Anita says:

    Adirondack Observer, you clearly did not read the article. Or your comprehension is simply non-existent if you think this is about a “single lot.”

  17. John Marona says:

    Well, I paddle by this lot quite often, in the 1970’s (we seem to be referring to that ere a lot here) it would have been called a swamp. I don’t quite comprehend why anyone would want to build their camp in a swamp to begin with. Even the old Saranac Inn built up to this point and no further, because it was a swamp. Then again when you look at the architectural rendition of the finished project the camp and its surroundings looks like it is 10 feet above the lakes waterline, not true, and I’m sure this is what the APA saw, of course no one from the APA actually visited the site. Or,,,, they plan on filling in the wetland completely to have their finished camp. That drawing also shows a 2 story boathouse as well, which is also against regulation for any new construction on the lake. So yes, something fishy IS going on here.

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