By Lee Nellis
Thanks to Peter Bauer for once again providing us with useful facts and commentary in his “Team Cuomo” editorial. I have no argument with what he says, so far as it goes, but fear that he creates the impression that the more frequent use of formal adjudicatory hearings will restore sound land-use planning to the Adirondacks.
It will not.
Adjudicatory hearings are the path that’s left when we cannot resolve issues in a creative and collaborative way early in the planning process. They are what happens when visionary planning and design are replaced by bureaucratic and legal necessity.
While each story has its twists, the narrative here is the same as everywhere that progressive land use planning has been tried. One sees it at a statewide scale in Oregon; in communities throughout the U.S. where progressive local officials have come and, inevitably, gone; and in Federal efforts to plan for the public lands. In almost every case, a powerful initial vision is replaced by a bureaucratic tangle.
Whether it happens before an administrative law judge or in court, formal adjudication is a sign of a failing process. It tells us that our vision, creativity, and collaborative skills have proven insufficient. It tells us that we must now fashion a compromise that is likely to frustrate everyone involved, but not likely to result in development that is worthy of the scenery, in development that is consistent with the long-term health of our landscape and communities.
The need for formal adjudication is not the first symptom of a failing planning process. We have seen the first symptom in recent development approvals by the Adirondack Park Agency. It is a belief that imposing enough conditions on an obviously unsustainable development concept is good planning. Writing conditions is necessary, but those conditions should flow from shared vision, not from the need to check off the boxes of mere compliance.
The best review of development proposals begins when a developer walks through an agency’s door and sits down to chat with planners and designers (the APA’s most significant early influence was a landscape architect) whose training, skills, and experience are focused specifically on the question of how land development affects landscapes and communities. These professionals are the front-line custodians of the community’s vision. A successful development review process continues when the public is invited into the conversation early, often, and with minimal formality to help clarify how the community’s vision applies in this case. Development review must end in a formal decision. You will know you have succeeded if that final proceeding is just plain boring.
This process has bumps. Once in a while, it doesn’t work and that’s what formal adjudication is for. But development review as I have described (and lived) it works well when it is guided by a strong, continually renewed vision of both a healthy landscape and what it means to live in community.
I want to pause here to reflect on the success of the Adirondack Park Agency. It is long past time for it to evolve, but setting all criticisms aside, if you want to understand the value of the APA, get on Google Earth and look at the landscape surrounding Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The people who remove mountaintops to mine coal will do the same to create subdivisions. What you see there, could have happened here.
The APA has played an irreplaceable part in protecting this region’s landscape from abuse. But it cannot credibly or effectively continue in that role if it is perceived and operates as a rigid bureaucracy that has been captured by special interests (and note please that it doesn’t matter which interests you think have too much influence).
The current issues in these mountains go far beyond the potential for damaging land development that spurred creation of the APA in the early 1970s. The agency needs to be reimagined and then rebuilt to deal with both its original mission and with the challenges of climate change, tourism, housing, and creating a sustainable economy in a rural landscape. The interplay among the issues insists that we need a true regional planning agency.
There is not space here to talk about what a reborn APA might look like. But it would have to start, can only start, with a powerful and detailed vision for this landscape and its communities. Elements of that vision are evolving through many different initiatives, but can be brought together and made real only by a cadre of leaders, including, but extending well beyond, the employees of a revived APA, leaders who represent both residents and visitors, and who understand how to bring out the best in everyone involved in development review and other community-building processes.
To conclude, I want to respectfully borrow from this region’s original peoples and briefly say how thankful we ought to be to be having this discussion in this amazing landscape, to say how fortunate we are that there is still a difference to be made. I can’t wait to hear what these thoughts evokes.
Lee Nellis was elected a member of the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Certified Planners in 2010 in recognition of his innovative contributions to planning and community-based conservation in rural communities and landscapes throughout the US. He currently lectures on land use planning and related topics at Paul Smiths College and maintains a small consulting practice. He has worked with local, state, and federal planning and land management agencies, as well as in academia and with nonprofit conservation organizations. He is also an experienced guide and ranger.