Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Improving APA Procedures Will Not Result in the Visionary Planning Needed. What Will?

APA sign regional planning

This is prompted by David Gibson’s op-ed a week or so ago. David calls for the APA to return to its former practice of reporting finds of fact. He believes, as I read him, that this would justify the exemption of the agency from New York’s environmental review law, SEQRA, and result in better decisions.

I agree. Experience throughout the U.S. makes it clear that the best way, which is to say the most disciplined and defensible way to report significant land use decisions is in the form of findings of fact and conclusions of law. The terminology can vary, but these functions are essential. I will also take David’s argument further. Proposed findings and conclusions should be available for public review and comment before the public hearing that should precede all significant land-use decisions. That’s the minimum transparency needed.

There is nothing remarkable about this. I recently helped a remote town out West that has no more than 300 year-round residents review a proposed campground. It was a proposal that could happen in any Adirondack hamlet. The public had access to the proposed findings and conclusions (which are check listed, a necessity where there is no full-time staff) for a week and there was an opportunity to ask factual questions before the required public hearing was opened. Following the hearing, the planning commission evaluated the project for compliance with a list of 20+ standards, which is to say that it made conclusions of law based on the facts before it, and approved the campground. This project was not controversial, but the planning commission still made a separate decision on each standard with which it had to comply before making an overall final decision. The public could have commented on each. If those volunteers can do it, the APA could do it.

But as the title I have given this essay indicates, that’s not my point. The APA could improve its procedures and still make unfortunate decisions. What makes a difference is vision, a compelling, but detailed vision, that stands behind and guides the application of the procedures.

The APA is justifiably seen as an extraordinary example of regional land-use decision-making. But the visionary energy that led to its formation has not been sustained. As best I understand the history, and the paper trail seems to bear this out, the energy that carried the agency through its early years was embodied in a few people. It was never part of the structure. And a cardinal rule of understanding how organizations evolve is that it is structure, not passing personalities, that determines behavior.

The enabling statute for the APA is almost entirely lacking in aspiration. It dives right into the details; a textbook example of legislative micro-management. The same is true of the plans, both for the state and the private lands. They are skeletal. They have no soul.

Yes, those maps look good on the wall (if you have your own plotter and can print them), but do they show a vision I can relate to? Do they tell me what’s going to happen on the ground? The Unit Management Plans written by DEC add useful detail for state lands. But how engaging are they?

The lack of soul also appears to be true of local plans and regulations approved by the APA. Some have more animation than the APA documents, but I just read a zoning ordinance that applies to an amazing chunk of the Adirondack landscape. It was dated within the last couple of years, but it could – if it didn’t mention an agency that was created in the ‘70s – have been adopted in the ‘60s. It would have been mildly progressive back then, but like the APA plans, the local products I’ve reviewed (I’ve not read them all, just a sample) reflect very little of what we have learned about how to plan for special landscapes during the past several decades.

A conscientious group of citizens can sometimes leverage a subpar plan and regulations to get good results. But that’s not something to count on. And it makes my point. Communities that assert their power are communities where people are motivated by a shared vision of what their future should look like. It is that, that sense of vision, not better procedures, that is missing in these mountains.

The Adirondack Council’s recent Vision 2050: Fulfilling the Promise of the Adirondack Park proposes an ambitious agenda for our region. You should read it if you haven’t. It comes from a particular point-of-view, but has spirit and points toward the detail that is needed. Until the APA engages us all in the process, and then adopts a broadly-based, but compelling and detailed vision that we can rely on to guide its decisions, the integrity of this landscape will be incrementally eroded.

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.  

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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 editor@adirondackalmanack.com

10 Responses

  1. JB says:

    Lee, there is a lot to discuss here. But I’ll stick to my initial thoughts on Vision 2050: the danger with vision is that if one part is thrown out, the whole thing can easily crumble.

    I’d argue that this is what happened with the very visionary (by my interpretation) APA Act. Vision 2050 is different in that it is focused on adaptive management. It is hard to imagine that, had they published in 2019, the “vision” would have been the same–a lot of developments worthy of reaction have happened since then. Arguably for some, this adaptability is a great strength. But it also creates its own sets of dangers. Adaptive management becomes over-reliant on checklists and has difficulty breaking out of the procedural, management-research cyclical paradigm. Ideal absolutes like those found in APA Act grapple nicely with the problem: we don’t know what we don’t know, and we never will; so we must formulate an ideal blueprint, and forge ahead anyway (even if the ensuing architecture is messy).

    And lastly, although the Adirondack Council managed to sneak some very, very bold and subversive proposals into their new document, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my biggest reservation. I feel that we are doing subsequent generations a disservice by focusing too heavily on popular consensus (in management, but also in sciences, politics, etc.). We are teaching by our example that symbol matters more than content–that we can refrain from doing the hard thing, as long as we do so under the guises of an iconic brand. And yet, in reality, true balance will always be unpopular in a world that is in need of balancing. I recently learned that there is a rock formation on Mars (as in the planet) named “Adirondack”. I’m not sure that there is a “solution”, but the brand has become a firmly embedded part of the problem–precisely because it gives us an excuse to avoid being truly visionary.

    • Lee Nellis says:

      JB, my philosophical friend, I am having trouble following this. But a response or two:

      A good vision is a vision with resiliency and can survive a missing part or two. After all, a useful vision evolves in real time. Is the AC’s 2050 vision that resilient? Maybe, but at least from my perspective it doesn’t have to be. Its a suggestion, a very well-done suggestion, for the rest of us to think about. Others should advance their vision in the same way.

      As for absolutes in the APA act itself, I guess I need a citation. I have no argument that the effort that led to the act was idealistic. And that seems to be true of the development of the first plans and, perhaps, its early administration. But whatever, I think you’d agree that’s not where we are now.

      As for symbol and content. Perhaps I have misread, but I think you have it just backwards. Any reflection on history and psychology (I invoke Papa Jung here) has to lead to the understanding that symbols are at least as, and probably more powerfully, motivating as “content.” You’re paying for the abstract ideal of Russian Imperialism when you fill your gas tank. Ukrainians are paying for it with their lives.

      As a Pragmatist (following Richard Rorty here) I see us having two choices. One is to seek and submit to higher laws (doesn’t matter whether they are religious or secular, the outcome is about the same) in the hope of attaining something we neither can nor should. The other is to abandon the abstract and seek the concrete beauty of people working together, learning as they go, doing the best they can, in harmony with the world around them. That requires letting go of a lot and a commitment that is hard to make, but there should be no better place for it than the Adirondacks.

      • JB says:

        Lee, it’s easy to start throwing around terms indiscriminately in a discussion like this. Guilty as charged. Ill-advised or not, for philosophy’s sake, let me try to salvage this…

        On “vision” vs. brand, “absolutism” vs adaptability, “content” vs symbol (and Art. XIV/APA Act vs. Vision 2050)… These are dichotomies of inception, process, and outcome, respectively. “Vision”, “absolutism” and “content” are part of a conservative paradigm wherein the measure of success is predetermined. Brand, adaptability and symbolism are part of a progressive paradigm wherein the measure of success is shifting consensus. The first is strong, but so rigid that it quickly develops cracks under pressure. The second is so fluid that it quickly reaches flood stage and obliterates everything in its path. One is a dam that needs continual fortification, the other is a raging torrent of unwavering, human-induced change.

        You are right that symbol is powerful. I contend that it is so powerful that it damages our relationships, with each other and with the natural world. In concrete rather than wishy-washy terms, an example: The bald eagle. The brook trout. The moose. The granite peak. The bustling hamlet. Symbols of the Northeastern landscape that have precluded us from looking holistically at the rest. Vision 2050 is full of such symbols, all 50 color pages full, neatly packaged into a deftly-crafted brand.

        Now we must add a fourth dichotomy, that of subject: coalition vs.consensus. Coalitions form when communities gather around place-driven issues, united by vision and arbitrated by absolutism. Consensus, on the other hand, can only form when a larger populace builds around symbols, broadcasted by brand and enabled by adaptability. The Council’s entire report is written for consensus. Modern politics, planning and even many sciences (e.g., plant taxonomy) are now done in the same way. Coalitions address the question: “What is the worst thing that can happen?” Consensus asks only: “This is the way to go, right?”

        Seeing the American landscape and populace in terms of emblematic symbolism is not new. The obvious danger of symbol is that it elevates icons at the expense of everything else–for example, the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act et al. What makes the Adirondack Park unique is that its foundational acts were not driven by symbols, branding or empirical consensus–Article XIV and APA Act were driven by a coalition of visionary groups that together comprised a unique and organic place-based cultural movement. While I understand the arguments for a “shake-up” in favor of a more flexible and brand-based approach, I contend that we have already seen that approach in action over the course of the past 30 years of bad Park policy. If we are being visionary, then we should not need to wait another 30 years to verify that outcome. With every erosion of foundational ideals, with every rebranding, with every adaptive management stratagem, the Adirondack Park inches one step closer to losing its uniqueness, its simultaneous magnificence inexorably coupled with its inescapable vulnerability.

        The rules, terminology, the maps–my own terminology here–may seem arbitrary. They are arbitrary. But the relationships between those arbitrary things, between people, land, community, present and past—those are not. Maybe the real reason that vision is so hard to define and so difficult to get right is because we are too focused on symbolism–too focused on “content” even–and not focused enough on seeing that relationality. We talk about the Park in terms of one-sided arguments. We explore the powerful utility of new technologies to curb problems like overuse and pollution, without also acknowledging the powerful ways in which those technologies are an integral part of the very same problems. We eagerly seek the economic and environmental benefits of thriving tourism and visitor interpretation without ever truly focusing on the human and natural systems being toured and interpreted. We vicariously debate schools and young people without reflecting upon the lessons that we are teaching or the future that we are creating. That is the brand. Brand is one-sided. Vision needs to be a many-sided creature, that, to the uninitiated, will appear an unapologetic, hideous monstrosity. Seeing with our eyes fully open is scary. It is even more frightening to see the big-hearted monster that we love being prodded, cajoled and corralled mpre and more towards its shiny new cage with each passing day. But most terrifying of all: What happens when the monster is gone?

        • Lee Nellis says:

          An interesting way of laying it out. I think you are mixing metaphors though and here is how I think it straightens out, leaving us maybe in the same place.

          In my own practice (and the perspective I think of my philosophical forebears), vision is the result of an ever-evolving conversation. And so, yes, it is what we refer back to when we make a decision. In that usage it is foundational. It reminds us that there are values other than expediency and popularity, keeps us from being swept up by fads or the desire to suppress conflict. But the proper metaphor for a vision of this sort is not a constructed object like a dam. Vision, as I use the concept, is like an organism, adapting, but retaining integrity.

          It is definitely not a brand (another inorganic human construction), which is very much a response to fleeting perceptions and one-sided as you say. It doesn’t have to evolve because it will just be replaced. Brands do indeed require visual “flash,” but profusely illustrating a document (it gets too busy at times for me) is not necessarily just branding. There are serious ideas that merit serious debate amongst all those photos.

          Anyway, the AC’s effort, although very useful, is not the document on which I am focused in this conversation. In my view, the foundational documents of the Adirondack Park are the dam to which you refer. I am saying (and I think you agree) that the leaks in that dam are alarming and we are all downstream. If we’re going to protect a living reality, we need a living process, not formalities. I prefer to think of that possibility as a thing of beauty rather than a monster (not that it won’t have teeth and claws), but however it looks. it has to breathe.

          • JB says:

            Lee, I certainly agree that vision per se needs to be a living and breathing creature–or better yet, as you put it, a “soulful” creature. That creature can serve as a bridge between the two paradigms of “the dam” vs. “the torrent”.

            In cultural anthropology, we have a term that has recently come into vogue for an analogous concept: Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Of course, human culture and society (and this extends to the “non-human”) are not stagnant objects–they are undergoing constant change. But we can’t forget that the situation now in the larger world, including the Adirondacks and far beyond, is that that change is happening far too quickly. A new paradigm has inverted the situation. What was once a flexible and porous raft charting us through the currents of time has become a petrified, crumbling dam lodged in the path of rapid change.

            I think we likely agree that the real challenge that we face is that in order to define vision, we need to actually find it. And it is not easy to find a liferaft big enough to fit all of us. The object that we seek always seems to be just out of focus, despite our myriad powerful lenses. Even TEK has been swept away onto some reclusive shore, both in terms of the mainstream misunderstanding of the principle and the real erosion of the living practice.

            So what are we left with? For one, you are right in that conversation is undeniably a component of vision–the very fact that we are in the throes of this conversation here today, on this forum, is a testament to that. But here is what I’m trying unsuccessfully to get at: Does the conversation materialize out of thin air? …Does it emerge from behind some type of Rawlsian “veil of ignorance”? …From some complimentary empirical deliberation about fancy pictures taken from low-earth orbit? …From some aesthetic description of the sublime? Would it be possible for ideas about vision to emerge in these ways? Would it even be possible for a real conversation to take place at all between such disembodied subjects?

            Your article suggests not–that experiential snapsnots taken together eo ipso do not constitute vision. But that really is all there is to the prevailing paradigm in a world where we would all like to believe that people, be it the exceptional few or the many, are smart enough to decide their own fate. I’ll suggest that our ideas about vision and its contents must arise first and foremost from some deeper context. Without tradition and practice, there is no TEK. Without something to hang onto, and a subjective body to hang on with, we have no skills to build a raft nor materials to build it with.

            Vision needs to be fed to stay alive, but it is not borne by those who feed it. In fact, this is tautological. Stewarding the craft through the endless journey by seeing who lies ahead and who we have left behind–that is what vision does. The only real obstacles are our own perceptions about who we are and what is worthwhile.

  2. Bob Meyer says:

    This all sounds very good but it’s very vague.
    I’d love to read fleshed out details…what and how.

  3. Tim says:

    All I can say is I don’t bother with requests for public comments from the APA or DEC. During the Boreas Ponds debate, they requested comments at the same they were going ahead and renovating the road to BP.

  4. Boreas says:

    With all this talk of “vision”, I feel we need to keep referring back to the original visionary legislation – Art 14. WHY is that vision of the Park different from virtually everything we see today? We need to examine the WHY.

    WHY is this vision being manipulated? Should taxpayers be allowing this manipulation? Do taxpayers even care? Are they familiar with the issues? How are large land acquisitions complicating the original vision? How are they helping? How are they hurting? Should any one administration be able to specify land use on large, new parcels? How much power should local governments, APA, DEC have vs. environmental concerns and visions spelled out in Art. 14?

    Until we answer most of the above questions, “massaging” the APA is nothing more than tinkering with the engine of a car that can not drive straight down the road.

  5. David Gibson says:

    You are right, and wrong. This is not quite right: “The enabling statute for the APA is almost entirely lacking in aspiration. It dives right into the details; a textbook example of legislative micro-management. The same is true of the plans, both for the state and the private lands. They are skeletal. They have no soul.”

    There is structural soul in the APA Act, the umbrella for both state and private plans, but one has to search for it in more than one place. Its set forth most clearly on pages 1-5 of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, which has its mandate within the 1971 APA Act, coming just one year later, pre-dating the Private Land Plan by a year. All 3 are woven together. All 3 were based upon the even more “soulful” 1970 Temporary Study Commission report. These four documents – the Commission report, the APA Act, the State Land Plan and the Private Land Use plan need to be viewed and considered together as one common vision or “unifying theme”, that “the protection and preservation of the natural resources…must be paramount: (SLMP), that the “wild forest, water, wildlife and aesthetic resources of the park and its open space character provide an outdoor experience of national and international significance (LUDP) and that “a land use control framework recognizes not only matters of local concern but also those of regional and state concern,” and “optimum overall conservation, protection, preservation, etc.” The difficult question immediately after 1973 became, “does this particular, specific application for a permit etc. tend to lead us in the direction of that vision, or does it lead us in the opposite direction? Staff rather immediately began to ask similarly, “I would like measurable indicators of how to assess open space character and to help me know if this permit or that plan are leading us in that direction or not, And despite decades of such staff requests, in too many instances those guideposts, guidelines and standards were not placed, after public hearings and input, into regulatory language. The “Act” as Bob Glennon often says, is “macrocephalic”, the big head and puny body. You are absolutely right that “the energy” to find the soulful parts and apply them (there is a lot of discretionary powe within the act, if applied) were always embodied in a few people, quite a few actually, both long since retired, retired and still employed at the APA. But not found, on the whole or consistently, among the executive leadership of the agency staff or board.

    • Lee Nellis says:

      Adding the Temporary Study Commission report to the canon gives valuable context. Thanks for pointing that out. I find pages 1-5 in the SLMP informative, but hardly visionary, and I wonder why there is not an equivalent of even that much about private lands. I agree that there is more discretion in the enabling act than the agency uses, but its still more a reflection of the dance required for passage than a useful guiding document. That’s not surprising.

      But there is no reason to quibble about this when we agree that Mr. Glennon (thanks for this great quote, too) is dead on right. I will just say that I don’t think macrocephalic and skeletal are so far apart as descriptions.

      However we describe it, any vision, that once drove the APA’s decisions has been diluted by the reality that case-by-case decisions, even when they are festooned with lots of conditions, cannot sustain the character of a landscape or a community. That can only be accomplished by reference back to a clearly articulated and sufficiently detailed vision or, if you prefer, plan that embodies the intrinsic values that should not be traded off and sets standards based on what we know about the impacts of development.

      We see this incrementalism almost everywhere in planning in the U.S. The APA is not atypical. But we also see, here and there, places where incrementalism has been, to a fair degree, at least, transcended. I think we should expect that here.

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