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.