Friday, April 21, 2023

Another Test of the APA’s Large Subdivision Review

Concerning a proposal for about 120 units of townhouses, “estate” homes, a hotel or clubhouse, associated several miles of roadways, parking lots, driveways, and trails on 385 mostly wooded acres in Jay near Ausable Forks, the applicant has just submitted new information to the APA.

The APA issued their second additional information request of Mr. Stackman last September, 2022. This month Mr. Stackman writes that he has been working diligently to respond. You can find it all on the Agency website. For this post, I’ll focus on just one aspect of that response to the APA’s second request for additional information: biological surveys.

Biological Survey Required: Stackman’s proposed subdivision falls within the APA’s large-scale subdivision application threshold. Last September (and in 2021), APA advised Mr. Stackman that his submission of “a biological survey prepared by a qualified biologist and spanning multiple seasons will also be required. This biological survey will need to include a report detailing potential impacts to the mapped forest resources, unique natural communities, wetlands, fish/amphibians, and wildlife, and an assessment of how wildlife dependent on the forest blocks and unique communities will be impacted by the proposal, particularly area-sensitive and edge-affected species such as interior forest birds, American marten, and wide-ranging mammals.”

Mr. Stackman ought to have known for over four years that APA’s Large Subdivision Application criteria for applications of 25 or more lots in Low Intensity Use (which is the land use class for Mr. Stackman’s development) included a biological survey. Eighteen months have now passed since Mr. Stackman’s first submission to the APA. With respect to biological surveys, to date how well has Mr. Stackman complied with APA’s requirements?

  • A qualified biologist: The developer’s biological consultant, B. Laing and Associates, seems well qualified in wetland ecology and delineation. Based on Long Island, the consultants’ website appears to be centered on coastal, estuarine and marine environments rather than Adirondack temperate, mixed hardwood forest, causing one to wonder why an Adirondack Park biological consultant could not be located.
  • Multiple Seasons: To date his field investigations have been, according to Stackman, “carried out this fall and early winter and during this period, no state or federal species considered threatened or endangered were observed on site, though the late date made surveying for invertebrates (e.g., insects), herptiles (i.e., amphibians and reptiles), or migratory/hibernating species inconclusive.”

Inconclusive?  Stackman doesn’t know and cannot know because up to now he hasn’t looked for these species and their habitats, like vernal pools, during the spring and summer months.  Scheduling field work in the non-growing seasons is completely unresponsive to the APA’s requirements. Why biological field work was not conducted last spring and summer is not explained. It appears that little of the requested information regarding interior forest birds, frogs and salamanders, or mammals, and their breeding and migratory habitats or corridors has yet been submitted. Stackman did submit a list of observed actual and potential breeding birds lifted from the last breeding bird atlas of 2005.

  • Unique natural communities, significant wildlife habitats: Here, the applicant has at least identified and mapped uncommon natural heritage woodland communities of Northern Hardwood/Oak/Pine Forest, noting that it is “a high-quality occurrence of an uncommon community type, and occurs in two separate areas. The forests are very large, moderately diverse communities with relatively large, intact, putative old growth cores, in a moderately intact landscape.” One is 275 acres, the other 179 acres. While he may have mapped this uncommon forest type, he appears not to have evaluated it at all.

Mr. Stackman admits that the club house, as well as the roads, driveways, and houses located near the clubhouse would all fall within the oak-pine forest and require over four acres of forest cutting and tree removal, but states that this “would not fragment the forested area.”  In fact, he asserts this month that “the development is not, effectively, in the middle of the woods, or creating any additional significant segmentation, except for minor areas where it is being minimally disturbed or impacted.”

Mr. Stackman is unqualified to determine if, when and in what manner an uncommon forest community becomes disturbed, impacted, or fragmented. His own biological consultant should be making the conceptual, qualitative, as well as quantitative evaluation of forest impacts and fragmentation, in concert with the APA staff.

Is Logged Land Waste Land? No. Mr. Stackman also demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Adirondack environment when he attempts to dismiss potential undue adverse impacts of his proposal on the basis that the land was previously logged and that the Ausable River and Rt. 9N running by the river already fragment the area.  He writes:

“The development is not, effectively, in the middle of the woods, or creating any additional significant segmentation, except for minor areas where it is being minimally disturbed or impacted. The AuSable river already represents a significant, natural fragmentation of these woodlands. Further, the direct proximity of Route 9N and associated residential, agricultural, or otherwise disturbed properties, provides a historic and substantial corridor of disturbance at this location. While there is minor, localized segmentation of the woods, the proposed development was designed to be as clustered as possible- in the overall scheme of things….it is worth mentioning that this parcel is not “virgin land.” It has a history of man-made disturbance. Older images, dating back to 1947, show significantly logged and largely cleared areas within the property and the proposed development site.”

Mr. Stackman is not alone. Many assume his unscientific viewpoint that logged land is waste land, so why worry about the forests’ development as house sites.  Adirondack and other scientists know the fact of prior logging disturbance in no way diminishes the potential for forest ecological recovery and establishment of a rich biological diversity. APA also knows there is a world of difference between a logged landscape and a developed landscape. The former is part of the ecological continuum in the Park, and soil nutrients and many forms of early successional plants, trees, wildlife, and birds quickly inhabit and help regenerate a recovering forest. The latter, the developed landscape, is permanently converted for humans, lawns, pets, lights, and noise, forever unavailable to sensitive species, sustainable forestry, and open space recreation. Hopefully, the APA staff will quickly advise Mr. Stackman of the difference.

Of course, Rt. 9N has long bisected the area, fragmenting it. Mr. Stackman’s development, particularly the proposed several miles of new roadway and driveways, would spread fragmenting impacts westward of Rt. 9N for miles.

Ecological Footprint vs. Development Footprint:  Mr. Stackman’s narrative continues:

“Further, the proposed footprint represents less than 10% of the overall acreage, leaving over 345 acres undisturbed and protected for future generations…The proposed tree removal would result in a minor reduction of Pine-Northern Hardwood Forest when compared to the overall acreage in the area.”

Here, again, Mr. Stackman demonstrates a lack of understanding of ecological impact. Like most of us, he views impact from a new land use as limited to the footprint, be it of a building or a road or a front lawn. Independent Adirondack and APA staff biologists have both described to the APA board how the ecological impacts of new land use and development in an otherwise or mostly undisturbed matrix forest extend outward several hundred meters in all directions from the actual development footprint. APA staff understand this concept well and its ecological basis and, with Mr. Stackman’s full cooperation, should apply it now, at the conceptual phase.

In other words, APA already knows that the four acres of tree cutting proposed in this uncommon oak-pine forest needed to construct the hotel units and roadways at the top of the hill, followed by subsequent hardening and permanent development of the units, would impact much more than four acres. The first house, roadway and driveway built there would radiate impacts out some 200 meters in all directions, translating into an ecologically impacted area of some 30 acres for that one unit of development (see 2013 paper in Urban and Landscape Planning, Size of the ecological effect zone associated with exurban development in the Adirondack Park, NY by Adirondack ecologists Michale J. Glennon and Heidi E. Kretser). If six new hotel units were built in this admittedly sensitive location, the uncommon hardwood-pine forest, and if their impact zones did not overlap each other, nearly 200 acres in this uncommon forest environment would be ecologically altered, practically forever. That alteration would encourage plant, animal and bird species well adapted to human presence, birds such as blue jays and robins, and displace ecologically sensitive Adirondack plants, mammals, and birds such as the wood thrush and ovenbird, while encouraging all manner of invasive plant and animal species.

Overall, after two notices of incompleteness, one wonders when Mr. Stackman will fully comply with the large-scale subdivision application, including but not limited to biological surveys spanning multiple seasons.  Until then, APA should declare the latest submission incomplete.

Need for Redesign: One also wonders why APA and Mr. Stackman cannot work together better now during this conceptual phase to redesign his subdivision to avoid any impacts to the uncommon oak-pine forest. That would be a true demonstration of the APA’s large-scale subdivision application and the process of conservation subdivision design. Redesign should ensure that ecological impacts of the new houses and roadways overlap, rather than spread out, and that infrastructure is similarly pulled closer together, at less cost.

On-Site Septic? There is another urgent reason to conceptually redesign now.  According to Mr. Stackman’s latest APA submission, some or even a majority of the proposed 120 units may need to be served by onsite septic systems rather than community sewer. If so, locating suitable onsite septic for so many units will be a significant challenge and conservation subdivision design will become even more important.

Redesigning this project should be squarely faced now, during the conceptual stage. Therefore, APA is facing yet another test. To quote the APA, its large-scale subdivision application was established in 2018 to “protect open space, wildlife, and habitat resources, and in accordance with the objectives of conservation design. The project applicant will benefit from the opportunity to review conceptual designs and public comment with Agency staff early in the application process. Following these initial steps, the application process will lead to the development of preliminary and detailed design plans before presentation of the project to the Agency board. This review process is intended to improve efficiency and to help avoid unnecessary costs to the project applicant.”

The Woodworth Lake subdivision, 34-unit permit in 2021 revealed the shortcomings of the APA’s large subdivision application. That review took nearly three years, was not efficient, imposed all sorts of costs, yet its design failed to protect Woodward Lake itself from being ringed with new housing, with resulting ecological, water quality, and aesthetic impacts.

Adjudicatory Hearing: If APA and Mr. Stackman cannot do better at project redesign during this preapplication phase then added to the Woodward Lake experience the large scale subdivision application is a proven failure – new conservation design legislation is needed to give the process legal weight.

Be that as it may, APA has the existing legal authority to call for a full adjudicatory public hearing to comprehensively consider all the complex, interrelated issues associated with Stackman’s proposal. The legislature gave APA authority to hold hearings to ensure expert testimony before an impartial law judge, and fair, comprehensive, transparent, public examination of all significant issues involved in a large, complex, controversial, new land use and development, such as Mr. Stackman’s.  Over 150 public hearings were held from 1973-2011, none since. Supreme Court in Warren County just ruled against APA for, in part,  the Agency’s failure to hold an adjudicatory hearing at Lake George. Hopefully, that court ruling sends a very clear message that APA must resume its practice of calling public hearings.

Photo at top: The area of Rte. 9 where the Jay resort subdivision entrance might be. Photo by Roger Gray

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

16 Responses

  1. Bob Meyer says:

    Once again, David Gibson’s comment is exhaustively, long winded, but ultimately right on the money. Suggestion: sometimes it’s not what you say, but how do you say it. 😏
    David, please do not take offense.
    Recent history has shown, from the near disaster at Tupper Lake, to other projects that were approved without proper vetting and public input, that the APA is a dysfunctional that needs a real overhaul and leadership that adheres to the original mission of the agency and is not a rubber stamp for the construction industry. Conservation and action that benefits the people and communities of the Adirondacks are NOT mutually exclusive.

  2. David Gibson says:

    No offense taken, Bob Meyer. Thank you for your comments. I especially value your
    Not Mutually Exclusive closing.

  3. Tony Goodwin says:

    Somehow, I don’t think this project is actually all that bad. It is located between a long-established (200+ years) and a newer, but still old (60+ years) major subdivision. The developer plans about 100 units on about 300 acres of land – most of which is zoned ‘low-intensity’, or one building per 3 acres. It just doesn’t seem like rampant over-development.

    Now, maybe I have missed some details. Will the permit require that all these new units tie in to the Ausable Forks sewage treatment plant? If an upgrade to the plant is therefore required, will the developer be required to pay for that upgrade? What entity will maintain the roads in the project – the developer for a certain number of years – but then will the town have to maintain the roads?

    The answers to the above important questions could be sufficient to kill the project. If the developer has good answers, then it seems that we’re quibbling about less definite environmental issues just for the purpose of killing the project.

    We can’t just “shrink-wrap” the Park and never let anything change.

  4. Boreas says:


    I don’t believe “…quibbling about less definite environmental issues just for the purpose of killing the project.” is what is happening here. It is about the APA requiring that the environmental studies are comprehensive, valid, evaluated, and done according to the law. We should expect no less. Isn’t that is their purpose?

  5. Lee Nellis says:

    There are two basic approaches to the regulaton of large-scale development. There is the “environmental impact statement” approach, which we see at work here. There is also the performance-based approach, in which the regulating agency estgablishes clear upfront standards with which the developer must comply.

    The EIS approach goes back, of course, to NEPA and the state versions of that legislation, including NY’s own SEQR. It is an appropriate approach for truly large-scale prohects whose impacts require study and innovative regulation. Mining or reworking mine tailings for rare earths would be such a development that might appear in the Adirondacks.

    But we are not dealing here with anythng mysterious here. We know the impacts, direct and indirect, of this scale of resort residential development. What is needed are clear standards that the project must meet rather than what promises to be (already has been, really) a long, vague process of groping toward an answer. Which is to say that we need to use the science that exists (Dave points this out) and a clear vision, generated via public inquiry, The science will always get a little better, but we know more than enough to anticipate the impacts of this type of project on water quality, wildlife, etc. The vision will, likewise, continue to evolve from whatever point it is embodied in a document. But there really isn’t any mystery about goals as they would apply here. What is needed is to convert those goals into specific, actionable, enforceable standards and then ask the developer to show how he/she complies.

    Where this is done – and its not easy, but eminently possible – the development review proceeeds more quickly, the public feels more empowered, and the results on the ground are better. The APA and its guiding documents were created at a time when the alternative approaches to development review were first being sorted out. It was a grand experiment. But the agency and its guiding documents, despite many small adustments, continue to operate as if nothing much has been learned about how to regulate land use since the early ’70s. And that just is not true.

    The balance Bob suggests above can be codified for development of this type and scale. The APA ought to be spending its time on that instead of batting things back and forth with developers or trying to decide when a road is not a road.

  6. Bob Meyer says:

    Ah, common sense and clear, modern thinking. Thank you.

  7. Rebecca Bennett says:

    Ever since I first heard about this truly horrible attempt to put a hotel, etc etc in one of the most beautiful places in the ADKs I have been in disbelief! Mr Stackman MUST be stopped – as conservation legislation proves that this kind of building is NOT allowed!!!

  8. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “David Gibson’s comment is exhaustively, long winded…. Suggestion: sometimes it’s not what you say, but how do you say it.”

    The more information the better methinks! The more we know the more prepared we are to sort out our defenses. Thank you David for your exertions which you submitted quite informatively….. what you said, and how you said it!

  9. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “field investigations have been, according to Stackman, “carried out this fall and early winter and during this period, no state or federal species considered threatened or endangered were observed on site”

    “Stackman doesn’t know and cannot know because up to now he hasn’t looked for these species and their habitats..”

    Why would he look for lesser species when he has greater things in mind, when money is to be made?

  10. Gregory Wait says:

    The Adirondack Park is an incomparable natural resource. If someone wants to develop, and their concern is not in truth the park or the people who live here, but rather motivated by making money, they need to be educated. If they do care and are not familiar with the Adirondacks and conservation methods of development, I imagine they would be happy to learn how to build with less impact. Mr Gibsons article is well thought out, incredibly well researched, and as clear as an Adirondack mountain stream. I appreciate that he provides guidance and detail and expertise in aspects of how a process can work to minimize destruction, while providing an avenue to develop.
    Thank you

  11. Melissa Heshmat says:

    We live right across the river from where this development will be established and look down on the land in question. We definitely have some birds that are possibly state protected: osprey and ravens. If they are on my side of the river, then they are on his side of the river and must be accounted for and protected, so his “environmental review” is flawed from the get-go, by the way.

  12. louis curth says:

    Greg Wait says; “The Adirondacks Park is an incomparable natural resource.”

    That pretty well sums it up for a lot of us who have painful memories of natural landscapes lost through the greed, political corruption and willful ignorance exercised by those who used their powers of persuasivon (a.k.a. influence and money,) to have their way on short-sighted projects affecting our dwindling wildland resources. Luckily for us, they don’t always get their way, thanks to the dedicated citizens and organizations which keep an eye on the Adirondacks.

    And thanks also to the Adirondack Almanack/Explorer for this site, and for encouraging timely, fact based articles like this from well-versed writers. Kudos to all whose comments keep our discussions lively and balanced (under the watchful gaze of our editor).

  13. Joann Post says:

    Mr. Stackman’s proposed project is an abomination and will have a huge negative impact on the forest and our pristine wilderness. Also, our local resources such as fire and rescue, health care etc. are already stressed and definitely do not need a further demand on their ability to service our community. We do not want our community to be another Lake Placid with its high tax structure and constant traffic. Locals will be pushed out of affordable housing as well. One man’s greed should not be allowed to negatively effect our natural environment, flora and fauna, and community. This cannot be happen.

  14. Colvin says:

    Thank you Dave, for watching out for the Adirondack Park, and for your clear, concise analysis. It is especially perplexing that more than 150 times between 1973 and 2011–more than 3 times per year on average– APA determined that permit application issues were so substantive that public hearings were required, but that for some strange reason APA has determined that during the past 12 years such substantive issues have magically disappeared from all permit applications.

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