By James Connolly
The Adirondack Park Agency was established to be a regional land-use agency for the 6-million acres within the Adirondack Park. Just as important were environmental protections for wetlands and administration of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. From the very beginning of the Park Agency, it was appropriate for the headquarters to be located in Ray Brook next to its sister agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation. The two agencies, working together, administer many overlapping and complimentary regulations. Areas where the two agencies overlap and require consultation and coordination include APA classification of newly acquired State land, mining and mine land reclamation projects, wetlands regulations, shoreline stabilization projects, pesticide use & control of aquatic vegetation and regulation of Wild, Scenic & Recreational River corridors within the Park.
It has therefore always been assumed that APA & DEC were ideally located in Ray Brook. That is, until now. The Agency’s current Executive Director, Barbara Rice, has promoted the concept of a Village location as being “transformational”. At best, the amount of State money involved would provide limited benefit to the Village and a great deal of funding for the contractors and other construction-related activities. Her past role as a Village Trustee and local business owner may have led her to believe in overstating the case for a Village location, however, it also raises potential conflict of interest concerns given the lack of transparency in limiting analysis to only two locations. Isn’t it about time that the State Ethics Committee weighed-in with an opinion?
It is also a major mistake to think that the term “Smart Growth” can be applied to a proposal when the Village is facing other critical needs. It is not the responsibility of the Park Agency to preserve historic buildings. Nor is it the responsibility of the Agency to create economic development. Other agencies are better suited for these roles. Why would or should the Agency leave Ray Brook when their current offices are located in a land use area designated for “Administrative Use” under the Adirondack Park Land Use & Development Plan? To relocate to a Hamlet or Village robs the community of the potential for creating new structures serving much more important needs and involving real economic potential. This is especially true in Saranac Lake where the median home cost is estimated at $350,000 (see Camoin Associates study). What is more than evident is that the Village should be spending on affordable housing projects given the limitations in an already crowded Village. Instead, the Village continues to pursue expensive funding & construction of new State office buildings. If there is any logic to this approach, I fail to see it. It seems more like delusionary thinking about what makes growth possible, especially as young people leave the area.
The Town of Harrietstown was asked by the Village to support the project as well as North Elba. Harrietstown was less than enthusiastic and voted on a resolution that only endorsed it subject to the condition that no new construction be approved and limited to reuse of the Paul Smiths College Power & Light Building. They also expressed concern that public parking would be limited to weekends only. You can only applaud the Board from asking some intelligent questions & limiting their endorsement prior to passing the resolution. Here is one of the many comments by the Harrietstown Board:
“At the same time, I do struggle,” Mallach added. “I struggle with how the village has handled the situation. I think we haven’t gotten the communication that I wish we would have had in terms of what’s happening, or the impact of it, or allowing for public input. The other thing I struggle with is: What are the plans for the people that are in that building? You’ve got county services that people are able to walk to — which is critical — from DeChantel (Apartments), from Lake Street, from the high rise. … I haven’t been presented with a plan. There isn’t a plan, in terms of what’s going to happen.” Harrietsown Supervisor, Jordanna Mallach
Another very peculiar part of this proposal is the apparent conflict of interest involving Barbara Rice, a native of Saranac Lake and former trustee. Paul Maroun, the outgoing mayor of Tupper Lake was correct to point out that there was no evaluation of other communities in the Park before this proposal surfaced. Wouldn’t you think that other communities would be given the benefit of suggesting vacant State facilities in Moriah or Gabriels or an underutilized facility in Tupper Lake as Paul suggested. Apparently, that was never considered by anyone prior to randomly choosing Saranac Lake. On top of that, the proposal calls for a long-term rental agreement by APA for a new building as well as the Power & Light building. Has anyone asked the question “Why should the Agency start paying rent when the State Office Campus provides a location where no rent is needed?” This “magical thinking’ is a complete mystery to me.
This proposal gets more ridiculous as additional details are provided. It is time for the Village to stop chasing the gold at the end of Barbara Rice’s rainbow and to get realistic about supporting projects that would truly benefit the community. It is also time for Barbara Rice to realize that the Adirondack Park Agency is a regional planning & environmental agency and definitely not an economic development agency, especially for her home town.
Moving the APA offices seven miles does nothing for the long-term benefit of the community, especially when many APA employees already live locally and when housing for newcomers is unaffordable. It simply uses valuable space which is better used for more pressing needs and which the Agency land use plan recognized a very long time ago – in fact, just about 50 years ago when the Land Use & Development Plan recognized that Hamlets should be a place where people live while nearby areas outside of Hamlet were suitable for other development. The Village is simply running out of space for non-essential growth especially when the Agency was meant to be in Ray Brook with other State agencies. Let us hope that more astute minds develop a more rational plan before the State decides to waste a large amount of taxpayers’ money with little to no benefit for the community.
James Connolly was Deputy Director Adirondack Park Agency (2002-2012) and NYSDEC Region 5 Lake Champlain Coordinator (1984-2002)