Almanack Contributor Brian Farenell

Brian Farenell

A nearly-lifelong resident of Glens Falls, Brian Farenell has been involved in writing and journalism since his high school days. After receiving a bachelor's degree from Clarkson University, he spent two years in the Peace Corps in the Republic of Guinea, West Africa. Although his traditional focuses have been international affairs (he's been published in Foreign Policy magazine) and media criticism, Brian maintains his own blog at Musings of a (Fairly) Young Contrarian, where he also offers insights and ideas about national and local issues.


Monday, August 8, 2011

Adirondack Park Population Growing Faster Than NYS

In the many discussions concerning the present and future of the Adirondacks, one of the foundational assumptions is that the region is being held back by the controversial Adirondack Park Agency (APA). An analysis of population data shows something quite different: the Park’s population is growing at a significantly faster rate than the rest of New York since the creation of the APA.

At the suggestion of The Post-Star‘s Will Doolittle, a harsh critic of the APA, I analyzed population data from the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages (AATV)*, whose most recent numbers are from 2006. Mr. Doolittle also criticized previous analyses that he considered distorted by relatively populous towns like Queensbury and Plattsburgh that had land both inside and outside the Park, so I looked at numbers of municipalities that were entirely inside the Blue Line. I compared those figures to 1970 numbers, the last census before the establishment of the APA. » Continue Reading.


Monday, January 10, 2011

APA Critic Indicted on Felony Environmental Charges

A long-time critic of state environmental policies and enforcement has been indicted by a Clinton County grand jury on charges of violating several environmental conservation laws.

A Department of Environmental Conservation press release said Leroy Douglas of Ausable Forks, was charged for a 2008 incident with “Endangering Public Health, Safety, or the Environment in the third degree, a felony with a maximum fine of $150,000 and up to 4 years in prison” after allegedly improperly “disposing numerous 55-gallon drums containing a hazardous substance” onto property owned by his Douglas Corporation of Silver Lake.

Douglas was also charged with misdemeanors of Unlawful Disposal of Solid Waste, Disturbing the Bed/Banks of a Classified Trout Stream and Failure to Register a Petroleum Bulk Storage Facility, each of which could come with significant fines and up to a year in jail.

North Country Public Radio added that “a state investigator found a wide range of contamination on Douglas’s land, including a pile of lead acid batteries, dead animals and medical waste.”

Douglas told The Press-Republican that he believes the indictment is politically motivated. He claims the state wanted to buy his land but he refused to sell.

“DEC has had warrants to search my property twice since I wouldn’t sell,” Douglas said to the Plattsburgh daily. “If I’m such an environmental villain, what would they wait two and a half years for?”

The Press-Republican added that Douglas has filed suit in federal court against the Adirondack Park Agency in relation to a 2007 enforcement action against him.

“Douglas says the charges originated with his son, Michael, with whom he had a falling out a few years ago, and whose girlfriend, Elizabeth Vann, works for the DEC,” according to a report written by Post-Star Projects Editor Will Doolittle.

The Glens Falls daily, which has called for the APA’s abolition, has featured Douglas in several pieces (most notably here) written by Doolittle on alleged malfeasance by the Agency.

The Adirondack Daily Enterprise reported that Douglas pleaded not guilty to this week’s charges.


Monday, December 20, 2010

Finch Mill Pollution Nearly Quadruples in Two Years

According to a report issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Finch, Pruyn paper mill generated the most pollution of any manufacturing plant in New York last year, 31 percent more than the second heaviest polluter in the state.

The Glens Falls mill discharged some 3.8 million pounds of chemicals in 2009.

Finch’s emissions were less than 1.1 million pounds as recently as 2007, meaning that their pollution has nearly quadrupled since the long-time locally owned company was sold to a pair of outside investment groups in mid-2007. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Commentary: National Grid Rates A Shambles

Earlier this year, I published a piece on a state Public Service Commission (PSC) investigation into National Grid’s sketchy finances.

The monopoly power deliverer stood accused by the PSC of charging its Upstate New York electric customers for computers in New England, software licenses on Long Island and other corporate costs that have nothing to do with Upstate utility operations.

A recent Post-Standard article added further tidbits uncovered during the PSC investigation: $1,254 for a National Grid executive to ship his wine collection across the Atlantic, $3,566 to repair another executive’s washing machine and pool cover on Long Island, and $35,700 to send a third employee’s children to a private school in Boston.

However, the Syracuse paper reported that the PSC will be forced to decide on National Grid’s proposed $400 million hike to its already sky-high rates long before the audit is complete. The PSC chairman told a senate committee that state law requires the commission to vote on the proposal within 11 months of its submission.

The president of National Grid USA said the rate hike is needed because much of the utility’s infrastructure is half a century or more old. Power bills have skyrocketed since its purchase of the former Niagara Mohawk, a purchase, it was promised at the time, would be wonderful for rate payers thanks to consolidation efficiencies. It begs the question: where has the money gone?

The multinational wants an 11.1 percent annual profit margin, while the PSC contends the rate should be ‘only’ 9 percent.

New Yorkers still pay the highest power bills in the nation. This fiasco may give some insight why.


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Commentary: Hard-Learned Local Media Lessons

Last week, The Post-Star announced that its free weekly publication ADK Talk would cease publication (naturally, the blurb was buried in the middle of its local section).

This was the Glens Falls daily’s latest failed attempt to compete with the region’s independent weekly The Chronicle. ADK Talk had replaced two separate but nearly identical Post-Star weeklies called The Glens Falls Leader and The Queensbury Citizen, an experiment which also failed. The Lee Enterprises-owned paper announced that it had abandoned the weekly experiment to “pursue initiatives online” with its website.

The demise of ADK Talk and its predecessors revealed some interesting lessons about the local media landscape.

Identity Matters
The Chronicle is celebrating its 30th birthday because it’s distinctive. The independent weekly has a very strong identity in the community. Many people swear by it. Some people people swear at it. But everyone knows what The Chronicle is all about. Personally, I used to view it with disdain but have to come appreciate the value of a venue for independent voices in a corporate media dominated culture; and a lot of other people apparently do too.

ADK Talk and its predecessors were never able to develop that identity because they were seen as just another Post-Star/Lee Enterprises vehicle. It’s certainly reassuring for outlets like Adirondack Almanack that people still place value on the concept of locally-driven, independent media.

Content Matters

ADK Talk and its predecessors ran almost exclusively light feature stories. Sources tell me that the purpose of The Post-Star‘s weeklies was to entice non-subscribers to purchase the daily product.

But stories about middle school kids going on field trips and the like may be mildly interesting but are a poor hook to convince the undecided that the daily product would provide information essential to their lives. The structure of the weeklies seemed poorly thought out.

Free Isn’t Evil
Newspaper pooh-bahs are possibly the only business people who go out of their way to publicly insult their customers. People who want/expect their news for free are regularly treated as leeches by newspaper big wigs.

“How can newspapers make money (survive) if the end user refuses to pay for the content?” they sniff, ignoring the fact that the terrestrial broadcast media (over the air radio and television) make money even though the content is free to the end user. Most weeklies are for profit businesses and are also free to the reader. Websites like Pro Publica are offering top quality journalism free to the end user.

ADK Talk and its predecessors were not merely distributed (free to the end user) at places like supermarkets and libraries. They were also mailed to thousands of local households that didn’t subscribe to the daily product. So Lee Enterprises put forth the significant expense of not only publishing the weeklies and having them trucked to public venues but also the postage of having them sent via the USPS.

When you spend that much time, energy and money to give your product away, how can you criticize or be surprised at the expectation that news be free?

Ultimately, the region will barely notice the disappearance of this advertising vehicle. Lee Enterprises was recently ranked as the most inefficient company in the publishing industry. One can only hope that the trend will be bucked here and that the money formerly poured into ADK Talk will be used to slow the precipitous demise of quality in The Post-Star‘s main product: the daily newspaper itself.


Monday, August 16, 2010

Commentary: Corporate Media Ignore Candidates

Smaller party and independent candidates like Green gubernatorial nominee Howie Hawkins feel like they hit the lottery if their names are mentioned even as a footnote in the mainstream press. It’s not surprising, but still enraging, that the corporate media has a bias in favor of the candidates of the two corporate parties.

The common rationalization for such bias is the self-serving claim that people aren’t interested in candidates deemed “fringe” by the media pooh bahs… a catch-22 if there ever was one. When I’ve pointed out this bias of ignoring non-major party candidates to media elites, a typical response has been: “when have we been biased?”

Here’s a little educational lesson: if you ignore candidates because they don’t belong to a major party, then you are, by definition, biased against non-major parties. Justify this slant if you think you can, but don’t insult our intelligence by pretending it’s not bias. » Continue Reading.


Monday, July 26, 2010

PSC: National Grid’s Rates Should Come Down

Earlier this year, I published a piece arguing that the National Grid power company gouges upstate New Yorkers.

A piece in The Post-Standard offers some fresh evidence in that regard.

The Syracuse daily reports that the monopoly power deliverer is charging its Upstate New York electric customers for computers in New England, software licenses on Long Island and other corporate costs that have nothing to do with Upstate utility operations, auditors at the state Public Service Commission (PSC) say.

PSC investigators came across this information while looking at the multinational’s plan to raise electric rates on New Yorkers by $369 million a year, including $25 million a year in bonuses (apparently without any requirement that the employees reduce costs to pay for them).

So questionable are the power company’s procedures that PSC auditors concluded: “Transactions between the former Niagara Mohawk and other companies owned by National Grid are so loosely documented that Upstate utility customers likely are subsidizing other parts of National Grid’s business.”

The paper reported that in recent years, National Grid has justified purchasing several other utilities by arguing that the company would save money via efficiencies and consolidation. But PSC staff noted that such the cost of the shared services actually increased, far higher than the rate of inflation.

A PSC panel said the company’s plan to raise rates had “a number of serious problems” and had so many objections that it actually recommended National Grid DECREASE rates by $14 million a year.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Commentary: APA Almost Never Rejects Projects

This year, the Glens Falls Post-Star has published several pieces detailing activities of the Adirondack Park Agency deemed dubious. All of these investigative works were written by Projects’ Editor Will Doolittle, a controversial choice since he’s been outspoken against the APA for years.

The paper’s agenda has been clear from the beginning, made all the more explicit by their January editorial calling for the abolition of the Agency.

After all the deluge of anti-APA articles and editorials, it was a bit of a surprise that the daily finally got around to providing a little balance by admitting publicly that the Agency has its defenders. Sunday’s paper ran a front page article entitled APA has critics, but also many compliments; it was written by Drew Kerr, not Doolittle.

“Discussion” of the online article was filled with the usual overheated rhetoric, including several who made the obligatory, but still pathetic, comparison of the APA to the Nazis.

But beyond the venom, one-off anecdotes and cheap Hitler references, what stood out for me was that item all too rare in public discourse: actual facts.

According to the report:

Since 1973, the APA has issued nearly 16,808 permits and denied only 136 projects… In addition, agency staff say that 95 percent of permit applications are completed before they are required to do so by law. The agency has between 15 and 90 days to rule on a permit, depending on the nature of the application.

For all the talk of power hungry bureaucrats oppressing the people and single-handedly stifling the Adirondacks’ economy for the mere joy of it, the fact is that the APA has rejected a mere 0.8 percent of proposed projects in the last 37 years.

This doesn’t mean that the APA is perfect, nor that it shouldn’t be required to show increased transparency, streamlined procedures or be subjected to more checks and balances.

What it does mean is that discussion of the APA’s future direction and policies should be based more on the big picture and actual data and less on outliers and “gut feelings.”


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Update: Rural Broadband and the Adirondacks

Last year, Clarkson University launched its Adirondack Initiative for Wired Work, known colloquially as Forever Wired. I’ve been following this with interest partly because it has the potential to change the economic and cultural dynamics of the Adirondack Park and partly because it’s an intriguing and ambitious way to more closely link my alma mater to the region.

The Almanack has offered some good coverage of the initiative, as well as pointing out the difficulty of finding concrete data related to broadband usage and access inside the Blue Line.

With the Park threatened by expected deep cuts to the public sector workforce on which the region’s economy is heavily dependent, expanded broadband access will become even more critical to boosting the region’s private sector.

In this context, it seems fortuitous that the Federal Communications Commission recently launched and has heavily promoted its National Broadband Plan.

The FCC views universal broadband access as critical “to advance national purposes such as education, health care, and energy efficiency.”

The plan “recommends that the FCC comprehensively reform both contributions to and disbursements from the Universal Service Fund to support universal access to broadband service, including through creation of the Connect America Fund.”

The Commission has recently put particular focus on increasing broadband access in rural areas. A 2009 FCC report described broadband as “the interstate highway of the 21st century for small towns and rural communities, the vital connection to the broader nation and, increasingly, the global economy.” The 2009 ‘Stimulus Package’ provided some $7.2 billion for broadband projects.

As with cell phone and cable television coverage, broadband access faces particular challenges in sparsely populated, often isolated rural areas. But it will be interesting to see if the FCC’s plan and Forever Wired can help expand this infrastructure many see as critical to expanding economic opportunities in the Adirondacks.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Commentary: Surprising Adirondack Economy Numbers

On Sunday an interesting op-ed by John Sheehan appeared in The Times-Union in which the Adirondack Council Director of Communications argues that the Adirondack Park “is one of the most robust rural areas in the Northeastern United States.”

This may not be a surprising contention coming from the head of a green group. But Sheehan noted that “a survey published last year by local officials — the Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Project — reinforces this. Their own data shows that the economy and quality of life are better inside the Adirondack Park than in any other rural area of the state…”

“What the report did find was that the average household income in the Adirondacks had risen 28 percent faster than the rate of inflation between 1980 and 2000. That means increased buying power that far outpaced inflation and far outpaced other rural areas of the state.”

Sheehan does try to address the elephant in the room.

“Still, most Adirondackers (33 percent) work for local and state government. That includes towns, villages, counties, school districts and state agencies. While such jobs don’t lead to riches, they do have their perks. The jobs rarely go away. Towns and counties don’t stop providing services, regardless of economic conditions.”

As someone with backgrounds in both math and language, I find ‘most’ a strange adjective to describe ‘one-third’, but Sheehan’s contention that these public sector jobs ‘rarely go away’ seems more than a bit out of touch in the midst of this state budget crisis. Perhaps he missed headlines of the governor proposing to shut down three of the Park’s major prisons as well as slashing aid to education, to health care and to counties and municipalities.

Still, when you visit other rural areas of New York and New England, areas which lack the outdoor tourism revenue Adirondack residents and businesses depend on, it’s hard to argue with Sheehan’s contention that the “being a park is helping, not harming, the Adirondacks.”

A NCPR blog post has some hard numbers about the Park as compared to other non-metropolitan areas of the state. Some of the conclusions may surprise readers.

Among the observations:

-The North Country is very diverse.

-The North Country’s least-urban counties may have a higher standard of living, based on select indicators, when compared to the more urbanized areas [of the state].

-Poverty is no higher in the North Country than elsewhere in non-metropolitan New York State.

-With the exception of Lewis County, the North Country does not have particularly high civilian employment in agriculture and/or manufacturing. The North Country’s level of dependence on these industries is similar to the level elsewhere in rural New York.

I’ve said before that for all the complaining about the Adirondack Park Agency’s existence (not necessarily its sometimes opaque and unaccountable workings, which can deserve scorn), the fact remains that a pristine natural environment is the single biggest economic advantage the Park has. Threaten that and you lose the outdoor tourism revenue so central to the region’s economy.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Commentary: National Grid Gouges Adirondackers

What would happen if a pizzeria tacked on a $50 delivery charge to a $15 pizza? It would go out of business faster than you can snap your fingers. That’s because pizzerias are subject to competition. National Grid power company can get away with such outrageous billing practices because it has no competition in the energy delivery business.

While New York state has legalized competition in the energy supply market, National Grid remains the monopoly energy deliverer in the areas it serves, which includes much of the Adirondacks.

You can buy energy from another provider but it’s still delivered via National Grid power lines, and the British-based conglomerate milks this distinction for all it’s worth.

National Grid’s bill includes two major charges: supply cost and delivery cost. The supply costs (the part the ordinary consumer can control) are typically reasonable. The delivery costs (the part the consumer can’t control) are invariably outrageous.

Last December, I used $41.14 worth of electricity, but they charged me $84.76 to deliver it.

Last September, I used a mere $9.45 worth of electricity. My reward for such energy efficiency was a whopping $33.08 delivery charge.

In what world is the delivery charge for a product three and a half times more than the actual value of the product?

National Grid is nominally regulated by the state’s Public Service Commission– though gouging like this makes you wonder how much regulation is actually going on.

National Grid has claimed that sky-high delivery charges are designed to ‘stabilize’ rates. Yet even in February, invariably my highest energy usage month, delivery charges were still higher than supply charges.

These dubious billing practices have no doubt padded the conglomerate’s bottom line: National Grid made profits of $1.43 Billion in its most recent fiscal year.

But gouging New Yorkers’ wallets was not enough to prevent the company from outsourcing jobs from central New York.

A Syracuse Post-Standard article noted that:

National Grid’s electric prices consistently rank among the handful of highest-priced major utilities in the country. In 2008, the company’s residential rates were 37 percent above the national average and its commercial rates were more than 60 percent higher, according to the latest statistics available from the U.S. Department of Energy.

This was primarily because of the expense National Grid incurred when it bought Niagara Mohawk. Once that expense was paid off, New Yorkers were told, rates would go down.

Wrong!

The company now wants to raise rates another 20 percent… that’s delivery rates, where the real gouging occurs. This would generate the monopoly another $390 million a year. Would this go to infrastructure upgrades? Improved service?

According to the Post Standard: Tom King, president of National Grid in the United States, said the company needs to make higher profits in order to attract money from shareholders and lenders to invest in the Upstate electric grid. Shareholders earned a 5 percent return on their Upstate electric investment last year, down from 10 percent in 2005.

Quite clearly, New Yorkers were duped.

In the mid-1990s, officials in the city of Glens Falls pushed for the creation of a municipal power company, like the one run successfully by the similarly-sized town of Massena. Nearby localities like Queensbury and Lake George could also have hooked up to the system.

Not surprisingly, the then-Niagara Mohawk saw this a threat to their lucrative business and waged a massively expensive and somewhat deceptive PR campaign which succeeded in defeating the project in a referendum.

I suspect Glens Falls residents regret the vote each time they open up their National Grid bill.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Commentary: Dubious Anti-APA Series Makes Waves

Two investigative reports purporting to reveal dubious practices by the Adirondack Park Agency and environmental groups have been called into question themselves. The pieces, which ran on January 9 and 10, were written by Post-Star features’ editor Will Doolittle. Doolittle has written numerous columns expressing hostility to the APA and green groups. Why a journalist who was openly and vehemently hostile to the APA and green groups was assigned to do a purportedly objective investigation into the APA and green groups is something the paper never felt the need to explain. And my skepticism appears to have been validated.

(Note: Part one of the series is available online here. Part two is here) » Continue Reading.



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