Greens and Developers Duke It Out in the 'Dacks
Kevin J. Kelley
a sign on a house in the Adirondacks
The skirmishes that erupt in Vermont over the state’s Act 250 development law are nothing compared to the battles over land use in the Adirondacks.
How uncompromising does it get on the western side of the lake? Curt Stiles, chairman of the Adirondack Park Agency, quotes his predecessor as saying, “People here would rather fight than win.”
It’s not that Adirondackers are more predisposed to combat than their counterparts across the lake. Rather, the conflicts over development arise primarily from the unique nature of the contested terrain: 130,000 people living inside a park that’s roughly the same size as the state of Vermont. Not only that, but the park’s 6.1 million acres are a crazy quilt of public lands deemed “forever wild” alongside private property that includes farms, mines, timber operations, industrial parks, hunting camps, million-dollar second homes and tatty trailers.
Given such a complicated amalgamation, battles over land use are inevitable — though the champions of the various factions are not always predictable. Republicans sometimes take strong conservationist stands; Democrats can be pro-development; green organizations don’t oppose every major building project, and one nature-preservation group promotes timber harvesting of its woodlands.
The latest controversy surrounds the biggest project ever proposed for the park: the $500 million Adirondack Club and Resort. Philadelphia-area developer Michael Foxman, the principal in a partnership called Preserve Associates, wants to build about 700 homes and lodging units on parts of a 6300-acre site that includes the revitalized but still-struggling Big Tupper ski area.
Tupper Lake, site of the proposed development, ranks among the poorer communities in the Adirondacks, with a median household income of less than $36,000. Everyone agrees that the town, about 75 miles west of Charlotte, Vt., needs the economic equivalent of a truckload of Red Bull. And the resort project represents exactly that, according to Republican State Sen. Betty Little, one of the most powerful politicians in the region.
The Adirondack Council, the area’s strongest environmentalist group, argues that the deluxe “great camps” planned for the site would require new infrastructure and do nothing to help Tupper Lake’s depressed downtown. Hundreds of acres of trees would have to be felled to make way for the housing units, leading to soil erosion and the degradation of nearby lakes, the council adds. One of two new sewage-treatment plants required would discharge 10,000 gallons of treated effluent into a pond that would also be used for snowmaking. Those uses will forever alter the pond’s ecosystem, the resort’s opponents maintain.
The Adirondack Park Agency — a New York State government body that acts as a sort of zoning board — is the “decider” on this proposal and all others involving major developments in the park. Like the referee in a high-stakes sporting event, it elicits boos from both sides.
“The APA doesn’t balance economic considerations to the extent that it should,” Little complains.
But according to John Sheehan, director of communications for the Adirondack Council, claims by some locals that the APA glows an iridescent green amount to no more than “folklore.” He points out that the agency has never rejected a development permit in its 40-year history.
Little’s response: “The APA has never denied a permit because people either give up trying to get one or because it gets altered in a way the APA wanted.”
Speaking for his agency, chairman Stiles observes that state law effectively prohibits the APA from rejecting a proposal out of hand. As an initial action, the agency can only approve a permit — with or without conditions. If its assessment is negative, the project must go before an outside adjudicatory body for a ruling, which then becomes the focus of a subsequent review by the APA.
The agency is neither pro-conservation nor pro-development, Stiles insists, saying its designated duty is to give fair weight to competing interests within the context of state law. The APA’s job, he says, is “to match the use with the land.”
Sounds straightforward, right? But achieving that outcome is seldom easy. And Stiles, 68, is done mediating. He’s leaving the APA next month after a four-year term as chairman.
Libertarian attitudes are common in the Adirondacks, where Republicans hold most legislative offices. Views of the don’t-tread-on-me variety are colorfully expressed by Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board. Monroe warns, for example, that “extreme environmental zealots” are pushing to impose land-use restrictions even tougher than the current regs, which many locals regard as unbearably onerous.
For example, Monroe and other property-rights advocates in the park’s 103 towns and villages point scornfully to a regulation that permits construction of only one principal building per 42.7 acres in some privately owned parts of the park. The APA’s fiercest critics are also unhappy about restrictions on development in designated rural areas of the park, which require building lots of at least 8.5 acres. There’s also concern over a 3.2-acre stipulation for property where only low-intensity uses are permitted.
But the agency imposes few permit requirements in settled Adirondack “hamlets,” where no minimum lot size is required. Hamlet boundaries are also broadly drawn to allow for future expansion. In addition, the APA says nothing about lot size in industrial areas of the park.
Property-right activists may view the park agency with suspicion, but they can be downright hostile toward environmental lobbyists pushing for stricter enforcement or a tightening of land-use regs.
“The general impression of the residents I know,” Monroe reports, “is that if the Adirondack Council is in favor of something, then it’s bad for us.” Gretchen Boardman, a retired teacher who volunteers at the Willsboro Heritage Society, echoes: “I hear many people say that if they knew the restrictions were this severe, they would never have wanted to live here.”
Economically, Monroe likens the park to “a third-world country.” For decades, he says, its natural resources were exploited and exported; now environmentalists are “locking” them up.
Surprisingly, though, Monroe is lukewarm in his support of the Adirondack Club and Resort. Due to potential environmental and infrastructure impacts, “it’s not an ideal way to improve Tupper Lake’s economy,” he remarks, “but it’s the only way they’ve got.”
Nor does Monroe view the APA as an inveterate enemy, saying it has softened its stance over the past 25 years.
Also in the category of blurred battle lines: Little, a green nemesis, finds that Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo “is doing a great job.” Meanwhile, Sheehan notes “the golden age of conservation” in the Adirondacks coincided with the reign of Republican George Pataki, who served three terms as governor beginning in 1995. He notes Pataki exceeded Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in “his quest to complete acquisitions for the park’s forest preserve.”
Contrary to the charge that it’s beholden to “extreme environmental zealots,” the Adirondack Council did not try to block construction of a 430-acre “ski village” alongside Gore Mountain. This project, envisioned to include hotels and town houses, is near an existing hamlet and may therefore provide direct economic benefits to current residents, Sheehan says.
Further confounding outsiders’ assumptions about the region’s politics, the Adirondack Nature Conservancy promotes timber harvesting on many of the tens of thousands of park acres that it owns. Executive director Mike Carr says it takes no position on the Adirondack Club and Resort proposal; it’s not an advocacy organization. A key aim of the conservancy, he explains, is to protect the environment in a way that benefits the region’s economy.
In that spirit, the conservancy two years ago sold more than half of the 161,000 Adirondack acres it had purchased from a paper company in 2007 for $110 million. The buyer of the 92,000-acre parcel was a Danish pension fund that will log the land in accordance with sustainable practices, Carr says. The deal helps save 800 jobs at the Finch Paper mill, which has been processing Adirondack wood pulp in Glens Falls since 1865.
There’s no contradiction between protecting the park’s environment and its jobs, APA spokesman Keith McKeever suggests. He cites a local Chamber of Commerce study showing that tourism in the Adirondacks produces $1.2 billion in economic activity and helps sustain an estimated 20,000 jobs. Visitors will continue to explore the park’s 3000 lakes and 2000 miles of trails as long as the environment remains unspoiled, the greens argue.
Stellar progress is being made in preserving what Carr describes as “the best remaining example on the planet of a temperate deciduous forest.” The vast segments of “forever wild” land in the Adirondacks provide secure migratory routes for wildlife such as moose, which returned to the park in the 1990s after hunting and habitat changes forced them out of the park 100 years earlier. The absence of roads in many parts of the forest preserve also protects it against invasive species, Carr notes.
The park’s environment is “healthy and getting healthier,” Sheehan declares. He cites gains in controlling emissions from smokestacks as far away as China that produce acid rain, a destroyer of life in many Adirondack lakes. And with the lessening of acid rain will come a gradual rollback of the mercury pollution that Carr calls “one of the most disheartening things I’ve witnessed” in his 20 years at the Adirondack Nature Conservancy. Just a couple of weeks ago, he saw a fly fisherman hook “a beautiful trout that was clearly sick because of mercury.”
After tourism, which is the region’s single-biggest industry, public-sector employment is the major source of income in the Adirondacks. The timber and mining sectors remain important, too, despite the loss of thousands of jobs since the mid-20th century due to mechanization.
Preserving and creating economic opportunity is critical if families are to remain in or relocate to the Adirondacks. Parts of the park are losing population “at an alarming rate,” State Sen. Little notes. Hamilton County, which lies entirely inside the park, had 10 percent fewer residents in 2010 than in 2000, according to U.S. census data. Morehouse, about 75 miles northwest of Saratoga Springs, recorded a population decrease of 43 percent over the past decade.
But there are plenty of people — and money — in resort towns such as Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, Sheehan points out. Some less conspicuous locales have also become enclaves of wealth where full-time residents of the New York City area have built pricey getaways.
Those second homes “were once seen as saviors of the Adirondacks,” APA chairman Stiles recalls. Now, he adds, they’re considered “a challenge” because of the inflationary impact they have on local property values. All that makes it difficult for persons of modest means to buy a home in the park.
Cuomo has worked to encourage development of moderately priced homes by signing a law that increases housing density in parts of the park. The governor wins applause from almost all quarters for that initiative, even as environmentalists and developers alike anxiously await further moves by Cuomo that will shape the park’s future. The governor will soon offer nominees for five of the 11 seats on the APA board, including the chair. All of them will likely be ruling on the Adirondack Club and Resort proposal, which has generated 30,000 documents since the project was launched seven years ago. A decision is expected in 2012.
No matter how green-minded Cuomo proves to be, though, the Adirondacks will probably never match Vermont’s image as an American Eden. Eco-consciousness and marketing are generally more advanced in Vermont than in the Adirondacks, Sheehan concedes. He cautions, however, that both places have their “blind spots.” In the ’Dacks, he says, “we tend to fall in love with big developers who promise to transform a community economically.”
Vermont’s myopia? Sheehan offers, “You’ve got something of a soft spot for dairy farms despite their environmental effects.”