Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Green light for resort

Citizens also were divided: Richard Brummel (foreground) and James Lanthier picket outside the Adirondack Park Agency. Photo by Nacie Battaglia

Adirondack Council voices support for huge resort in Tupper Lake, revealing split in environmental movement shortly before the APA approves the project.

By Brian Mann

The Adirondack Park Agency’s decision in January to approve construction of a massive new resort in Tupper Lake angered many environmental activists. David Gibson, one of the founders of Adirondack Wild, declared that the agency should be “chastised and investigated.”

But the 10-1 vote also prompted some soul searching in the green community. Bob Glennon, an attorney and former APA executive director, described the outcome as a landmark defeat. “I predicted maybe we’d get three votes, and we got one. I’m shocked, I’m devastated, but I’m not the least bit surprised,” said Glennon, who now volunteers for Adirondack Wild and Protect the Adirondacks.

Green groups spent much of the last decade mounting an effort to block or significantly alter a plan by developer Michael Foxman and his partners to build 660 luxury homes and condos, including on timberland protected by the Park’s strictest private-land zoning designation. It is the largest project ever approved by the APA, and the outcome stands in stark contrast to past proposals for mega-developments that were shelved in part due to opposition by green groups.

In the end, even commissioners viewed as environment-friendly, including former Adirondack Council board member Cecil Wray, voted in favor of the permit.

“This is a big change for open-space projects that have come before you historically, and that is a great concern,” a somber Dan Plumley, with Adirondack Wild, told the APA board after the vote.

Foxman’s group, Preserve Associates, has the green light to develop 6,200 acres of forestland near the Big Tupper Ski Area. The resort will include “Great Camp” mansions, single-family homes, town houses and condos, a sixty-room hotel, restaurant, shops, health spa, and marina. The developers also plan to renovate and operate the ski area. The project is expected to take fifteen years to complete.

There was a time when a very different outcome seemed likely. In the years after Preserve Associates unveiled its project, green activists scored a string of major victories, wielding political and legal pressure to block the use of a chemical herbicide called SONAR in Lake George, eliminate the use of floatplanes on Lows Lake, and secure big land purchases for the Forest Preserve.

Developers Michael Foxman, left, and Tom Lawson consult during the APA meeting. Photo by nancie Battaglia

Three years into the ACR debate, Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan predicted confidently that the resort would “never be approved in its current form” because of environmental restrictions and the fragile real-estate market. “I think it becomes less likely every day. Frankly, we’re a little concerned that Foxman may have given up already,” Sheehan said in 2007.

But in the years that followed, the fight over ACR evolved very differently, and when the final vote occurred in January only a single protester turned up to picket outside APA headquarters in Ray Brook. Some green activists say their inability to mobilize public opinion and political influence—both inside and outside the Blue Line—reflects disarray within the movement.

“Essentially, upstate New York has no environmental ‘community’ as the word is understood or used in other states,” one activist, who requested anonymity, contended in an e-mail to the Explorer after the APA decision. “There is no coordination, just several big egos that don’t speak to one another and look only for short-term advantages.”

During the ACR fight, the Park’s biggest green group, the Adirondack Council, broke ranks with other organizations and endorsed the resort, insisting that it would not cause an “undue adverse impact” to the environment. In an interview with the Explorer just before the vote, Brian Houseal, the council’s executive director, seemed to distance himself from other activists.

“Although the Adirondack Council is an environmental advocacy group, I believe we are becoming an Adirondack advocacy group, to find those common-ground solutions,” he said, adding that significant philosophical differences exist within the movement. “The environmental community is not of a uniform opinion concerning economic development in the Adirondacks.”

The council’s position drew praise from local government and pro-development leaders but sparked rare public criticism from other green leaders. “I did not expect this out of the Adirondack Council, and I don’t know what it’s all about,” said Glennon. Plumley called the council’s position “odd” and argued that

Houseal’s position contradicted “the pressure and very good legal points they made [against the resort] during the adjudicatory hearing.”

David Gibson (left) of Adirondack Wild and Peter O’Shea listen to the APA’s discussion. Photo by Nancie Battaglia

Public disagreement over ACR follows a series of high-profile challenges that have plagued the Park’s environmental groups since at least 2007. That’s the year Peter Bauer, one of the most effective and visible opponents of the resort, stepped down as executive director of the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks. A year later, largely due to financial pressure, the Residents’ Committee merged with the Association for the Protection for the Adirondacks, the Park’s oldest conservation group.

Within months, the combined board of the newly formed group, Protect the Adirondacks, dismissed its paid full-time staff, leading to creation of yet another fledgling group, called Adirondack Wild. “Clearly the merger of the Association and RCPA failed,” said Bauer, now executive director with the Fund for Lake George.  He said the outcome was a “setback” and described the newly formed groups as “now in a rebuilding period.”

While environmental activists were struggling to regain their footing, ACR supporters were moving aggressively to reshape the debate. In 2009, the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages released a study that raised alarm about the economic future of communities like Tupper Lake.

State Senator Betty Little and Fred Monroe, head of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, mobilized successfully to block the confirmation of environmental activist Peter Hornbeck to the APA board. Meanwhile, real-estate broker Jim LaValley formed a new group called ARISE that reopened the Big Tupper Ski Area, providing a powerful symbol for the resort’s backers. Boosters also campaigned successfully to oust longtime Tupper Lake Mayor Mickey Desmarais, who had been skeptical of aspects of the resort. He was replaced by one of Little’s aides.

“I think there is no question that pro-development and local-government interests have become more professional and stronger in their impact,” Plumley said.

But he rejected the argument that, by comparison, the environmental community has lost clout. “To point blame for this so-called defeat on the environmental community or concerned citizens is tantamount to bald-faced propaganda,” Plumley said, pointing out that green groups were able to win significant concessions from the developer.

Indeed, before gaining APA approval, Preserve Associates abandoned plans for two ridgeline neighborhoods planned for the resort as well as an Orvis shooting school.  Yet environmentalists failed in their primary objective: to prevent the developers from fragmenting the forest by building thirty-nine Great Camps on large lots that will be spread over thousands of acres of timberland. Critics wanted the Great Camps to be clustered closer to the ski area. They argue that the resort as designed sets a dangerous precedent for the development of other privately owned timberlands in the Park.

Some environmental activists doubt that the project could have been stopped or significantly altered even if the green community were better organized or unified. “I know that the neighbors to the ACR project and two of the three groups that worked on this project see it as a defeat and they’re very disappointed,” said Bauer. But he argued that wholesale rejection of the resort would have been “impossible” to achieve and said that the loss is overshadowed by much larger environmental gains, particularly recent expansions of the Forest Preserve.

Most environmental activists interviewed for this story say they think green groups will be effective in future Park debates, though they acknowledge the need to develop a more stable fund-raising base, rebuild their staffs, and find shared goals and strategies.

Glennon suggested that the ACR decision might spark a green revival. “I think this approval by the APA will quickly bring [the movement] back to life. I mean, let’s get the word out. What are we doing up here?” he said. ■

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