Highlands at risk

Highlands at risk

ABOVE: A new road leads to the building site of a large home overlooking Lake George. COURTESY OF THE FUND FOR LAKE GEORGE

Critics say existing regulations are inadequate to stop upland development
from marring the natural beauty of the Adirondack Park.

By Kim Martineau

In a field bordered by forested hills and rocky ridges, Dan Plumley unfurled a zoning map of the Adirondack Park. The color-coded map was a reminder of how much private land lay before him, and how potentially fleeting the natural views from Marcy Field could be. He pointed to a bald patch on Corliss Point above the valley, where lights from a house inconspicuous by day blaze into a flying saucer at night, one of many signs that growth in the backcountry is creeping higher.

“Hundreds of thousands of people drive by on this road every year,” said Plumley, gesturing toward Route 73. “They see this view and think it will always be there. I’m here to say that the way this land-use plan is being implemented, the transcendental beauty and ecological integrity of this scene is in jeopardy.”

With available lakeshore land disappearing, more people are turning to the uplands of the Adirondacks to build their dream vacation home. Four decades after the Adirondack Park Agency was created to manage development of private land in the Park, the standards for building at higher elevations remain inconsistent. The APA regulates projects above 2,500 feet, but less than 1 percent of private land sits that high. The result is that the APA and a patchwork of local governments decide piecemeal what gets built in the hills, putting the Park’s overall scenic character at risk.

For instance, while the town of Day regulates building on the hills above Great Sacandaga Lake, the town of Hadley next door has no zoning rules at all. “I would hate to drive around the lake and see bare areas with houses on the mountains,” said David Cox, a retired engineer who heads Day’s planning board. And yet, without a coordinated Park-wide plan to address building in the uplands, the number of bare patches in the hills is growing year by year. Farsighted actions in Day and other communities could be undone by towns with little or no zoning.

To look closely at Plumley’s map is to appreciate how much private terrain exists in the Park, and how many McMansions could fit into the wild scenery that draws more than 7 million visitors each year. The downside of upland development is not just a loss of majestic views. Building on steep slopes and at higher elevation causes erosion and raises the risk of septic-system failure, potentially degrading water quality in the streams and lakes below. Homes built into the hills may also be vulnerable to sliding, depending on soil type and weather. The landslide that heavily damaged two homes on Keene’s Little Porter Mountain in spring 2011 has been partly attributed to the glacial soils below becoming saturated from several seasons of heavy rain and snow.

The growth in hillside development has been well-documented on Lake George and in Keene, but examples can be found around the Park: Great Sacandaga Lake, Crane Mountain, and the Fulton Chain of Lakes, among other places. On a drive through Essex County, Plumley, a partner with the environmental group Adirondack Wild, identified half a dozen homes perched prominently on hills. In Elizabethtown, a large home loomed over the hamlet, visible from Route 9N miles away. In Jay, a vacation home near the top of Black Mountain Road welcomed visitors with a sign at the driveway: “Whiteface Views Welcome.” In Keene, Plumley stopped at the town dump to show off the view of the Great Range. A metal roof sparkled on the horizon, marring a vista that draws Plumley’s congregation to the site each spring to celebrate Easter Mass. “How much that house detracts from the view is open to debate,” he said. “But you have to remember, this is not a town resource alone. This is a Park resource.”

“I would hate to drive around the lake and see bare areas with houses
on the mountains.”

—David Cox, Day Planning Board

How widespread is the problem? With no one tracking upland development, much less able to define it, it’s hard to say. The words upland, ridgeline, and hillside do not appear in the APA’s land-use rules. When reviewing project proposals, it is up to local government or the APA to make a judgment about a project’s relative elevation and impose restrictions to protect views and water quality. “When you talk about upland development it’s not like the shoreline where you can define what’s broken,” said John Banta, a former attorney and planner for the APA.

Evidence of good and bad decisions abound. Most of the Park’s backcountry uplands in private ownership are zoned Resource Management or Rural Use, the APA’s most restrictive land-use categories, which allow only low-density development. APA approval is needed to create subdivisions in either area, but while approval is needed to build a single home on RM land, that is not the case for RU land: if a landowner meets the 8.5-acre lot requirement and forty-foot height limit, the APA may have no power to impose the restrictions it normally applies to higher-elevation homes, including non-reflective windows and roofing, natural paint colors, downward facing lights, and limited tree-clearing. Planning decisions are left to the towns when the APA lacks jurisdiction, and some of the more conspicuous upland homes in the Park exist in towns without comprehensive zoning, such as Elizabethtown and Keene.

The loophole was not intentional, said George Davis, the APA’s deputy director at its start in 1973. In the beginning the agency expected that each town would develop a zoning plan to regulate lands outside hamlets. But a majority of towns continue to lack the resources or political will to create a comprehensive zoning plan with planning and zoning boards to administer it. Just 17 percent of the Park’s 103 towns and villages have an APA-approved land-use plan (though more than three-quarters now have some form of zoning).

Local government plays a powerful role in shaping growth, and the uplands are no exception. Towns and villages approve more than half of all development that occurs in the Park, according to a study of 1990s growth trends by the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks.

Westport on Lake Champlain is one town that guards its views closely. In its recent approval of a private club on the former Bessboro Farm, the planning board laid out strict conditions for preserving vegetation on the bluffs above the lake. The town’s code-enforcement officer will make sure promises are kept. “This particular piece of shoreline is pristine and, practically speaking, undeveloped, and the community would like to keep it that way,” said Bill Johnston, the board’s chairman.

A house perched above Keene Valley looks out toward the Great Range. PHOTO BY GEORGE EARL
A house perched above Keene Valley looks out toward the Great Range.

Just over the town line in Elizabethtown, with no zoning beyond the hamlet and no land-use boards, code-enforcement officer John Hudson splits his time between Elizabethtown, Jay, and Keene. When asked about the house overlooking the hamlet, Hudson tried without success to locate the file in the paper records he inherited a year ago after taking the job.

The APA provided a fuller picture. After receiving a complaint about the house on Mohawk Way, the agency investigated and found that owners Daniel and Gayle Alexander had built their home taller than the forty-foot limit. Once it had the power to intervene, the APA was able to negotiate a settlement. In 2008, the Alexanders agreed to plant trees and shrubs to screen their house, bring their septic system up to code, and pay a $2,500 fine. As the vegetation grows in, the house should become less noticeable, said APA spokesman Keith McKeever.

Plumley, of Adirondack Wild, argues that the regulations should be changed so that the APA automatically reviews projects like this from the start. “These issues only come up when a McMansion goes up in a highly visible place, but this is happening all over the backcountry. Land is being carved up without adequate review.”

The town of Webb, home to much of the Fulton Chain of Lakes, has struggled to handle heavy development pressure with limited resources. Many of the seasonal homes built on the steep slopes above First, Second, Third, and Fourth lakes, an area known as Hollywood Hills, are built on tiny lots that predate the town’s zoning law. Mudslides have been a problem, said zoning-enforcement officer Andrew Getty. He also worries that accumulated septic-system releases and storm-water runoff are polluting the lakes below with nutrients and silt. At budget time, Getty asks the town board each year to fund an environmental study, but the estimated cost, more than $250,000, is prohibitive in a town under intense pressure to keep taxes down.

In the meantime, hillside construction has moved elsewhere, including above Big Moose Lake. A nine-thousand-square-foot mansion under construction will soon be visible from the water and Martin Road. “Right now it’s just a big hole in the mountain, but as soon as the roof goes up I’m sure this office will start getting calls,” said Getty.

Not everyone sees a problem in the uplands. “We have a reverse development problem: nothing is coming here and everything is going away,” said Edinburg Supervisor Jean Raymond, whose town abuts Great Sacandaga Lake.

Nor does everyone mind seeing houses dotting the hills. “I’m not sure why it offends people, [but] I know it does,” said Chester Supervisor Fred Monroe, head of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board. “I’m just happy to see people enjoying a nice view.”

Many designers and developers, too, fail to see the fuss.

“You have this beautiful mountain range and there may be this little speck in the trees,” said Michael Bird, an architect in Saranac Lake. “Are you going to complain because 1 percent of your view is now marred by something that wasn’t there before?”

The complaints may not be aired publicly, but privately, many locals grumble. In Johnsburg, a home perched on a ledge off Crane Mountain Road is visible from the hiking trail and summit. A house on Mount Pisgah, near the village of Saranac Lake, can be seen from miles away on Lower Saranac Lake. On Lake George, homes climb the hills of Bolton on ladder-like rungs. In some cases, slopes have been blasted away to squeeze them onto narrow, piano-key-shaped lots, said Lake George Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky. Waterkeeper and its parent organization, the Fund for Lake George, have filed several lawsuits to try to halt sprawl’s upward advance. Most recently, Navitsky sued Bolton for approving a steep, mile-long driveway up Pinnacle, a prominent ridge where a developer wants to build three homes. The Lake George Land Conservancy hopes to buy the property before it is developed.

“Are you going to complain because 1 percent of your view is marred by something that wasn’t there before?”

—Michael Bird, architect

So far, only Day has tackled the problem head-on. Working with the APA, the town mapped its scenic vistas from Great Sacandaga Lake, as well as from South Shore, North Shore, and Kathan roads, and imposed limits for building in those areas. Homes above the lake and more than fifty feet from the road must be painted natural colors, use non-reflective windows and roofing, and keep or restore natural vegetation as screening.

Momentum to protect the views in Day grew after a local landowner cleared part of Gray Hill and put a trailer on top. When a second house followed, the town took action. “I wouldn’t want to live in a town without zoning,” said Day’s longtime supervisor, Mary Ann Johnson. “You could have a beautiful house on the lake and a pig farm next door.”

The APA in 1973 was given the monumental task of implementing and enforcing a land-use plan covering over 3 million acres. With five code officers (down from six), the agency has not been shy about enforcing the law. In 2011, after a seven-year legal battle, the APA forced Daniel and Margaret Spiegel to tear down their ten-thousand-square-foot home in the Fawn Ridge development overlooking Lake Placid. Siding with the APA, a state judge ruled that the Spiegels broke the rules by building their house too tall and too close to a slope and by cutting too many trees. In court, the Spiegels argued that many of their neighbors had done the same.  When asked if further enforcement actions were planned at Fawn Ridge, McKeever the APA spokesman, declined comment.

The APA says it works to minimize the environmental impact of projects on steep slopes and at higher elevation through its permitting process, while also holding the power to deny a project. The best way to address upland development, McKeever says, is by helping towns develop comprehensive zoning laws and allowing landowners to transfer building rights from backcountry lands to areas more suited to development.

Vacation homes and access roads scar a steep mountainside above Keene Valley.  PHOTO BY GEORGE EARL
Vacation homes and access roads scar a steep mountainside above Keene Valley. PHOTO BY GEORGE EARL

But environmentalists say the agency and its board could do more to limit growth in the uplands. Among other things, they contend the agency should pay greater attention to the storm-water runoff generated by carving roads and homes into steep slopes. In 2010, the APA approved the construction of seven homes served by a steep access drive above Lake George in the town of Bolton. Navitsky, the Lake George waterkeeper, says the APA should have required more stream and wetland protection by limiting the level of grading and excavation. “The APA does not look at storm-water management, which can have great impacts on the watershed,” he said.

In August, the APA board approved a subdivision on 1,336 acres off Styles Brook Road in Keene on the historic Highland Farms bordering the Hurricane and Jay Wilderness Areas. Two of the thirteen lots are considered upland and will require an open-space plan to protect views and water quality when they are developed, said McKeever. But some environmentalists say the board should have required a master plan and set aside open space at the outset, while it still had leverage and the land was under one owner.

Homes have popped up on many hillsides near Lake George.    PHOTO BY BARRY LOBDELL
Homes have popped up on many hillsides near Lake George. PHOTO BY BARRY LOBDELL

On his tour of Essex County, Plumley stressed several times that he is not against development. “The point is how can we have development while preserving scenic values, habitat connectivity, and water quality?”
Environmentalists and others have various ideas for protecting the Adirondack highlands. The most far-reaching, an outright ban on ridgeline development regardless of elevation, may not be politically feasible. A more palatable alternative could be a Park-wide scenic-protection plan similar to Day’s that sets restrictions on building at higher elevations.

A number of cities around the country and at least one state have tried to discourage upland development, or at least make it less visible. In 1983, North Carolina became the first state to pass a ridge-protection law, after condos were built on the top of Sugar Mountain, a ski resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Homes above three thousand feet or five hundred feet above a valley must go through a review process that includes a thirty-five-foot height limit.

In Santa Fe, houses in the foothills and ridges of the Santa Fe Mountains must stay within a fourteen-foot height limit and use non-reflective surfaces in earth-tone colors. Pitched roofs are banned, and the city is about to impose even stricter tree-clearing limits for driveways. “Part of the reason property values are so high is that we’ve preserved something,” one city council member told the Wall Street Journal. “If we build on all the ridgetops, people won’t come out here.”

“I wouldn’t want to live in a town without zoning. You could have a beautiful house on the lake and a pig farm next door.”

—Mary Ann Johnson, Day supervisor

In Teton County, Wyoming, home of the Grand Tetons, houses proposed in the scenic district go through a “skyline review” to make sure they won’t be seen from the road. Homeowners’ associations may write even stricter rules into their covenants. “People pay a lot of money to get a view of the Tetons, and once they get it they want to make sure nothing will obstruct that view,” said Shawn Means, the county’s planning-services coordinator.

With approval from the state legislature, the APA could create a similar Park-wide scenic-protection plan. Governor Mario Cuomo’s Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twentieth-First Century recommended as much in 1990. The legislature could also close the loopholes that allow single homes to be built in backcountry RU lands without APA review.

But few developers would like to see an APA with expanded powers. The rules already add cost and delay to construction, often without demonstrating a clear environmental benefit, said Bird, the architect, citing the downward facing lights that cut down on light pollution but may require homeowners to install twice as many lights to see down their driveway.

Governor Andrew Cuomo (the son of Mario) and the legislature are also unlikely to support an expanded role for the APA. “Most recent governors have not wanted the APA to push its authority,” said Dick Booth, an APA board member and Cornell University professor who is often the lone vote against development projects, including Highlands Farms most recently.

One long-term solution for protecting the Adirondack uplands is for the state to buy lands that are most at risk and add them to the Forest Preserve. The Park land-use plan identifies thirty-seven scenic views that have yet to be protected. “If the state can’t do it, the towns ought to consider buying some of it themselves,” said John Sheehan of the Adirondack Council.

In the last decade, in fact, the state has added more than 150,000 acres to the Forest Preserve through fee purchase and protected nearly 750,000 acres through conservation easements. Scenic easements are another, cheaper strategy. The Adirondack Council has long advocated giving landowners a tax break in exchange for protecting vistas from development. Unlike conservation easements, scenic easements do not give the public access to private lands—making them more attractive to landowners and cheaper for the state to buy. The downside is that some people may not see the benefit if access is denied.

Another approach is to give towns more technical support to make better land-use decisions. “The local government role is an untapped resource in the Adirondacks,” said Banta, the former APA attorney.

One widely embraced idea is for the APA to bring back its popular planning-training program for local officials. “People miss it,” said Monroe. “They weren’t trying to force anything on the community.”

With more support, towns can decide for themselves what they want to look like. “If you leave it up to local government, town A can say, ‘I can’t bear anything with high elevation.’ Town B can say, ‘I like it,’” Monroe added. “They can each do it their own way.”

Towns could also offer incentives for developers to reuse land that has already been developed. Better to redevelop existing lots on Lake George than carve into the relatively pristine slopes, said developer John Michaels. “There’s so much property in disrepair, so many motels no longer making money, that I don’t see why we would cut down trees for new development,” he said.

A house sticks out on a forested ridge overlooking Jones Pond.    PHOTO BY BARRY LOBDELL
A house sticks out on a forested ridge overlooking Jones Pond.