Another bum rap for the APA

Anti-APA sentiments resounded at the “Speak Out” in the Saranac Lake Town Hall, circa 1974. Photo by Gary Randorf.
Anti-APA sentiments resounded at the “Speak Out” in the Saranac Lake Town Hall, circa 1974. Photo by Gary Randorf.

Reading a recent editorial from the Glens Falls Post-Star, which pillories Chairman Curt Stiles and the state’s Adirondack Park Agency for being too strong on environmental protection, brings back memories of the anti-APA hostility so rampant four decades ago, in the earliest days of this state entity.

“Who are you to come here and tell us what we can or can’t do with our land?” was a frequently heard sentiment. “We’ve always taken good care of the Adirondacks and we don’t need you interfering!” was another.

The fact is that outside intervention was urgently needed. A number of land developers had zeroed in on the Adirondacks. The projects they envisioned—one of them consisting of ten thousand homes on eighteen thousand acres—would have significantly altered the Adirondack Park, which had virtually no development controls to regulate growth and protect its unique natural resources. The private lands, which are all mixed up with our public Forest Preserve, were vulnerable to whatever the developers had in mind.

In response, the APA was created by the state to regulate activities that could have a regional impact. Its job is to safeguard the natural environment and scenic splendor of the Park. In so doing, it also helps to protect the Adirondack economy, which is largely based on the wildness and beauty that attracts both residents and visitors to the region. And yet, for the chairman of the APA board of commissioners to acknowledge (as he has done) that environmental protection is the agency’s primary purpose is to incur the wrath of local officials and the real-estate industry, two powerful and often interwoven interests.

This helps to explain why Stiles, who is retiring as chairman following the expiration of his four-year term, has been denounced in some quarters as unfit for the job. Here, for example, is what the Post-Star had to say:

“Curt Stiles doesn’t talk to us anymore. That’s understandable. If you headed up an agency with a well-earned reputation for overzealous enforcement of state regulations and an unwavering support of restrictive environmentalist policies over reasonable economic growth and development in the Adirondacks, you’d be press-shy too.”

The Post-Star goes on to inform readers that “horror stories about the agency’s actions are still frighteningly prevalent.” This reference recalled the colorful campaigns of the 1970s, when APA opponents staged “Speak Outs” around the Park. Their purpose was to impress the outside world, including the state legislature and governor, that there was a full-scale rebellion underway in the Adirondacks. The same three or four “victims” were paraded out at each meeting to regale audiences with horror stories about how they had been mistreated by the agency.

The idea was to stir up fear and loathing among the populace, and in this they were remarkably successful. To dispel some of the myths on which their campaign was based, an article appeared in Adirondack Life in 1974 titled “Thirty-two common misconceptions about the APA.” The misconceptions ranged from the outlandish (“The APA wants to run residents out of the park and turn it all into a wilderness”) to the more plausible but equally bogus (“Local governments no longer have any control over land-use decisions”). Despite all evidence to the contrary, many of these same misconceptions are still bandied about today, more than a generation later.

“In its zeal to crack down on every potential encroachment of civilization,” the Post-Star asserted, “the agency has tipped the balance against the interests of individual rights and against economic development. Outside a few scattered hamlet areas, the Adirondack Park has become a virtual wilderness area.”

So the nonsensical claims persist, even though the private lands of the Park become more developed every year, and the once-wild shorelines of private lakes are now crowded with homes, boathouses, docks, and lawns. Home construction has continued apace, averaging close to a thousand new houses annually, the same rate of development that occurred in the boom years prior to the APA. Today there are half again as many residences in the Park as there were in 1971, the year the APA arrived on the scene.

Those who seek to weaken or subvert the agency also claim that new businesses have a hard time getting started in the Adirondacks because the agency deters economic activity—even though there is no evidence to back this up. What studies have shown, in fact, is that the Adirondack economy, as shaky as it may be, is doing better than the economies of other northern rural areas in this state and across the rest of the country.

Critics are trying to convince Governor Cuomo that the APA is an oppressive, abusive, overzealous bureaucracy that is stifling free enterprise, in hopes that the governor will appoint a new chairman who does not see environmental protection as the APA’s primary mission. Their goal is to convert the Adirondack Park Agency into a regional chamber of commerce that will actively promote (rather than seriously regulate) subdivision and development.

Whether or not they succeed remains to be seen, but one thing seems certain: they’ll never stop trying.

Dick Beamish, Chairman

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Paul says

    ““Local governments no longer have any control over land-use decisions”” Not really sure this is bogus. But it may be this way by choice. Some towns defer zoning to the APA. For example some towns will give you a permit as long as you show them your APA permit first.

    Also the APA rules do trump local rules. For example I can’t build a house 50 feet from the water if the APA says that it needs to be 100 feet from the water. This is probably a good rule but it does mean that this local entity has lost some control. So I wouldn’t really call that argument bogus.

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