A new era for the Adirondacks

Development near water must control runoff. File photo.
Development near water must control runoff.
File photo.

FORTY YEARS after the signing of historic legislation protecting the Adirondacks from exploitation and over-development, we have arrived at another key moment for the Adirondack Park. Safeguards that once seemed to set the standard for progressive land-use planning must now be updated if we are to ensure that the natural character and viable human communities of the Park survive for future generations.

A yearlong series of Explorer articles assessed the effectiveness of Park protections, particularly the role of the Adirondack Park Agency in overseeing development of the private lands that constitute more than half of the nearly six million acres in the Park. In September, we followed up on that series with a conference on “Strengthening the APA.” This event convened regional and national experts to look at what we can do in coming years to better protect critical environmental features like water bodies, open space, and important wildlife habitat.

The conference concentrated on constructive proposals for how to move forward, not on the criticisms of or disagreements with four decades of sometimes contentious policy decisions. (See featured story, “Ideas for a better park”).

Both the Explorer articles and the conference point to three broad areas where we need to modernize and bolster protections, and to one overarching need. That need is for the state to adequately fund and staff the APA. The agency needs a realistic budget to fully step into its intended role as leader in Park-wide planning. It needs enough staff to work with local governments to develop their own strong and coordinated land-use plans. It needs the resources to understand the cumulative impact of years worth of subdividing and building in the Park. And it has to have the personnel to enforce the conditions of its development permits. Without a larger staff, the agency will continue to be working with its hands tied behind its back.

The three areas that should be priorities as we look at ways to strengthen Park protection are:

■ Consistently applying the principles of conservation development to allow for smart growth that combines environmental preservation and economic gain;

■ Beefing up the protection of water quality and the restoration of that quality in areas where it has already been degraded; and

■ Better controlling development on highly visible highlands to prevent scarring the natural vistas that give the Adirondacks its character.

Conservation development

Conservation development relies on a detailed understanding of the environmental qualities of tracts of land that are being divided for construction. Its goal is to preserve important natural features, avoid fragmenting large acreages by scattering buildings across the landscape, and clustering construction in well-designed lots that minimize the need for long roads and utility lines.

The APA has applied these principles in some cases over the years, but the legislation that guides its decisions does not clearly define their use. And the agency has not felt that it has a mandate to require clustering, seeing the language merely as a guideline.

As national planning authority Randall Arendt argued at the Explorer’s conference, conservation development should be the agency’s default requirement. The burden should be on a developer to show why conservation development is not viable for his project, and only in those cases should the APA allow a different approach.

Another key to making effective use of conservation development is for the agency to require an ecological assessment of property that someone wants to subdivide and develop. The assessment of the environmental features and wildlife on the land must be done by certified experts working independently of the developer and before any lot plans are submitted. This scientific survey is the foundation for sound decisions, and without it neither the agency nor the developer can credibly claim to understand the impact of the project.

Water quality

When looking at water quality, we find a number of related threats that we must address.

“Storm-water runoff is the biggest threat to water quality,” Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said at the conference. And it’s an area where, as with conservation development, APA standards are not defined clearly enough or pursued aggressively enough. While the agency argues that it considers runoff and water-quality issues in its permitting process, without clearly defined jurisdiction and minimum standards its safeguards are vulnerable to inconsistent interpretation and weak regulation.

Water draining from often vast watersheds can carry phosphorous and other nutrients into lakes, leading to algae growth, underwater dead zones, and other degradation. It can also carry salt and other contaminants that create a long-term threat to water bodies that are at the heart of the Park’s natural environment as well as its economic viability. There is a crying need for clear and strong standards requiring developers and homeowners to contain runoff. We also must have plans to restore watersheds through re-vegetation and other strategies for fixing what has already been damaged.

Upland development

Finally we should recognize and protect the open lands stretching up the high slopes and ridgelines that form a stunning landscape that millions of people travel here each year to experience. Though these features embody the scenic beauty and natural character of the Park, the APA has limited authority to protect them from damaging development or conspicuous siting. As an example of what is possible, the agency worked with the town of Day in Saratoga County. Day, which rises on both shores of the Great Sacandaga Lake, amended its zoning law to make low visibility a requirement for building on slopes within view of the lake and roadways. It takes into account the design of a proposed building, related construction like outbuildings and roads, and the amount of vegetation that would be cut. We need to see this approach adopted for the Park as a whole.

None of these measures, not conservation development, storm-water runoff, or control of uplands development, is an unreachable goal or an abstract theory. Speakers at the Explorer conference described how the New Jersey Pinelands have mandated conservation development, how the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has implemented regulations that are improving the water quality of Lake Tahoe, and, of course, how our own Town of Day has put upland protections in place.

These are realistic goals for the Park’s private lands as we try to lead the Adirondacks into a new era of enlightened preservation.

-Tom Woodman, Publisher

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