Weak law permits bad plan

The Adirondack Club and Resort would spread over 6,200 acres, including the Big Tupper Ski Area. Photo by Carl Heilman II
The Adirondack Club and Resort would spread over 6,200 acres, including the Big Tupper Ski Area. Photo by Carl Heilman II

On January 20, seven years after it was first proposed, an application for a misbegotten sprawl of a development in Tupper Lake known as the Adirondack Club and Resort won approval from the Adirondack Park Agency.

The project became marginally less bad during a process that included more than a year of failed mediation, hearings that produced 4,500 pages of transcripts, and a series of three APA commission meetings. But less bad is not good, and the ACR, a $500 million, 6,200-acre development with 660 residential units and recreational amenities, remains financially dubious and environmentally flawed. It still does not deserve support.

The APA’s action is a disservice to the Adirondack Park and to the local residents who have pinned so much hope on a development scheme that will likely let them down. Beyond that, it reveals deep weaknesses in the laws intended to preserve the Park’s natural character, serve its human communities, and create precedent for responsible development.

True, the plan improved with the elimination of some upland development. And conditions like prohibitions on future subdivision and requirements for environmental monitors are welcome. But they don’t compensate for the fundamental shortcomings of the proposal.

The financial picture the developers conjured up to win support is a study in magical thinking. They project sales of high-priced homes and lots at a rate of forty to fifty a year at prices that dwarf those recorded in even the highest-priced markets in the Adirondacks.

APA Commissioner Dick Booth, the lone “no” vote on the board, called the projected sales and prices “highly inflated” and “unrealistic.” He was not alone in his skepticism. Commissioner Arthur Lussi, who supported the ACR, told the developers, “You have thrown gargantuan sales estimates at us with no substantiation.”

Some argue the APA’s authority does not extend to vouching for the financial success of a project. According to that thinking, the developers take on the risk of trying to make the project succeed. And if they fail, that’s business. Never mind that the public benefits that sold so many residents on the plan, whether for a resurgent downtown or a revived Big Tupper Ski Area, come only with success. If the agency cannot reject a financial house of cards on the grounds that promised local benefits are highly speculative, then agency authority is an empty shell, incapable of truly protecting the Park.

The APA’s failure to set rigorous financial standards was far from its only shortcoming in this decision. The agency is charged with deciding whether a project would have undue adverse environmental impact. What could be more central to that question than a look at how it would affect wildlife? Yet, the APA relied on the developers for an analysis of the wildlife that make this area their home. The inadequacy of this cozy arrangement became obvious when a biologist working on behalf of an environmental group found in one small area over a twenty-four-hour period eleven species of amphibians that the developers somehow missed in seven years. How many other species went uncounted and how will the development affect them? At the time the APA approved the project it couldn’t possibly say. It did make a future inventory of amphibians a condition of approval, but that’s hardly a substitute for a meaningful inventory prior to a decision.

The most egregious failure, though, was the way in which the APA treated the most sensitive lands within the proposed development, those categorized as Resource Management under state law. This designation is supposed to “protect the delicate physical and biological resources … and preserve the open spaces that are essential and basic to the unique character of the park.” To fragment these lands and spread development, with its miles of roads and utilities, across thousands of acres of Resource Management land makes a mockery of the supposed protection.

Booth argued that while the project may fit the letter of the law, the sprawling residential development flouts the intent of Resource Management protection. If, in fact, the project meets the letter of the law, that’s yet another gaping hole in the statute. While the APA statute talks about clustering building lots to reduce the impact on Resource Management lands, it doesn’t clearly require that. Neither the developers nor the agency considered alternative plans that would incorporate clustering or conservation-design principles. And if they had, they would have found no definitions within the law to guide their efforts.

This shortcoming is especially sad because a wisely designed plan, with buildings clustered closer to the ski area and true preservation of Resource Management lands, would have been the kind of development that would both benefit Tupper Lake and serve as a model for other large projects in the Park.
APA approval of the Adirondack Club and Resort is not the last word. The developers must still receive state and local permits for elements of the plan, including water and sewer facilities. And they must persuade the Franklin County Industrial Development Agency that it should accept a shaky financing arrangement that would divert property-tax payments from local governments to repay bonds that finance the development.

So the long and painful legal prelude to what could be a longer and more painful development reality goes on. Those who care about environmentally responsible development will continue to speak out against this proposal. They should also raise their voices for a strengthening of the state laws that are supposed to protect the Adirondack Park. This APA decision has revealed them to be sadly inadequate.

—Tom Woodman, Publisher

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