Conversation at Adirondack History Museum event moved away from past acrimony and dug into nitty-gritty of current community issues
By Tim Rowland
Fifty years after the inception of the Adirondack Park Agency, a small crowd gathered in the basement of the Adirondack History Museum in Elizabethtown to reflect on the last half century and speculate as to what a similar gathering might look like in another 50 years.
The featured speakers of the museum-sponsored event were Keith McKeever, public information officer for the APA and Jerry Delaney, executive director of the Local Government Review Board, which often acts as a foil to agency activity. They got along, mostly.
It wasn’t always so. Rocci Aguirre, executive director of the Adirondack Council, noted that in the early days of the APA a similar meeting would not have been possible, so great was the tension between conservationists and residents who didn’t take to being told what to do by conservation bureaucrats.
In that occasionally violent era, Delaney said local residents were frustrated by inconsistent regulations that seemed to treat people differently. “A lot of the pushback came from not understanding the rules,” Delaney said. “They didn’t understand the complexity of it.”
They were hesitant to ask the agency for clarification, feeling a better path was to stay under the radar, even if it meant violating the rules.
The forever wild fight
The Explorer ran a nine-part series that tells the story of the at-times contentious campaign to create the Adirondack Park Agency. Adapted from the book “A Wild Idea,” author Brad Edmondson interviewed more than 50 people who fought for and against the APA, some of whom have since died.
McKeever agreed that early on, the APA was “definitely not something that was welcomed.” The park was on the brink of a great new land-use experiment, and the agency was being asked to organize unspeakable amounts of data with a skeleton staff and typewriter technology. As the APA gained employees and became computerized, its processes improved. Plus, McKeever said, “people began to understand that the agency wasn’t going to go away.”
Going forward, the disagreements may not be as volatile, but they still exist. Most notably, McKeever and Delaney disagreed over public sewers, which McKeever said are essential for economic and residential growth, but Delaney said are patently unaffordable in small Adirondack communities.
With housing being so hard to find in the park, sewers could become a defining issue in the coming decades. “Wastewater may not be sexy, but it’s absolutely essential,” McKeever said. “Many areas have public water, but not public wastewater, and septic systems limit how many units you can create.”
Delaney said public sewer and water systems have burdened local residents in sparsely populated areas where a relative handful of people must pay the costs of systems that cost millions of dollars. “It costs a lot of money for very little return; I’d rather drill a lot of wells,” Delaney said. “And no one in the park can get funding right now. There are no grants, just loans, so with local governments it’s a tough sell.”
Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson agreed the numbers don’t work. “I will fight wastewater with every breath I have,” he said. “It would bury any hope of the people in Keene to keep their homes.”
But a key to affordable housing is density of housing units, McKeever said, and that’s not possible without public sewers. A potential solution to housing issues is expansion of hamlets, where growth has been anticipated under state land-use maps, but sewer is necessary for that to happen.
McKeever agreed that Albany needs to change its funding approach, but that some of the costs might be met through an infrastructure bond bill recently passed by the state.
Supervisors are still reluctant, Delaney said, because once a sewer system is in place, the state frequently demands expensive upgrades, often before the municipality has finished paying off the original system.
So while public sewers might be a good idea, Delaney said, “I don’t want the APA driving that bus.”
Looking to the future, McKeever said he believes the APA can become more involved with regional planning, particularly in the face of climate change. Original settlements built “next to a river on one side and a mountain range on the other” — were a good idea when water was a primary source of power, but not so much today.
Returning to the theme of population and housing, McKeever said these communities have been hindered by both man and nature. There is little buildable land “on less than a 3% slope with sandy loam,” he said, and APA restrictions limit building height to 40 feet. Loosening that regulation in the hamlets might allow for an additional floor on commercial buildings, and more apartments.
Audience members also suggested that in the future there should be more emphasis on how people can live in harmony with wilderness. “We should be talking about communities and the environment in the same breath,” Aguirre said. “In order to be a park 50 years from now we need to marry the wilderness piece with the community piece.”
Wilson agreed that “We need to start talking about what is the role of human beings in the landscape. How do we acknowledge the impact of everything we do?”
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