Board split over precedent and consequences
By Gwendolyn Craig
The Adirondack Park Agency rejected for a second time a request from two camp owners to build a boathouse addition on Spitfire Lake in Franklin County to accommodate their third antique wooden boat. Commissioners split on the variance, with some worried about the precedence of approval and others worried about the unintended consequences of denial.
Prior to commissioners’ 5-5 vote, APA Counsel Chris Cooper warned that the agency has never ruled on an expansion of a lawfully, non-conforming boathouse. The agency’s decision would be setting a precedent. The APA oversees public and private development in the approximately 6-million-acre park.
Michael Bird, architect with Adirondack Design, attended the agency’s March 16 meeting for applicants Andrew Hawkins and Lisa Walsh. He told the Explorer they were disappointed with the outcome and had not yet made any decisions on how to move forward.
Hawkins and Walsh appeared before the agency in a public hearing last May. They said they needed an addition as their second home in Brighton may only be accessed by lake and antique boats tend to break down. A covered addition to their current boathouse would keep their boat from the elements.
Their existing boathouse is considered a “non-conforming” structure under APA’s rules and regulations. It means the boathouse does not meet APA’s specifications, but it may stand because it was grandfathered in before the agency adopted its definition of a boathouse. Bird had told APA staff and commissioners last year that the addition would be a more environmentally friendly option than building a second boathouse — something that Hawkins and Walsh could do.
Bart Haralson, an environmental program specialist with the APA, presented commissioners with an updated variance request without a staff recommendation for denial or approval.
The variance would expand the existing 1,029 square-foot boathouse to 1,306 square feet, or about 160 square feet less than what the couple had applied for last year. They were willing to give up their building lot for an additional boathouse, should the variance be approved.
Five commissioners on the 11-member board approved the request but five denied it. One seat is vacant due to the departure of former Johnsburg Town Supervisor Andrea Hogan. Cooper said the variance needed a majority vote to pass.
Commissioner Dan Wilt, who leads the regulatory programs committee, voted against the variance. He did not believe the applicants had proven hardship, it did not follow the law and he was concerned about setting a precedent, he said.
APA Chair John Ernst joined commissioners Art Lussi, Ken Lynch and Matthew Tebo, who are also on the regulatory programs committee, in favor of the variance. Tebo said he did not like the potential outcome if they denied the variance (a second boathouse). Lynch thought the applicants addressed concerns from the last time. Lussi said he didn’t see any adverse environmental impacts.
Commissioners Benita Law-Diao, Brad Austin, Joe Zalewski and Zoë Smith voted against the variance with Wilt.
“For right or for wrong, the agency can be held hostage at times in this situation,” said Austin, a representative from Empire State Development on the APA board. “For lack of a better term, it feels kind of like terrorism.”
Austin and Smith said the agency shouldn’t make a decision based on what could happen.
Law-Diao said she saw the third boat as a “self-made hardship.” Zalewski, who is also the region 5 director of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, agreed. Law-Diao was worried about the precedent being set, and was also surprised by the agency’s lack of regulations about the number of boathouses that could be put on a lake.
“I don’t care how much shoreline they have, to allow people to put as many structures on a lake is ridiculous,” she said. She hoped that was something the APA could address in the future.