By Gwendolyn Craig
For property owners in the Adirondack Park, there’s a map that shows the law of the land. For some with development ideas, the law isn’t in their favor.
There is a process through the Adirondack Park Agency to change it, however, and the Town of Lake Luzerne is hoping to do that for more than 100 acres in the area of Hidden Valley Road off of Route 9N.
According to the town’s application, the map change would help the town’s economic vitality. Lake Luzerne is looking to downgrade the land protections from “rural use,” which allows a maximum of 75 buildings per square mile, to “moderate-intensity use,” which allows a maximum of 500 buildings per square mile.
Town Supervisor Eugene Merlino also told Adirondack Explorer that one of the property owners on the 100 acres wants to build one or more houses, but cannot under the current land restrictions. A map change would be the first step to do anything there. The proposal does not specify a particular development plan or name the possible developer.
The Town of North Elba is also proposing a map change, though for a parcel one-third the size of Lake Luzerne’s request.
The process for map changes, though, can dredge up the persistent battle between private property rights and wildland preservation in one of nation’s largest publicly protected parks. It also brings up questions of bureaucracy.
The APA board will have to review the map change requests with watchful eyes on them, making sure they follow their own rules and regulations.
One of those rules already stoked some embers during a public hearing on Tuesday regarding the Lake Luzerne request.
The APA cannot consider any private development proposals in a map change request, according to its rules and regulations. Instead the APA must only consider things like soil types, slope and elevation, wildlife habitat and wetlands, when examining whether to reduce or enhance land protections.
Matthew Kendall, an environmental program specialist with the APA, was the hearing officer on Tuesday. He reiterated the rules but added something that stuck in the craw of a few people.
“It’s a practice of the agency to allow the public to explain proposed development plans at the hearing, but it should be clear, any proposed development related to this particular area is not a consideration in the deliberation of the agency or in the decision of the agency,” Kendall said.
Bob Glennon, the former executive director of the APA and a member of the nonprofit organization Protect the Adirondacks, took issue with that.
“That doesn’t make a lick of sense,” Glennon said during the virtual public hearing, to Kendall. “You’re going to have that every time someone wants to amend the map, so that’s wrong.”
Following the meeting, Glennon said the town has every right to apply for the change for a landowner, but the idea that the APA would hear discussions of such plans during the public hearing process “threw me for a loop,” he said.
But other nearby property owners said during the public hearing that they wanted to know what the development plans for that area are. Merlino and the town zoning officer have declined to provide the name of the property owner, who approached the town about building one or more houses, and declined to provide more details about the discussion. Both said the individual has not provided any formal planning or zoning applications to the town, and they are merely taking the first step required for any project–changing the APA land use map.
David Gibson, of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, said this isn’t the first time the public has gleaned information about proposed development projects during a map amendment hearing and public comment period.
In 2010, the APA was looking at a proposal to downgrade the protections of about 53 acres around Lake Clear in Franklin County. A property owner also wanted to build houses there.
Similar to Adirondack Wild’s comments back then, Gibson said the reasoning in Lake Luzerne’s application for a map change appears to be weak.
“Basically, the town says, ‘We want more development,’” Gibson said. “Well of course, every town would, but this is a regional land use plan, not a local land use plan.”
Peter Bauer, of Protect the Adirondacks, said generally map amendment requests are more successful when they’re part of a comprehensive town plan. The town of Chester, for example, suggested in its map amendment application where some land deserved more protections and where other lands could handle more development.
“There’s lands going both ways, so to speak,” Bauer said. “The map amendments are always more challenging when they’re being undertaken for an individual parcel, often with a small number of landowners who will clearly benefit from the change, and it’s not being done in the context of a town-wide zoning and planning amendment process.”
The Lake Luzerne map change request itself drew more negative comments than positive ones during the virtual public hearing, with three nearby landowners testifying that they did not want more development in the area, two people testifying a change wasn’t warranted and one testifying in favor of it. It’s not clear how many written comments have been submitted, but the APA is collecting those through June 2.
Aside from their concerns about an individual property owners’ wishes in the mix, Glennon and Gibson both highlighted characteristics of the Lake Luzerne property that they feel make it suited for its current rural use.
For one, the forest block of which it is a part, is considered one of 115 “regionally important” forest blocks in the Adirondack Park. It also has two wetlands, 8.5 acres and 7 acres, respectively. There is no public water or sewer servicing the area.
Tom Reed, who owns some of the land in the map amendment request, said he would be in favor of the map change. There is land along Hidden Valley Road already classified for moderate intensity use and it appears to just stop and turn to rural use, he said.
Reed and Merlino both worry about the town’s economic standing and tax base.
“It makes it a little easier on all of us here to have a little more development,” Reed said. “Septic systems and water have to be approved by lot-by-lot basis. It makes sense to me to follow the town guidance to have this go through.”
Merlino added that if the map amendment happened, any projects a property owner wants to do have to go through planning, zoning and other hearings. The APA hearing was strictly to change the land use, he added.
While the town application may have been instigated by one property owner, there are several on the 100 acres and Merlino said no matter what, the town would like the map amendment made. For the last 15 years, Merlino’s goal has been to bring more development to Lake Luzerne.
“It helps your tax base,” Merlino said. “If it (the town) doesn’t grow a little, your taxes are going to grow.”
Comments on the Lake Luzerne proposal may be submitted to APA Staff EPS Matthew Kendall, email or 518-304-6168.
This story has been corrected to say “rural use” allows 75 buildings per square mile and not 15.