Tony D’Elia led call to ‘abolish the APA’
This is the eighth in a nine-part series that tells the story of the at-times contentious campaign to create the Adirondack Park Agency, which marks its 50th anniversary in June. Adapted from the new book “A Wild Idea: How the Environmental Movement Tamed the Adirondacks,” the author interviewed more than 50 people who fought for and against the APA, some of whom have since died.
By Brad Edmondson
The Adirondack Park Agency’s private land plan ruined Tony D’Elia’s Christmas.
D’Elia was the developer of Loon Lake Estates, a planned 1,000-unit subdivision a few miles north of Saranac Lake. As soon as he read the plan on Dec. 21, 1972, he knew that an APA review of Loon Lake would cut into his profits while making his life much more difficult. D’Elia spent the holiday writing an essay to warn locals that the APA was “confiscatory” and “unconstitutional.” He said that it would ruin the local economy and force local children to leave town.
In fact, the plan would have little to no effect on the towns and villages where most full-time residents of the park lived. Even in rural areas, existing homes would not be affected. But none of this was clear at first. The plan was complicated, its details were not settled, and even Adirondackers who didn’t have anything to lose personally still felt insulted. The insult ran deep, fed by decades of envy toward rich visitors and anger at their disregard.
APA board members and staffers presented the Land Use and Development Plan at 15 public hearings held over 12 days in January 1973. The sessions ended with a raucous eight-hour gathering on Jan. 20 in Saranac Lake. Eight hundred locals packed the high school auditorium, and “it took a lot of effort to keep the lid from blowing off the hall,” said APA Chair Richard Lawrence, who ran the meeting. “The town police were terrified that they were going to have a riot.” After Sierra Club spokesman Ted Hullar spoke in defense of the private land plan, an enraged local resident threatened to cut his throat.
Lawrence wasn’t overly concerned about the anger he saw at the hearings. The people he needed to convince were far away in Albany, and newspapers did a poor job of covering the hearings. As he drove home from Saranac Lake, Lawrence came upon fellow APA board member Peter Paine, whose car had slid on the ice and was stuck in a ditch. Lawrence, who drove a Jeep, winched Paine out. “Don’t worry about the locals,” he told the younger man. “It’s good for the animals to exercise their vocal cords.”
A survey later estimated that one-third of speakers at the public hearings were in favor of the APA’s plan. The agency made more than 500 revisions that took care of a lot of locals’ objections, and opponents never formed a park-wide coalition that might have stopped the momentum in Albany. Lawrence got the APA board to endorse the private land plan in March by a vote of 7 to 2, the margin Gov. Rockefeller had insisted on. The New York Assembly and Senate passed the plan with only minor changes, and Rockefeller signed it into law on May 22, 1973.
Outside the park, experts hailed the law as a landmark in regional land use planning. But hard-core opponents of the APA had coalesced into a determined minority. D’Elia and a few others rallied around the slogan “Abolish the APA.”
They would keep up the fight for decades.
Part 9: Reimagining the APA
In case you missed the, here are links to the other parts so far:
Part 1: Abbie Verner’s head-on collision
Part 2: Clarence Petty’s surveys
Part 3: Harold Jerry takes on a Rockefeller
Part 4: George Davis’s lucky break
Part 5: Harold Hochschild’s big score
Part 6: George Davis’s big map
Part 7: Push for the plan
About the author: Journalist Brad Edmondson, of Ithaca, is the author of several books, including “A Wild Idea: How the Environmental Movement Tamed the Adirondacks.”
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