Protect the Adirondacks, Adirondack Wild and Sierra Club cry foul over Lower Saranac Lake marina approval
By Zachary Matson
A trio of environmental groups joined the argument that the state should have conducted a study of Lower Saranac Lake before approving a marina expansion in 2020.
In recent filings to the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court’s Third Department, the groups emphasized that the Adirondack Park Agency Act and subsequent State Land Master Plan compel state agencies to conduct comprehensive analysis of Adirondack lakes before permitting certain projects on private land.
The argument over “carrying capacity” studies, which examine human use and ecological factors on lakes and ponds, has emerged as a central question in a case that could clarify the state’s role in evaluating new development on Adirondack lakes.
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“The continuing failure by the APA and (state Department of Environmental Conservation) to conduct studies of carrying capacity… is an issue of Park-wide importance,” Protect the Adirondacks attorney Christopher Amato submitted to the appeals court last week.
Environmentalists point to language in the Adirondack master plan that mandates DEC to conduct “a comprehensive study of Adirondack lakes and ponds… to determine each water body’s capacity to withstand various uses,” especially motorized uses. State officials also included a promise to study the carrying capacity of Lower Saranac Lake in the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest unit management plan approved in 2019 but have not completed the study.
Former DEC Commissioner Thomas Jorling sued in December 2020 to reverse a permit APA granted for a proposed expansion of a marina on Lower Saranac Lake, near his lakefront property. Jorling appealed a lower court decision upholding the permit approval.
Protect, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve and the Sierra Club have all sought to contribute arguments to the case as interested parties. (Protect filed its own argument while Adirondack Wild and the Sierra Club filed a joint brief.)
The state contends that the carrying capacity requirement does not apply to permitting decisions on private property, highlighting that the lakebed adjacent to the marina sites are privately owned.
“The master plan and related unit management plans apply only to state-owned land,” the state asserted in an August filing. “APA is simply not required to apply provisions of the master plan in a permitting proceeding that, as here, concerns private property.”
The marina developer, who is also proposing to expand an old marina on Fish Creek Pond near Upper Saranac Lake, has argued the State Land Master Plan “does not apply to private part applications seeking private land use entitlements.”
Jorling and the environmental groups, though, countered that carrying capacity studies are necessary before the state can determine whether or not a proposed project will have an adverse impact on nearby state lands. They assert in court documents that the Adirondack Park’s legal framework exists to coordinate management of private and public lands and preserve the park’s broader natural and scenic character.
Protect wrote that the state’s position amounts to a “novel theory that the intermingled public and private lands in the Adirondack Park must be managed in artificial isolation.” The group’s brief highlights the state’s own assertions in the unit management plan that Lower Saranac faces threats from private uses and that private development should be considered in management decisions.
“DEC’s failure to perform the required carrying capacity study means that APA did not have the information that it needed to evaluate whether the approval of 73 new motorboats for the project would have an ‘undue adverse impact’ on Lower Saranac Lake,” Protect added.
Adirondack Wild called the lack of a carrying capacity studies a “long-standing dereliction of duty” by APA and argued the analysis “is a requirement even when the state does not own the entirety of the… shoreline.”
Jorling and his attorney Claudia Braymer, of Glens Falls, are also pushing a handful of other arguments in the appeal, including that the APA failed to properly rank the value of wetlands at the project site and that the agency should develop marina standards.
The case is scheduled for a December hearing. After an appellate division ruling, the case could be appealed to the state’s top court, the Court of Appeals.
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