By BRANDON LOOMIS
At one time it seemed logical to many Adirondackers.
Sprinkle new homes widely across large properties as they develop, and you might feel you’ve diluted the effects on the landscape. Out of sight, out of mind. And big lots had the added benefit of offering urbanites the seclusion they sought and would pay for in the mountains.
In time, though, as more homesteads were carved out of the forest and more roads and driveways wound toward them, it became clear to conservationists that the spread amounted to something like rural sprawl. The distance—if not distant enough—actually multiplied the effects of each structure. Ecologists found that spreading out instead of clustering and preserving connected open spaces discouraged wildlife migrations and evicted species that need a buffer.
Projects that fully encircled lakes with spaced-out homes and without careful attention to soils and slopes could alter wetlands, promote erosion and pollute waters.
Scrutiny that seemed like a model for the world in the 1970s became dated as the science shifted, Adirondack Council Executive Director Willie Janeway said.
“We do have a world-class resource” in the Adirondack Park, he said, “but we no longer have state-of-the-art, world-class protections in place.”
The clamor for a new way intensified over the last decade as critics watched the Adirondack Park Agency approve a massive second-home resort around the Big Tupper Ski Area without what they considered adequate regard for nature. The agency responded with a new process that asks developers of large subdivisions to help assess their land and their plan’s effects on it.
Now comes Woodward Lake, a southern Adirondacks proposal that will provide the first major test of the agency’s resolve. Regardless of how this one turns out, some advocates including Janeway say they’re holding out for a legislative mandate to cluster and tailor development to the resources on the property.
The Woodward Lake property is roughly 1,200 acres ringing its namesake water body in Gifford Valley, just west of Northville. New York Land and Lakes Development submitted to APA an initial plan showing 36 home sites mostly encircling the lake.
It’s a plan that Jeff Black thinks will ruin his property’s natural value if construction isn’t shifted into a more compact area.
Black, a Manhattan resident who has long hunted and fished in the area, owns an unimproved swath of oak, beech and maple south of the lake but not on it. He bought it specifically to hunt deer, which he took a break from one day in November to show the Adirondack Explorer around and explain his fear.
“This whole Gifford Valley is a huge deer yard in winter,” Black said. The whitetails, sometimes dozens, come down from the hills on the park’s Shaker Mountain Wild Forest Area.
And there’s more than deer roaming the valley. Black set out eight motion-detecting cameras on his property and shared images of a bear and cub, a moose, and deer. “I’ve got bears on every camera,” he said.
The rows of envisioned building lots are between the wild forest and Black’s tree stands. If they’re built as planned, “I’m sure the animal migration will stop,” he said.
“It’ll ruin my investment as a hunting property.”
Harry Gilligan, a close neighbor to the property, said he moved there from the Bronx because he was always “a country boy at heart.” He is afraid the development will take a piece of the country from him.
“I don’t want any part of it,” he said.
New York Land and Lakes did not respond to the Explorer’s requests for comment. But APA spokesman Keith McKeever said park procedures would require the developer to minimize impacts to natural resources and “protect the open space character of the Adirondack Park.”
A recently revised large subdivision process requires park staff to work with developers to learn about a property’s resources and advise them on potential issues before they spend money finalizing their submissions, McKeever explained. The staff also makes public the preliminary submissions so people can submit comments about their concerns—as Black did in this case.
So far the process seems to be working, said David Gibson, managing partner of Adirondack Wild. There’s more information on the APA website well in advance of decisions, he said, and that information includes requests from the agency for detailed resource information.
“This is entirely new,” he said.
Gibson has visited Woodward Lake—at least the end of it that’s visible from a public road—and said it’s ringed by wetlands that likely should preclude shoreline hardening and driveways to docks. Wildlife corridors from the lake to the wild forest are essentially seamless and should remain that way, he said.
He’s unsure whether the developer’s consultants will provide accurate and useful information, he said, but at least now the public can scrutinize it before approval is imminent.
Still, he thinks state legislation is needed, so future APA officials can’t decide to backtrack.
Assemblyman Steve Englebright, a Long Island Democrat, has sponsored a conservation design bill in to require wildlife studies and other ecological indicators to guide home placement on certain lands in the Adirondacks. His bill notes that conservation science has advanced in the decades since adoption of the park’s land-use plan, and, “It is now recognized that the spatial pattern of development is fully, if not more, ecologically important as its overall density.”
The bill earned Englebright 2017 Legislator of the Year honors from Protect the Adirondacks. But so far the measure has failed to pass. He said he’ll try again this year.
This kind of regulation has worked on Long Island, where developers have shown that conserving common open space can boost prices for the properties they sell, he said. It fits the homes into their environment, rather than “simply taking out a ruler and drawing lines that ignore nature.”
It’s an idea whose time has come, Englebright said, and everyone should want it for the Adirondacks.
“Part of the magnificence of being a New Yorker is to know that you have the largest and oldest state park,” he said.