By STEPHEN LEON
Many Adirondack Park Agency observers wonder how it can do its job with a depleted board.
Three seats are vacant, and another four members are still serving on expired terms. Their mandate is to protect the park’s state-owned forest preserve and oversee proposed developments on its private lands.
While environmentalists worry about the consequences of a weakened APA board, critics suggest that Gov. Andrew Cuomo likes it this way.
“The governor is perfectly satisfied with the current status quo,” says David Gibson, managing partner of the nonprofit Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve. Gibson is referring both to the state’s failure last session to fill the board vacancies, and, more broadly, to the diminishing influence and independence of the APA.
There are supposed to be 11 APA board members; currently there are only eight. Three are designees from the departments of State, Environmental Conservation, and Economic Development. The other eight are appointed by the governor, but there are only five currently sitting, and four of those five terms are technically expired.
In addition, the former acting chair of the board, Karen Feldman, resigned in May because she wasn’t being paid the post’s designated $30,000 salary while the papers for her official appointment sat on the governor’s desk.
Cuomo offered a partial slate of four new board nominees in mid-June, all taken from a list provided by the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages, a pro-economic-development group whose legislative agenda calls for “modifications” to weaken the APA. The governor’s office ignored the list of candidates presented by members of the environmental community, effectively rejecting their advice on areas of expertise they felt were necessary for a strong board.
“The entire environmental community asked the governor for a full slate of candidates that included people with expertise in planning, in conservation law, and in wilderness protection,” says John Sheehan, communications director for the Adirondack Council. “Instead, the governor presented half a slate that included no one with those skills.”
Sheehan says he did not object to the nominees individually; as a whole, however, they did not add up to the desired critical mass of expertise. Todd Kaminsky, the chairman of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, consulted with Sheehan and other environmental leaders and apparently agreed. Kaminsky and the Senate declined to confirm the candidates presented by the governor as the legislative session ended—leaving the APA board short-handed, presumably into the 2020 session.
Gov. Cuomo wants a fully appointed board, spokesman Jordan Levine said. “Our slate of nominees have expertise and they have a love for the region. We are focused on the best to move the park forward.”
There is widespread concern about the vacancies and expired terms. Chad Dawson, the only appointed board member still serving his official term, describes a board stretched too thin. “The board is trying to conduct all its business without a chairperson to lead our efforts,” he says, “and represent the board in needed conversations between the board, the APA executive director, DEC administration, and the governor’s office.” And the vacancies “put a strain on each member to carry the workload. If any remaining board member is not available for a meeting, then certain business requiring a ‘supermajority’ vote would not be able to be conducted—that has not happened yet.”
Local governments within the park echo Dawson’s concern that any further attrition could hold up proposals that require a six-vote majority from the board, and especially appeals, which require a supermajority. Others observe that a depleted board reduces the diversity of voices to debate the issues. Sheehan adds that the four members serving in expired terms may be subject to undue political influence if they want to be re-nominated, because, he says, “you have to consider what the governor’s reaction will be to your decisions. And that can put more pressure on you to see it his way.”
Peter Bauer, executive director of the nonprofit Protect the Adirondacks, is more blunt in his assessment of the governor’s influence on the APA, suggesting a deeper problem than whether the board is down members or not. “I don’t think that the numbers of the board, whether it’s a partial or a full seating of the board, say very much about the independence of the board,” Bauer says. Currently, “it has six functionaries of the Cuomo administration, so whether you have six or 11 voting members, the result is going to be the same.”
As for the list of nominees Cuomo submitted in June, Bauer adds, “Everybody that they submitted were also vetted to make sure that they too would be enthusiastic members of Team Cuomo.”
Ask Richard Booth about the last five governors before Andrew Cuomo—Hugh Carey, Mario Cuomo, George Pataki, Eliot Spitzer, and David Paterson—and he’ll say they exerted influence on the APA from time to time, but on the whole they let the agency do its job.
“Nobody tried to manage the agency at a level of detail that this governor has,” Booth says. “He has eviscerated the agency’s ability to be a decision-making body.”
Booth, a professor in Cornell University’s Department of City and Regional Planning, was appointed to the APA board by Spitzer in 2007 and served until his second full term ended in 2016.
Booth joined the staff of the fledgling APA in 1972 as it was writing its State Land Master Plan and the Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan. The DEC, he says, “has never been comfortable” with the plans. “There has always been a tension between the park agency and the DEC.”
Booth was back serving as a board member when Gov. Cuomo took office in 2011, and became critical of what he saw as the governor tipping the scales in favor of the DEC with the help of a less balanced, less protection-minded APA board.
“I was a very lonely voice when I was on the agency,” he says. “This governor has gone very far toward the local interests on a lot of questions,” and given DEC more latitude than the state land plan intended. “The DEC, over and over again, has edged toward less protection of the really wild parts of the state lands.”
In response to the Explorer’s request for comment, DEC issued a written statement affirming its commitment to protecting the park: “The APA and DEC serve different functions and have a different mission, but both have a responsibility to manage resources within the Forest Preserve and continue to function well to protect and manage the park.”
Levine, the governor’s spokesman, said Cuomo has done more for the park than any recent governor, including the acquisition of 78,000 acres, designation of 32,000 acres as wilderness and economic development such as the Adirondack Welcome Center and Frontier Town campground.
According to Booth and others, the decision-making process itself has been altered to undermine the APA’s independence. The governor and the DEC, critics say, now treat the APA as a junior agency; decisions are made at the top, then the APA is expected to sign off on them. As Gibson, of Adirondack Wild says, “The agency’s mission is not to write permits.”
Booth recalls that Cuomo would dictate what things could be included in environmental review documents.
“The governor’s office would weigh in on what could and couldn’t be discussed, in terms of the alternatives,” Booth says. “That is not consistent with my understanding of the law.”
Booth urged the board not to abandon the APA’s mandate in both an internal memo in 2013 and a public statement upon his departure in 2016. He was known for criticizing the governor’s interference, and when the Albany Times Union wrote a story about it, Booth says, he got a call from someone at another state agency who said the exact same things were happening there.
“I hope there is a day when he is not governor, and someone who recognizes the park as an environmental resource becomes governor,” he says.
“Here’s where I think the issue is,” says Horicon Town Supervisor Matthew Simpson. “I think that local government wants to protect the Adirondacks just as much as the environmentalists do. But what’s missing is where that intersects with people who are living here.”
And to Simpson, president of the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages, the most pressing issue in the day-to-day lives of Adirondack residents is how to get them better connected to information technology. Some local officials in the park have complained that the APA makes siting communications towers onerous.
“No one is calling for destruction of the wilderness and putting cell towers on Mount Marcy to solve this issue,” he says. “There are solutions out there, but we need everybody to work collaboratively toward these solutions.”
“There are still many areas that need broadband,” Simpson continues. “I have people on a daily basis who park here at the town hall and use our wi-fi to do their homework. How can that not be a big issue?”
And the fact that the park still does not have more extensive cell-phone coverage, Simpson says, is a major public-safety issue. “I can tell you many areas where if someone goes off the road, if they’re not seen, they won’t be found.”
On criticisms that the governor and DEC are deliberately diminishing the role of the Adirondack Park Agency, Simpson says, “I don’t know of anything that supports these assertions.”
And he questions why the Legislature snubbed the governor’s nominees for the board. “They weren’t scientists, they weren’t attorneys,” he says, “but they had strong backgrounds in their demonstrated ability to understand the Adirondacks.”
Then again, it’s no secret that the AATV supports weakening the influence of the APA. To John Sheehan, the historical tension between pro-development entities and the APA is precisely why the agency needs a stronger board to fulfill its legislative mandate.
“The statute is vague, and was intentionally written that way,” says Sheehan. “The park agency was the first regional land use authority in the United States to govern a multi-county region with a single land-use plan. As a result, the Legislature went soft on a few things, such as, the staff does not have a whole lot of authority to go out and enforce the rules and regulations.”
And the land-use code leaves key details of the conditions of the permit up to the board’s discretion, Sheehan says. “For example, (in 2014) the APA approved a 700-unit development on 6,000 acres in Tupper Lake without completing a wildlife study first. The board had the authority to require that all of the development be confined to a relatively compact area, but instead allowed the developers to spread it from edge to edge of the property”—which creates more forest fragmentation and is not good for wildlife.”
“A stronger board could have said, ‘You’re not getting your permit until we know where the most important wildlife habitat is,’ ” Sheehan says.
Others point to the classification of the recently acquired Essex Chain Lakes and Boreas Ponds tracts as further evidence of Cuomo’s grip on the APA board and the turn toward opening lands to motorized recreation over preserving wilderness.
“Both the Essex Chain classification decision and the Boreas Ponds classification decision were made by the DEC and then sent to the APA for approval,” says Peter Bauer.
And as Adirondack Wilderness Advocates notes on its website, the mandate to follow the directives of the State Land Master Plan is becoming increasingly optional: “In (the Essex Chain) case the SLMP was less of a guiding document and more of a legal obstacle that needed to be creatively interpreted.”
“We’ve tried to hold these agencies accountable,” says Bauer. But with the current APA doing the bidding of the governor and the DEC, “the courts are really the only remedy that we have.”
Sometimes, legal remedies pursued by groups like Protect the Adirondacks and Adirondack Wild do pay off. In June, a New York State Supreme Court judge issued a temporary restraining order to block construction of a snowmobile bridge over the scenic-designated Cedar River. And in July, an appellate court in Albany ruled that the DEC’s plans to clear 27 miles for Class II snowmobile trails violated the “forever wild” amendment to the state’s constitution.
“We’re hoping that these court cases—the injunction to stop the Cedar River Bridge and the lawsuit that struck down the constitutionality of building Class II snowmobile trails—start to put the brakes on,” says Bauer, “and cause the Cuomo administration to reflect on how they’re doing business in the Adirondacks.”