Environmentalists say the APA needs to update its regulations to incorporate “smart growth” principles.
By Kim Martineau
As the proposed Adirondack Club & Resort in Tupper Lake wound its way through the approval process, two planning consultants separately recommended in 2008 that the Adirondack Park Agency require clustering of homes in the backcountry. Under a draft clustering policy written by one consultant, the resort’s “Great Camp” estates would have consumed 280 acres of forest instead of 2,800 acres.
“The same number of homes could have been constructed, but the project would have been largely concentrated near the [Big Tupper] ski area,” said Jeff Lacy, a consultant in Shutesbury, Mass., who proposed the policy on behalf of the Adirondack Council. “My guess is it would be under construction today rather than under review by a court.”
Forty years after the APA drafted land-use rules to control private development in the Adirondacks, environmentalists say the rules have not done enough to protect the Park’s shorelines, forests, and hillsides from inappropriate development. They are calling for changes in how projects are designed and, more broadly, in how lands are managed across the landscape. Under modern conservation principles, they contend, development and protection of the region’s wild character can go hand in hand.
“Everyone gets massively upset by something like Tupper,” said Mark Lapping, a planning professor at the University of Maine who has studied the Park extensively. “But what comes under the radar may be more significant: the lot-by-lot transformation of the region. A cottage here, a cottage there, decisions made by a thousand different people lead to death by a thousand cuts.”
The Adirondack Land Use and Development Plan was considered leading edge when it was adopted in 1973. It was among the first land-use plans in the country to divide the landscape into ecological zones as a basis for deciding how intensively those lands could be developed. But it was not as strong as some had hoped: in a series of political compromises, key protections were watered down. Zoning that encouraged dense construction on shorelines has led to declines in water quality and scenic views. Meanwhile, a failure to require clustered housing in the backcountry has allowed wildlife habitat to be carved up by roads, driveways, and lawns. One of the plan’s overarching goals was to preserve working farms and forests, but in forty years, vacation homes continue to sprout up on relatively pristine land while many of the Park’s historic hamlets continue to fade and lose population.
The land-use rules placed minimal restrictions in and around the hamlets, with the aim of steering growth to where schools, sidewalks, and services already existed. The rules placed the greatest restrictions on farm fields and timberlands by imposing large-lot zoning—an average of one house per 8.5 acres on lands zoned Rural Use and one per 43 acres on lands zoned Resource Management. But the lack of clear clustering guidelines has resulted in homes widely dispersed on the landscape rather than grouped on smaller lots to preserve more land in its natural state.
Randall Arendt, a nationally recognized planner in Brunswick, Maine, singled out the APA’s vague clustering provision as a major flaw in its land-use plan. In a presentation and subsequent memo in 2008, Arendt recommended that the APA adopt mandatory clustering to preserve the Park’s natural features and wildlife habitat. He also recommended that the agency require a special permit for subdivisions that lack open-space protections to discourage what he called “large-lot sprawl.”
“What does a person need a forty-acre backyard for in the Adirondacks?” he said in a recent interview.
A prominent advocate of “smart growth” (compact development that encourages land conservation, walkable communities, and reuse of old buildings), Arendt formulated his ideas while working in Britain. There, national planning rules passed after World War II have preserved a hard edge between town and countryside.
In his 1996 smart-growth bible, Conservation Design for Subdivisions, Arendt recommends preserving at least half of all buildable land on a parcel as open space. Important natural and historical features are set aside first; only afterward are houses and roads fit into the design.
These ideas were echoed in a 2008 draft clustering policy by Lacy, a freelance consultant whose day job is with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. Under Lacy’s policy, at least 90 percent of Resource Management lands would be preserved as open space, with houses placed on lots of 4.2 acres or less. Mandatory clustering would ensure that logging remain the “primary” use of RM lands as outlined in APA regulations, he said.
Though uncommon in the Adirondacks, conservation design can reduce site-development costs by a third, since roads and utility lines are typically shorter. It also can boost home values by providing walking trails and other shared amenities. In a 1991 study of housing trends in Amherst, Massachusetts, Lacy found that conservation-subdivision homes appreciated 2.5 percentage points more over a twenty-year period than homes on lots twice as large. Research also suggests that wildlife may face less disruption. In a 1997 study led by Colorado State University scientist David Theobald, researchers found that four times as many homes could be built and yet cause less disturbance to wildlife if they were clustered instead of spaced far apart.
Outside the Adirondacks, conservation development has helped save a considerable amount of open space. Nationally, 8.5 million acres of private land have been protected this way, according to a 2011 study led by Cornell University researcher Jeffrey Milder. In York, Maine, the local land trust works with the planning board to decide what lands to protect in a conservation-subdivision proposal. In New York, the Hudson Valley towns of Goshen and Gardiner require developers building in sensitive areas to leave, respectively, at least 50 percent or 80 percent of the land as open space.
Clustering and open-space preservation are now also mandatory in parts of the pine barrens of southern New Jersey. “It gives the towns and the Pinelands Commission discretion to say what development should look like,” said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
The downside is that clustering is not always an option in slow-growth regions, such as the Adirondacks, where developers are less likely to build multi-home subdivisions. In the Adirondacks, it’s cheaper and quicker to sell off houses along existing roads, one at a time, said Richard Lamb, a planning professor at the State University College at Plattsburgh.
Nonetheless, a few developers have implemented conservation-design principles. In Johnsburg, the 680-acre Oven Mountain subdivision was designed for sixty-three homes, leaving 83 percent of the land in open space, including Oven Mountain and Oven Mountain Pond. In Long Lake, the Brandreth Park Association—comprised largely of descendants of Benjamin Brandreth—set aside 95 percent of its 8,700-acre property as open space. Forty homes are clustered near the north end of Brandreth Lake, and the association has the right to build eighty more over several decades. “People didn’t want to peer outside and see houses all around the lake,” said Rick Findlay, a retired architect who lives near Boston and married into the family.
Spaced 150 feet apart, the homes may seem close to non-family members. But even a one-acre lot in the Adirondacks can feel secluded, said Arendt. “It’s difficult to sell people on small lots in the western states because of the wide-open spaces, but in the Adirondacks, you have a lot of trees and varied terrain to maintain privacy,” he said.
In his book, Arendt recommends that lakes, streams, and uplands be kept undeveloped, but the desire to build in such scenic locales often overrides preservation concerns. In the Adirondacks, environmentalists have criticized the APA for not requiring houses to be grouped farther away from sensitive shorelines.
The developer of Stickney Point on Union Falls Pond north of Saranac Lake will keep half of his three-hundred-acre property wild, but all eighteen homes will sit on relatively narrow lots, ranging from three acres to twenty acres, extending to the water. The APA approved the project in 2006. In an unsuccessful lawsuit against the developer, environmental groups argued that the houses should have been clustered to better protect the shoreline.
That same year, some environmentalists also objected to the Adirondack League Club’s plan to build twenty-five homes along remote Woodhull Lake west of Old Forge. Though 83 percent of the 1,200-acre property will be kept as open space, most of the houses will be built on relatively narrow parcels strung out along the shoreline. Some two dozen people asked the APA for a public hearing to discuss their concerns, but the request was denied.
Dan Plumley, one of the founders of Adirondack Wild, believes that greater public input early on would have led to better site plans at Stickney Point and Woodhull Lake as well as the Adirondack Club and Resort lands in Tupper Lake. “We feel the agency should have a tool for early scoping that brings the public in before developers set their plans in stone,” he said.
Randall Arendt agrees. In his review of the APA land-use plan, he recommended a greater role for the public early in the project design phase. Under what he calls an expanded “sketch plan” process, developers would meet with interested parties before drawing up engineering plans in an attempt to address concerns and forestall later objections.
APA spokesman Keith McKeever defended the agency’s clustering policy and review process. He credited the agency with ensuring that “the vast majority” of subdivisions preserve open space.
Protecting the Backcountry
The APA Act was meant to save the Park from vacation-home overload, but as homes kept going up, environmentalists persuaded Governor Mario Cuomo to appoint the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century to look at tightening the rules. In an extensive 1990 report, the Cuomo commission suggested more stringent zoning to limit backcountry growth.
Under the panel’s proposal, a developer of Rural Use or Resource Management land would be allowed to build, on average, only one home for every two thousand acres, slashing the number of potential homes in the privately owned backcountry from 156,000 to 15,000. Taking into account the fourteen thousand homes already built at that time, total backcountry development would have been capped at twenty-nine thousand homes. In exchange for their lost development rights, property owners would receive transferable development rights, or TDRs, that could be sold to the state or to property owners in areas with less-restrictive zoning.
Cuomo rejected the idea with the rest of the report. But in the last two decades, the state has gone a long way toward preserving the backcountry. Nearly a million acres of timberlands have been saved, mostly through conservation easements. It is unclear how many building rights have been extinguished and how many are left as the APA does not track growth in the Park. But the easements have preserved working forests while opening up new land for hiking and hunting.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said this track record shows that easements are the best way to save what’s left of the privately owned backcountry. “Going forward, that’s the most viable strategy,” he said.
The APA Act was designed to steer growth to the hamlets, but today nine out of ten homes are built outside settled areas—on lakeshores, country roads, and in formerly roadless forest. “You can incentivize clustering, but there’s no magical way to force people into the hamlets if they want lakeshores and remote settings,” said Michael DiNunzio, a retired conservation ecologist in Plattsburgh. “You need culture, services, jobs to draw people into the hamlets.”
A logging and mining economy put communities like Port Henry and Tupper Lake on the map in the 1800s. Today, the Park’s busiest hamlets—Lake Placid, Old Forge, Lake George—are defined by tourism, with restaurants, hotels, public beaches, theaters, and other amenities to draw visitors. The land-use plan’s fatal flaw was its lack of an economic-development plan to make depressed regions vibrant again, said Mark Lapping, the Maine professor. An economic vision, he added, might have helped the state achieve more of its environmental goals.
“It was entirely necessary to be aggressive in protecting this unique environment, but they forgot to recognize that 130,000 people live in the Park, and they have rights too,” Lapping said. “I’m not just talking about land rights, but the right to a future of potential and promise.”
In an attempt to fix this oversight, the Cuomo commission proposed a community-benefit corporation that would revitalize the hamlets by building water and sewer systems, affordable housing, and community facilities. A tax on luxury-home sales would fund the improvements. More recently, the Adirondack Council and others have advocated for incentives to bring new development to the hamlets. If anything, the current tax structure may scare away newcomers.
“I often see real-estate listings that say, ‘Just outside the village, no extra taxes,’” said Leslie Karasin, community-planning coordinator at the Wildlife Conservation Society in Saranac Lake. “The big annual hit of property taxes can outweigh the incremental costs of having to fill up the gas tank more,” she said.
The APA says that it favors transferrable development rights as a way to steer more growth toward the hamlets and that it supports state programs that have allowed hamlets to invest in growth-enabling infrastructure. On balance, the agency contends that its land-use rules have adequately controlled sprawl and preserved a hard edge between town and countryside. “When driving through the Adirondacks there are very distinguishable edges that mark hamlet boundaries,” said McKeever, the APA spokesman.
Saving the Lakes
The APA Act’s great compromise resulted in weakened protections along the shorelines. Today, many lakes are ringed by camps, boathouses, docks, and lawns rather than woods, detracting from the scenery and threatening water quality. What little undeveloped waterfront is left may be too expensive for the state to buy.
So what else might be done?
Environmental groups are virtually unanimous in wanting the APA Act amended to tighten shoreline regulations, with larger buffers placed around streams and lakes and stricter enforcement of septic-system regulations. “We need Governor Cuomo to take leadership and with the APA and DEC pass comprehensive legislation to protect Adirondack Park lakes,” said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club.
On Lake George, developers are now limited in how many trees and bushes they can clear, a policy designed to check the flow of undesirable nutrients and sediment into the lake. But the results have been mixed. Homes that predate the tougher rules are exempt, and towns don’t always enforce the law properly, said Lake George Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky.
Environmentalists recommend better enforcement and closing loopholes for older homes. “If you’re upgrading your home you should be required to bring it up to modern codes,” Navitsky said. “That way we can mitigate the areas where homes are too close to the shoreline.”
In 2008, the Lake George Park Commission proposed a wide buffer on streams feeding Lake George, but the measure died in Albany. “Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to dredge deltas out of the lake, we should stop the sediment before it gets there,” said Navitsky.
Regions focused on protecting drinking-water quality have developed rigorous scientific standards to control watershed development. In the New Jersey Highlands, which supplies drinking water to half the state, water-quality measurements and a detailed understanding of the landscape’s carrying capacity are central to the planning process. The Highlands Council’s Regional Master Plan requires clustering in sensitive areas, with up to 90 percent of land left as open space. The plan also sharply limits how much land can be paved over and built upon and places a three-hundred-foot buffer around lakes and streams.
On Lake Tahoe, which straddles Nevada and California, stringent controls for new development were passed after the lake began losing its fabled clarity in the 1960s. In a two-stage process, lands around the lake were mapped according to their relative fragility. Stringent controls were placed on lands deemed least suitable for development: steep slopes and wetlands. In the 1970s, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency established water-clarity and environmental standards that remain the basis for development decisions. The standards included limits on nutrients associated with sewage and storm-water runoff. “We haven’t turned the corner, but the rate of diminished clarity is slowing,” said Robert Twiss, an environmental planning professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
In Tahoe of the 1960s, as in the Adirondacks of today, no one knew precisely how much growth was taking place. Twiss assigned his students to study the tax maps. By counting individual parcels they discovered that at least nineteen thousand vacant lots had been approved. It was an astonishing number that spurred the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency to curtail growth. “That’s a story that needs to be told—how much growth is still in the pipeline,” said Twiss. “You can’t sit back and wait for the agencies to do this.”
The APA’s apparent lack of long-term planning is a sore point for environmentalists. It was also flagged by Arendt in his review. He recommended that the APA, not DEC, administer the state’s open-space plan for the Adirondacks. Ideally, one agency should oversee development regulations and open-space preservation for consistency, he said. “You need to know what you’ve got, what you’ll miss in ten years if it’s gone,” he said.
Robust Planning from the Towns
Adirondack towns make most of the land-use decisions in the Park, approving nearly 60 percent of new projects, according to a 2001 study by the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks. Yet, more than 80 percent are still without APA-approved land-use plans. When views are at stake and the APA has oversight, the agency can ensure that houses are set back from the road and water, earth tones and non-reflective building materials are used, outdoor lights face down to protect the Park’s dark skies for stargazing, and septic systems are properly sited. But many towns lack the will or expertise to impose similar restrictions, creating a piecemeal effect on the landscape.
Environmentalists have long called for education, training, and financial incentives to persuade towns to develop master plans. “Once you start losing water quality it’s difficult to get back,” said Navitsky. “You need to show people how losing shorelines to algae blooms will hurt property values.”
One bright note: some towns without APA-approved land-use plans have nonetheless adopted rigorous development controls. In drafting its 2003 master plan, Inlet decided to bypass the APA’s “bureaucratic” language but in recent years has developed progressive subdivision and septic-system rules. “If we want the town to maintain its character we need to actively work at that,” said David Scranton, a photographer and former planning board chairman.
There is room for significantly more development if it occurs in the right places, environmentalists say. “I can’t imagine a future in which people don’t want to have a home in the Adirondacks,” said Michale Glennon, a biologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Do we have a right to say, ‘We can live here, but you can’t? I worry more about the location of where things go rather than density.” ■
“Assessing the APA” is made possible in part by: The Butler Conservation Fund; Furthermore, a program of the J.M Kaplan Fund; The Norcross Wildlife Foundation; and Jane Bickford.