Hundreds write against Adirondack Park Agency’s public comment, policy proposals
By Gwendolyn Craig
The Adirondack Park Agency’s proposals to limit public comment and shorten its own time clock for reviewing draft policies drew more than 500 unsupportive comments, including a joint letter from four past agency leaders opposing the changes.
“The limits in the policy proposal read like public comments are a bother to be pushed off to a time when people have one foot out the door or are otherwise beginning to think of the next event,” the former APA chairs wrote.
The Adirondack Explorer reviewed 654 pages of comments received from Freedom of Information Law requests and found one in support. Some commenters agreed with portions of the changes, but most – from residents, to local government groups, to environmental groups – were alarmed by the overall reduction in public participation.
The board will likely discuss the policy changes at its monthly meeting in May, said spokesman Keith McKeever. It will be at the discretion of the board whether to vote on the changes then or defer a month, he said.
The APA is charged with long-range planning for the 6-million-acre park and oversees public and private development. Its board is made up of appointments by the governor and approved by the state Senate. Commissioners meet monthly in Ray Brook, just outside of Lake Placid. Meetings, which typically last one day or two, include a public comment period at the start and end of the agenda. The Explorer has spoken with commenters at these meetings, some who have driven over two hours from western parts of the park, or from outside the park in Albany.
In March, APA Counsel Chris Cooper suggested changes he said would streamline meetings and keep the public from introducing ex parte issues prior to votes. The proposals included:
- Eliminating public comment at the beginning of monthly board meetings;
- Designating a public comment period at the end of meetings;
- Shortening the time constituents may send public comments on monthly board meeting material to the board and staff;
- Eliminating public comment periods for unit management plans about their conformance to the APA’s rules and regulations;
- Eliminating a requirement for the board to hold three meetings before approving a new policy;
- Eliminating a requirement to network with constituents in the process of developing a policy and replacing it with establishing “an understanding of the interests” of constituents affected.
Cooper originally proposed commissioners vote on the policies without sending them to public comment. After some confusion and debate among commissioners about the policies, the board voted to schedule a public comment period, which ended April 21.
Feedback from former commissioners
Among the commenters were several past APA staff and commissioners. Former APA commissioner and counsel Jim Townsend, former APA chairwoman Lani Ulrich and former APA chairmen Dick Lefebvre and Ross Whaley wrote a joint letter addressed to “friends.” They reminded Cooper and APA commissioners of the public distrust when the agency was first created and the importance of comments.
“Keeping the door open through public comment provides the public ways to let off steam and the knowledge that they will be heard face-to-face,” they wrote.
Ulrich, Lefebvre, Townsend and Whaley added that the process of three readings for a policy before adoption also had its benefits.
“Treating policy as something that can be changed with less consideration may leave the public with a sense that the change is being done on a whim,” they wrote.
Barbara Rottier, retired deputy counsel of the APA, took issue with the agency’s elimination of requiring staff to network with those affected by draft policies. She wrote that the move “deliberately and effectively undermines the public’s opportunity to participate.” She felt the same about eliminating the three-meeting review for new policies.
“Considering Governor (Kathy) Hochul’s strong emphasis on ‘transparency’ and ‘open government,’ these amendments … are surprising and certainly not conducive to her goals or the goal of open government,” Rottier wrote.
Rottier did not feel a public comment period at the end of meetings was sufficient, arguing that the start of an agency meeting is a fixed and advertised time and “much easier for any member of the public to plan to speak.” Many commenters echoed this. The agency’s meetings do not end on a regularly scheduled time.
Elizabeth Thorndike, a former APA commissioner, wrote that public comment opportunities are already limited and should not be further reduced, but rather enhanced.
The change in unit management plan feedback also alarmed Rottier and environmental organizations. Unit management plans, often called UMPs, include the natural and physical resources of a certain area in the park, along with proposed projects that the state Department of Environmental Conservation intends to accomplish. The DEC creates and administers the plans, but the APA is charged with ensuring they comply with the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, the APA’s leading policy document.
David Gibson, managing partner of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, said the APA never provided a reason for striking that public comment opportunity.
“That in and of itself is confusing and concerning,” he wrote. “Striking all reference to such guidance is unhelpful to your own Agency staff.”
Jackie Bowen, director of conservation for the Adirondack Council, and Jess Grant, conservation associate, pointed to the number of lawsuits against the agency of late. Last month, the APA lost two court cases in two days.
“In light of recent legal proceedings, assessing and improving the public comment process with public feedback is warranted at this time,” Bowen wrote.
Jerry Delaney, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, wrote that his members did not think the public comment policy should be revised.
Mark Bohne, a Broadalbin resident, was passionate in his letter to the APA, upset about the state’s plans to close the only public beach at the southern end of Great Sacandaga Lake. Bohne was astounded by what he felt was a lack of public outreach on the DEC and APA’s proposal. He advertised in the local paper to inform residents their beach may soon be closed.
“Let’s face it, the best friend of a bad politician is the silence of the constituency, and the best way to ensure that silence is to act in secret,” Bohne wrote. “From what I have observed, neither the DEC or the APA want any public comment from the communities you persecute.”
Hundreds of others submitted signed form letters through the Adirondack Council and Protect the Adirondacks.
One letter in support came from the founder of Lean2Rescue, Paul DeLucia. Lean2Rescue is a volunteer organization that preserves the park’s log lean-tos.
“I’ve seen too often, special interest groups using the process to distract from the substances in the pursuit to bog down good initiatives,” DeLucia wrote. “The new policy clearly leaves all of the check and balance mechanisms fully intact (very important to me), while being only more focused on the substance through less opportunity for stonewalling through unnecessary redundancy.”