The state needs to do much more to protect shorelines, uplands, and the privately owned backcountry.
By Philip Terrie
In the Adirondacks, we often point with pride to the extraordinary oddness of the Adirondack Park. From Manhattan’s Central Park to California’s Yosemite, Americans have gotten used to parks with neat boundaries enclosing a domain wholly owned by the people. Because the land within the boundary is public and that outside private, when you walk or drive across that boundary, you’ve gone from one sort of place to another. You have certain expectations outside that boundary, which are different from those you have inside.
But as we like to say up here, the Adirondack Park is a park like no other. Aside from invoking this peculiarity as an interesting factoid, however, what do we do with it? What defines this Park? Is it something other than a collection of all the acres (almost 6 million of them, roughly half in the public Forest Preserve and half in private hands) inside a blue line on a map of New York State.
A little over forty years ago, the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks, charged by Governor Nelson Rockefeller to consider how the state might protect whatever it was that defined the Adirondack Park, pondered this very question. Like most people, the commissioners found that it was the region’s vast, largely undeveloped expanses of forested land that established the character, the identity, of the Park.
A term used at the time, with continuing utility, is “open space.” People from around the world came, and still come, to the Adirondacks because of our Park’s open space. New Yorkers from the Bronx to Buffalo were proud of those undeveloped forests and perceived them to be something special, a matter of statewide concern. But only custom and always unpredictable market forces stood between the Park’s privately owned open space and massive, uncontrolled, unplanned subdivision and development .
It was open space that defined the Adirondacks. And it was open space, with all the aesthetic and ecological implications of that freighted term, that the Study Commission wanted to protect. The point of a year’s series of articles in the Explorer, of which this is the last, has been to examine the Park’s privately owned open space—backcountry timberlands, shorelines, and wooded uplands—and ask whether it has in fact been protected and how its protections might be improved.
The commissioners believed that there was a way to both establish a clearer sense of regional identity and protect the forested character of the Park: this was the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency, with authority to regulate what could happen to those forests, both public and private. Up until that time the state’s attention had been toward the state-owned Forest Preserve, not the adjoining and often complexly intermixed private lands.
When the APA was created by the state legislature in 1971, the Park had existed for eighty years, and the new agency was expected to provide more sense of Park-ness than had obtained before. With it, people in Chateaugay and Old Forge would for the first time have something in common. For some it was a sense of a shared future in a newly defined park; for others it was hostility to regional zoning and land-use controls imposed by the state. Court challenges, hopes for a protected future, a Park-wide feeling of optimism interspersed with a sense of victimization—all gave the Adirondacks a regional identity it had never previously possessed.
In the years since, development has continued, regulated, if at all, by a plan that even in 1973, when it was approved by the state legislature and signed into law, reflected compromise and dilution of the conservation goals of its authors. In the rough and tumble of the legislative process, shoreline restrictions and density guidelines were weakened. The result was a plan that environmentalists had to accept as better than nothing, despite their fear that it would fail to adequately address potential threats to the scenic and ecological integrity of the Park.
Within a decade, it was clear that hopes for a permanent fix had not been realized. Because of the way the land-use plan had been written, most of the new construction in the Park was not even subject to APA jurisdiction. In 1989, Governor Mario Cuomo invited Peter Berle, former commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation and, at the time, the president of the National Audubon Society, to chair a special commission to study the Park and prepare a comprehensive list of recommendations for how the land-use plan might be improved.
In April 1990, the Berle commission submitted a report, recommending sweeping changes needed to address the possibility “of unbridled land speculation and unwarranted development that may threaten the unique open space and wilderness character of the region.” The proposals sparked a storm of controversy and none of them were enacted. As current APA board member Richard Booth, recalling this failure of will, observes, “Land issues are the third rail of state politics: no one wants to touch it.”
The problems with the Park Agency law that the Berle commission hoped to address have been outlined efficiently and depressingly in forty years of journalism and scholarship. We know, for example, that the shores of Adirondack lakes and rivers have been relentlessly devoured since the creation of the APA. Formerly natural shorelines are now lined with houses and septic systems.
In the Adirondacks most of the development that environmentalists care about—that is, construction outside the hamlets and villages—almost inevitably requires on-site sewage disposal, involving a septic tank and a drainage field. New York law governing such arrangements is among the weakest in the nation, and water quality has deteriorated. Replacing natural vegetation with lawns adds to water problems. On Lake George, for example, waters once world famous for their crystalline clarity are now showing the impact of runoff from fertilized lawns and inadequate sewage disposal. And nothing in the law says that the Park Agency should consider such deterioration of water quality when assessing applications for further development. If a lot exists, it probably will be built on, even when there are too many houses on the lake already.
With developable shorelines disappearing, new houses are popping up on hillsides and ridges. If you drive around Keene Valley, Lake Placid, or Lake George—almost anywhere where high ground can provide a view—and look up, you’ll likely see opulent palaces of ostentation where a generation ago you would have seen only trees. At night, the conspicuous lights from these homes detract from the dark sky. And the scenic implications are just part of the story: there are also problems with erosion and storm-water runoff, both from the structures themselves and from the steep access roads.
The two classifications of private land with the tightest restrictions, Resource Management (RM) and Rural Use (RU), were the focus of conflict right from the start. They constitute the vast backcountry of the Park, forested expanses whose roadless, undeveloped, open-space character has always defined the Park’s fundamental essence. Divide these lands, lay out roads, clear vegetation, build houses—however far apart—and you’ve forfeited forever what makes the Adirondack Park a special place.
Thankfully, much of this land remains undeveloped. But various studies—and simple observation—tell us that houses are being built, slowly perhaps, but built nonetheless. What’s truly amazing about it is that no one knows how many houses have been constructed in the backcountry since the APA’s land-use plan was adopted. Given that building has occurred in all of the Park’s 102 towns and villages over the past forty years, however, it’s evident that the Park is a very different place today from what it was in 1973.
One estimate tells us that about seven thousand new units have been erected in the backcountry since 1973. Is that too many? That depends on whether you’re a town supervisor worried about your tax base or an environmentalist concerned with wildlife habitat and the open-space character of the Park. You may think one house is no big deal, but it is actually one of many. We don’t know the cumulative impact of this development, and the land-use plan is not designed to stop it.
At the very least, if we are to do a reasonable job of protecting what remains of the wild character of the Park, we need to know what has been built and where. And we need to know the condition of undeveloped lands remaining in private ownership. In assessing the status of undeveloped RM and RU lands, moreover, the APA needs to consider a category of land that did not exist—at least not in significant acreage—in 1973. These are the conservation-easement lands. The state now owns easements on roughly eight hundred thousand acres. That means that although the lands and forests remain in private hands and although, in most cases, logging operations continue, the development rights have been extinguished.
This is a huge achievement, but the state needs to do a better job monitoring these lands to make sure they’re managed properly.
Any assessment of RM and RU lands should deal with specifics. Who owns the land? What is its condition? Which parcels are most in need of protection? The APA can use this information to determine what development is permissible and where it should be allowed to occur. Advances in geographic information systems (GIS) and ecological knowledge make this a much-easier task than it would have been in the 1970s.
A recent study by the Wildlife Conservation Society showed that new housing in the backcountry, even if scattered, disrupts the populations of certain species of birds. Species less able to tolerate man-made structures, activities, and pets are less likely to be found within two hundred meters of houses, while species that appear to adapt well to an altered environment show up more frequently. This means fewer wilderness species like black-throated blue warblers and more adaptive species like northern cardinals. The obvious conclusion is that the Park Agency needs greater authority for requiring developers to cluster houses when building in the backcountry, rather than spreading them out on large lots.
Environmental activist Peter Bauer suggests that we also need—in addition to a thorough assessment of open-space lands—a sharp focus on water quality. How has shoreline and ridgeline development affected lakes and streams? What can be done to address the growing problems of unmonitored sewage disposal and runoff from lawns, roofs, and roads? Why are New York laws dealing with on-site sewage disposal so weak? In many jurisdictions around the country, when a property changes hands—through gift, sale, or inheritance—local law mandates an inspection of any septic system by a licensed engineer and amelioration, if necessary. Why is this not the case throughout the Adirondacks?
Behind all discussions of the Adirondack Park Agency’s regulatory powers—weak or tyrannical, depending on your politics—rests the contentious issue of what development really means for a rural economy.
The hot item on the stove right now, of course, is the Adirondack Club and Resort proposed for Tupper Lake—approved by the APA last year after many years of heated debate. (The preservation group Protect the Adirondacks and adjacent landowners have sued to stop it.) Will such a development help to solve the undisputed economic woes of Tupper Lake? Will other ambitious projects, which seem inevitable once such a precedent is established, help other communities escape the economic doldrums so devastating throughout rural America? If so, we’re faced with a stark choice—between protecting open space or improving the economic circumstances of deserving people in towns like Tupper Lake.
But what if that’s a false dichotomy? What if these massive developments won’t deliver as promised? It’s impossible to predict the future, of course, but everyone pondering these issues in the Adirondacks can learn from the experience of other places facing similar challenges.
Hal Rothman’s Devil’s Bargains (1998), for example, should be required reading for every politician and development booster in the Adirondacks. It recounts a dreary pattern in Colorado towns where rapid development of resort communities repeatedly led to a host of predictable problems: environmental degradation, labor strife between ski-slope owners and their low-paid employees, rents so high in ski towns that year-round residents are pushed farther and farther away from where they work, endless contention pitting one faction of a town against another (something already familiar to Tupper Lake), the loss of historical identity, the subjection of an entire town to the whims of a single, autocratic developer, resentments harbored by older residents against newly arrived outsiders. In Vail, Colorado, which Rothman studied closely, the “quality of life was exceptional for second-home residents and visitors, but life as an employee became progressively less desirable.”
As Blake Harrison points out in his excellent The View from Vermont: Tourism and the Making of an American Rural Landscape (2006), when a rural landscape turns to serving the needs of people from outside the area, whether via a second-home culture or through ski resorts, everything about a once-stable town changes. Taxes go up—not down, as boosters relentlessly predict—as infrastructure demands multiply. The nature of work may change, but the overall standard of living does not. Rural economic realities persist, while the old town is gone. In Vermont, around rapidly developed ski resorts, “public officials and citizens complained of rising rates of crime, violence and alcohol abuse.” Resort economies exacerbate seasonal employment cycles and low wages and demand a labor force that is “part-time, unskilled, and poorly paid.” For every year-round resident in Vermont who sees the new economy as a blessing, there’s another who sees it “as a cursing and a blight on the state.”
But we know that further development will happen here, and it should be clear by now that the Park Agency law is not up to dealing with it appropriately. Behind much of the criticism of the Land Use and Development Plan, concerning its failure to provide adequate safeguards for open space, lies one overarching theme: the plan does not (how could it?) address the specific realities of each parcel of land, large or small. Of course, the idea that development should be appropriate for the land where it occurs is implied in any zoning plan; it’s in the very spirit of zoning. But it must be spelled out in precise, unambiguous terms, and the Park Agency must be given the explicit authority to enforce it. This is the concept of “conservation development.”
Conservation development is a simple idea, and it’s already here, although not sufficiently deployed. Conservation development means accepting that development will occur but then making sure it’s done right. In the Adirondacks, this means better protections for shorelines and higher-elevation sites, clustering of houses in the backcountry, maintaining and restoring water quality, and preserving wildlife habitat and travel corridors. These considerations can be applied to the remaining developable Adirondack lands. It’s only a matter of will. ■
“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; Jane Bickford; and Larry Master.