By Gwendolyn Craig
The Town of Lake Luzerne’s request to weaken Adirondack Park Agency zoning restrictions on about 104 acres is moving forward and could be before the APA board in January.
The town wants to amend the Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Map to allow for more development in the area of Hidden Valley Road near Lake Vanare.
A public hearing in May and over two dozen written comments show most people lean against the proposal, with some questioning the process and intentions of town officials. Several residents wrote in favor of the change, citing a declining population as reason to increase development. Adirondack Explorer received the public comments submitted to APA for the amendment through a freedom of information law request.
Overall, the town wants the APA to change the acreage from rural use to moderate use. The town, in its application documents, said it “would benefit economically if the map were to be amended.”
Town officials started working on the map amendment request in the fall of 2019. Lake Luzerne Supervisor Eugene Merlino had told Adirondack Explorer earlier this year that one of the property owners in the area of Hidden Valley Road wanted to build one or more houses. He couldn’t, however, under the current APA zoning. Merlino had declined to name the property owner.
The change from rural use to moderate intensity use skips over the zoning level of low intensity use. Moderate intensity use allows for up to 500 principal buildings per square mile, while rural use allow for up to 75 principal buildings per square mile.
At a public hearing in May about the amendment and in written comments, some people questioned whether the town was promoting spot zoning. Environmental nonprofits said it was unusual for a map amendment request to be made on such a small parcel and without a comprehensive plan for the entire town.
In reviewing the public comments, Adirondack Explorer found that Thomas Reed, one of the property owners within the 104 acres proposed for reclassification, was prominently in favor of making the change. Reed had submitted a few letters to the APA, including one describing a meeting with Merlino and the town’s zoning enforcement officer, about the process for a map amendment. Reed purchased around 9 acres in July 2019, deed records show.
Speculation is also circulating among Lake Luzerne residents for what could be proposed on some of the 104 acres. Comments suggest a landowner is looking to build an 80-unit housing development with access from Hall Hill Road.
Reached by phone, Reed declined to say whether he was the individual Merlino had said wanted to build houses on his lot.
“I want to see what can be done there and the park agency has to make a ruling,” Reed said. “Once the park agency makes a ruling, then we will take something to the town and park agency and see if it’s realistic, but right now, there is no plan.”
Merlino did not return Adirondack Explorer’s voicemail requesting comment.
Reed highlighted for the Explorer over the phone why he thought the map amendment should be made. There is already commercial development in the area, and it seems to just end, he said. There is a campground, residence, a former restaurant and a water tubing business already there.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” Reed said, about the APA’s land use and development map. “There are some things we could do with the land. I don’t know if you follow Lake Luzerne at all, but the community really needs some help.”
Reed pointed to a shrinking graduating class at Hadley Luzerne schools and a shrinking population in the North Country. He said the town needs to do something inland to keep people.
In his written comments to the APA, Reed said he thought both sides of Hidden Valley Road should be zoned the same. Reed had also researched the former uses on some of the land in question, finding more mixed development there prior to the APA’s creation. There was a dude ranch, for example, on some of the property. Reed suggested that when the APA was created and made its land use map, that it “did sort of reverse spot zoning.”
Additional support for map change
Several area business owners agreed with Reed’s sentiments.
Eric Hamell, owner of Tubby Tubes, said he was in favor of the map change.
Francis Hurley, owner of the former Silver Dollar Restaurant and Bar, said he, too, is in favor. The current zoning, Hurley said, “only discourages economic development in an area that justifies it.”
The CEO of Double H Ranch, a camp for children with special needs, said he was in favor, too, of the map change. Max Yurenda’s public comment highlighted all the businesses he drives by in the area to get to work.
“These are our neighbors,” Yurenda said. “Many people in our community work and volunteer here at the Double H Ranch as we make the lives of children with life-threatening illnesses a bit brighter. Eric Hamell, of Tubby Tubes and Tom Reed are just two of our neighbors who help us out. That’s what neighbors do.”
Yurenda ended that “it only makes sense to include them as equal within our community,” referring to their zoning.
But about two dozen residents, who wrote in to the APA, do not want the zoning change.
One, Jane Eddy, said she did not trust town officials, adding that she “will continue to fight his (Merlino’s) desire to morph our tiny, nature-friendly town into something it is not.”
Another, Danielle Meyer, suggested the town was trying to become a mini Lake George.
Environmental nonprofits, who submitted comments, said they don’t believe it is legal either, based on the APA’s regulations.
Protect the Adirondacks, the Adirondack Council and Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, all submitted comments against a reclassification. They all questioned the town’s reasoning for such a request.
“Map amendments should fit within a larger comprehensive planning effort that considers and addresses community needs,” wrote Rocci Aguirre, deputy director of the Adirondack Council. “Of its 25,000 acres, the town of Lake Luzerne is looking to reclassify only 0.4% of its total land area through this map amendment, which will benefit only a small amount of property owners in the town.”
The town did not provide any analysis of natural resources in the area, said Peter Bauer of Protect the Adirondacks. It did not address in its application, either, how the area has no public water or sewer, and some worried what water-quality impacts there could be to Lake Vanare and to wetlands and streams on the property. The town did provide in its application soil information and maps of nearby infrastructure and services, wetlands, topography and flood zones.
“The lack of town planning is a serious problem,” said Dave Gibson, of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve. “The town is asking APA to do little more than react on an ad hoc basis, to proposals which may have a much larger regional planning context and impact.”
All three organizations said the proposal did not pass a nine-point test the APA has in place for these map amendments, too.
Those nine considerations the APA board must review include:
- Soil type;
- Fragile ecosystem;
- Park character;
- Public facility; and
- Existing land use.
At December’s APA meeting, Rick Weber, APA’s deputy director of programs, said the public comment period had concluded on the Lake Luzerne proposal. APA is working through responses to the comments with the town “in preparation for bringing (the amendment) forward to the agency.”
The APA’s meeting agenda for January had not been posted as of Dec. 21.