By Tim Rowland
For the third time in five months, APA Commissioner Art Lussi has received special permission from his fellow board members to modify his camp on a Lake Placid island, raising concerns of favoritism but also spotlighting the complexity in the agency’s variance process.
The three variances granted to Lussi—at the board’s meetings in June, July, and October—will allow him to add three decks to a historic camp on Buck Island. Otherwise, the decks would be deemed too big under APA regulations for additions to waterfront properties.
Such variances are not uncommon, and they are generally not controversial. And even some conservationists believe they require an inordinate amount of red tape.
In a recent memo to the agency, the Adirondack Council urged that the variance process be simplified in the name of public transparency and to prevent this type of kerfuffle in the future. APA board members say they are already working on doing just that.
At the June meeting, Lussi complained that “it was easier to build a Hampton Inn than it was to get through this variance process.”
But even if Lussi has a point, some of his colleagues on the board believe he went about making it in the wrong way.
Lussi, a ten-year member of the board, asked for permission last year to build two second-story sundecks on a century-old boathouse that through the years had been expanded into a vacation residence. As the variance process lurched along, Lussi became fed up and, after heated meetings with APA staff, refused to provide information that the staff said was crucial to its review.
Following a nine-month go-round, the staff voiced its implicit displeasure by making no recommendation regarding Lussi’s variance request. This is atypical.
In a memo to the board before the June meeting, staff members referred to Lussi’s “self-created problem” and noted that he built two second-story entryways for the new decks before the decks had been approved. Without the decks, the doors would open into thin air.The APA board did approve the decks in June, but the next month, Lussi sought another variance to beef up the supports for one of the decks. The board also approved this request. In August, Lussi asked for a third variance, this time to build a lake-level deck to cover up the heavy-duty supports, including two steel I-beams, which he described as a safety hazard. This was granted in October.
Lussi absented himself from the discussions leading up to the votes as well as the votes themselves. His colleagues voted unanimously to approve the first two variances. On the third variance, only Chad Dawson dissented.
Dawson had argued that the decks could be smaller, but after the meeting, he declined to elaborate, citing the complexity of the issue.
“My interest is in improving the process so it is more effective and more efficient,” he told the Explorer.
The staff had written to Lussi’s representatives to say it would have been preferable to review the entire project at once. A representative for Lussi agreed but blamed the vagaries of the construction process.
At the board’s June meeting, Lussi acknowledged that the situation “was very challenging for staff, and I appreciate and respect their professionalism.” But he also asserted that he would have been subjected to fewer regulations if he were building a new boathouse, with all its environmental impacts, than he was making modifications to an existing structure.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, criticized the board for undercutting the staff and failing to reprimand Lussi for refusing to comply with requests for information. He said Lussi and the board set a bad precedent for future applicants.
“You would have thought an agency commissioner would have bent over backwards” to comply with staff requests, Bauer said. “Now other people are going to expect the Lussi treatment.”
Sherman Craig, the board’s chairman, acknowledged that possibility and said he wished Lussi had handled things differently. However, Craig added that the Lussi case exposed the need for simplifying and streamlining the variance process. He also said an applicant should not be punished because he or she is a board member.
The Lussi family owns the Crowne Plaza hotel and golf resort in Lake Placid. Because the Buck Island camp is shady, the family wanted to add decks so people could get some sun. Staff members did not take issue with this rationale, but they believed the sundecks could be located within the camp’s existing footprint. When they asked for Lussi’s thoughts on the matter, they were rebuffed.
The staff’s memo in June stated: “The applicant has never responded to staff’s questions about the feasibility of Alternative A [which] makes it difficult for agency staff to conclude that this alternative is not feasible.” Questions about potential tree cutting also were not fully answered, according to the memo. It also noted that in August of last year, Lussi went ahead and built the gable doors to the decks, over staff objections that the decks had yet to be approved.
At the close of the June meeting (after the vote), Lussi told his colleagues that he was asked to supply information that had no bearing on the variance request, such as septic and rain-gutter flows. If the APA makes the variance process overly burdensome, he warned, people may conclude that it’s easier or cheaper to build a new structure rather than modify an old one.
“I sincerely thought [my case] could be an example … that variances don’t have to be arm-twisting processes,” he said.
Bauer conceded that there are problems with the process, but he said this does not give a commissioner the freedom to ignore rules he doesn’t like—or the board to look the other way when he does. “It certainly appears that the commissioners tolerated a poor process that benefits one of their own,” he said.