Agency staff says it has no jurisdiction over expansion of boat capacity
By Zachary Matson
Saranac Lake Marina can install dock covers over scores of boat slips on Lower Saranac Lake, the Adirondack Park Agency board ruled Thursday. The project has wound its way through the APA and courts for nearly a decade.
The approval allows multiple dock covers and replacement of a boat launch. It comes after the marina operator made a series of improvements at what had been a collection of deteriorating boathouses and other structures hugging the shoreline at the main marina site in Crescent Bay and an annex site in Ampersand Bay.
The board’s action Thursday approved a variance to the agency’s shoreline restrictions, allowing the marina owners to cover 134 boat slips at the main marina site. The agency also solidified agreements with the marina owners to implement wastewater management, erosion control and other practices to protect the environment. The variance prohibits the owners from replacing removed shoreline structures in the future and will require agency review of any future expansion of rental slips.
“It just seems like great improvements for the environment overall from what was there before,” board member Mark Hall said.
The approval follows an earlier agency permit that was annulled by the Appellate Division. The court ruled the agency failed to follow its own wetlands regulations.
The property has held a marina operation since 1924. In 2014, new owners took over doing business as LS Marina.
LS has expanded boat capacity from 219 to 291, according to its latest proposal. The owners removed numerous dilapidated structures in 2015 and replaced them with floating docks in 2021 and are in the second season offering rental slips on the new docks. While the new dock configuration is different from the preexisting marina, APA project specialist John Burth said the changes qualified as a replacement of preexisting structures because parts of the new dock overlapped with the original footprint.
Board member Art Lussi recused himself from the marina discussion because he owns a separate marina in Lake Placid, and board member Zoe Smith sat out because she is a customer of LS.
In an extended presentation on the project and its history, agency staff sought to clarify the APA’s jurisdiction and rebut criticism of the agency’s review. Since the marina is located in an area classified as hamlet, the agency had no authority to regulate LS’s expansion of overall boat capacity and business operations, Burth said.
So long as expansion does not implicate wetlands or shoreline restrictions, LS could have added as many new slips as desired without agency review, staff said.
“The agency has no authority to review the business’ overall expansion and other plans,” Burth said of the marina’s rights without the variance. “The marina can construct an unlimited number of dock slips without agency review.”
Burth also explained that the project no longer needed approval at the Ampersand Bay annex, because LS’s updated proposal removed docks in annex wetlands and limited the dock coverings in the annex to less square footage than preexisting coverings. The annex, which is located about a mile north and east of the main marina and separated by two dozen other parcels, contains high-value wetlands that were at subject in the annulled permit.
“We have no authority to approve or disapprove anything existing or proposed at the annex,” Burth said.
The variance approved around 49,000 square feet of dock coverings at the main marina, an increase of over 36,000 square feet compared to the preexisting coverage. At a June 5 hearing and in written statements, the majority of public commenters supported the proposal, including many customers who said recent improvements have made the marina safer, more usable and better for the environment.
Tom Jorling, a former state Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner and owner of property near the marina’s annex site, filed suit over the original permit. He has continued to fight against the APA’s handling of the matter. Jorling argued the project should still require a wetlands permit and that the new docks did not meet the standard of replacing preexisting structures in the same location. In a comment following the board’s approval, Jorling reiterated his concerns stating that the agency isn’t applying regulations to protect wetlands and conducting a carrying capacity study.
“After more careful review of the APA action, we will decide if a judicial challenge is appropriate,” Jorling said.
APA staff in recent days also moved to dismiss a new lawsuit that Jorling initiated last month seeking access to records of a March meeting between agency staff and LS representatives under the state Freedom of Information Law.
APA counsel Chris Cooper originally denied access to memos under an exemption for intra-agency communication. Jorling and his attorney Claudia Braymer sued to challenge that decision. But the APA released the brief staff memos as part of its response to public comments. The memos contained few details.
Ernst promises carrying capacity studies
Jorling and some Adirondack advocacy organizations have also argued the agency can’t approve the marina without first studying the carrying capacity of Lower Saranac Lake, suggesting the agency is failing to uphold its duty to protect public land and water.
The studies, which are called for in the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, are supposed to evaluate human use and ecological impacts on the park’s water resources. Agency staff said carrying capacity studies were not necessary to analyze the marina project and noted the court had agreed, even though the court rebuked the state rhetorically for failing to conduct the studies.
Chairman John Ernst in comments before the board took up the marina variance acknowledged the importance of moving carrying capacity studies forward and suggested state agencies were making progress doing so.
“I think everyone would like this to happen, and it will in due course,” Ernst said. “It will be done.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify the location of the marina annex site.
Sign up for the “Water Line” newsletter, with weekly updates about pollution, climate change and development’s impacts on the Adirondacks’ lakes, rivers and streams.