Former administrators call for greater consideration of alternative sites
By Gwendolyn Craig
Richard Lefebvre remembers the long-ago day a vandal dumped a truckload of manure at the front door of the Adirondack Park Agency’s Ray Brook offices. Charged with upholding some of the strictest zoning codes in the United States, the APA “was not regarded as a kind agency,” Lefebvre said.
In his time as a board member, chairman and later executive director of the agency that oversees public and private development in the 6-million-acre park, transparency was Lefebvre’s goal.
He conducted more than two dozen hearings for the zoning classification of the William C. Whitney Wilderness, purchased with 1996 environmental bond act funds and the state Environmental Protection Fund. Former Gov. George Pataki had called the thousands of acres, including Little Tupper Lake, “the crown jewel” of the Adirondacks. Lefebvre was known for holding APA monthly meetings all around the park, too. He retired as the agency’s executive director in 2007.
Now, Lefebvre is questioning the agency’s commitment to transparency. He and several former APA staffers are publicly asking why the agency proposes to move its headquarters. A cohort of past APA staff and members penned a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul, concerned about the “little sense” of moving the agency’s headquarters to the village of Saranac Lake from Ray Brook without a full consideration of other locations. The 19 signers questioned the agency’s lack of alternatives to use the state’s $29 million allocated for offices.
The Hochul administration referred an inquiry to the APA for comment.
Keith McKeever, spokesman for the agency, said “APA considered multiple sites that were within state administrative or hamlet land use areas within five miles of APA’s existing location. This radius was set because it was very important to APA that existing staff was not significantly impacted by a relocation a substantial distance away from their present homes.”
McKeever said the village site allows APA to renovate an historic building, revitalize an urban area and create an energy-efficient headquarters. “While the Saranac Lake site is the preferred site, a final decision will be contingent upon the results of the ongoing feasibility study. The full report will be available to the public once complete,” he said.
The APA has received a mix of praise and criticism since its April announcement that it was studying a move to the historic Paul Smith’s Power and Light Building at 1-3 Main St. in Saranac Lake. In a June interview with the Explorer, APA Executive Director Barbara Rice ruled out renovating the existing office building or further site searches. She called Saranac Lake the “preferred site.” She suggested the move could be complete by the beginning of 2026.
She shared renderings that include a 500-square-foot addition to the Main Street building that will include an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant elevator. It will also include construction of a 19,000-square-foot office building along the Lake Street side of the property. The APA would build a 72-space parking lot. The APA would lease the property from the village.
Lefebvre, who now lives in North Carolina but still reads the news about the Adirondacks, said the APA’s decision appeared a done deal. He questioned if the agency held any public hearings on the move. The APA has held none.
“I take great exception to that,” Lefebvre said.
The letter questions Rice’s motives in moving to Saranac Lake and why no other municipality was chosen. It highlights her family’s long-standing furniture business in the village and how she served as a village trustee.
The Saranac Lake Village Police Department currently operates from the Main Street building, though the village has plans to build a new emergency services building on Petrova Avenue. That project would require an APA permit under the Freshwater Wetlands Act, the letter writers said.
“To even a casual observer, the proposal raises ethical concerns,” it says.
Stephen Erman, who worked at the park agency for 28 years as its special assistant for economic affairs, met with Rice and remains unconvinced the move is beneficial. He co-wrote the joint letter, dated July 25. He also penned one against the relocation plan in May, to which he received acknowledgement from the Hochul administration but “nothing substantive” in response.
Rice has emphasized the economic benefits of the approximately 50 staff working in the village. Erman said based on his experience as the agency’s economic officer, he thinks she is overestimating the impact. Most people bring their lunches. The agency doesn’t attract many visitors either, he said.
Erman is concerned the proposed move could hurt the state’s own affordable housing goals. The Main Street building lot is currently zoned multi-family residential, he said, and should the state offices move there, it would remove a site for much-needed housing. Erman estimated a building the proposed size of APA’s new Saranac Lake office could house 15 market-rate apartments.
The proposal makes Erman and other former staff cringe, too, considering the APA is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its land use plan. The Adirondack State Land Master Plan, the park’s leading policy document, outlines zoning classifications. The current Ray Brook offices are specially zoned for state administrative use. If the APA leaves, no private development can occur there.
The state has accrued a number of vacant properties that cannot be sold or leased, including two former prisons in the Adirondacks. Erman suggested that moving staff to the former Camp Gabriels Correctional Facility in the town of Brighton would make more sense than the Saranac Lake proposal.
Tupper Lake Mayor Paul Maroun pitched something similar to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. The village has several vacant state-owned buildings on state Route 3 that make up the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities’ Sunmount campus. Maroun said he’d like to see APA move there.
Lefebvre thinks the state should look at its existing Ray Brook building first. State police, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Transportation are there, too. There has been no good reason provided, he said, why “administrative lands that were created” for the APA wouldn’t be used.
The APA hasn’t said what will happen to the existing building should it move to Saranac Lake. In June, Rice told the Explorer that Bergmann and Associates is studying the feasibility of the village building site, at a cost of approximately $60,000. The Explorer had filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the APA for contracts with the engineering firm, but the APA denied them, saying they did not exist.
Rice later told the Explorer the contracts were under the jurisdiction of the state Office of General Services (OGS), and it was not up to the APA to provide them. The Explorer is awaiting its records response from OGS.
The APA also denied parts of the Explorer’s records requests for concepts, renderings, maps and communications between the agency and Saranac Lake government.
Incomplete records provided include a 2018 building condition and assessment report. Prepared by Landmark Consulting, it estimated about $1,888,000 in project costs for renovating the building.
APA Counsel Chris Cooper denied the Explorer’s appeal, asserting release of six records fell under exemptions including inter- or intra-agency materials that are not factual or data; that disclosing the documents would impair present or imminent contract awards; or that they are shielded by state or federal statute.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct that the APA’s offices are not on forest preserve.