As APA worked to develop its land use plan, backlash against agency grew
This is the seventh in a nine-part series that tells the story of the at-times contentious campaign to create the Adirondack Park Agency, which marks its 50th anniversary in June. Adapted from the new book “A Wild Idea: How the Environmental Movement Tamed the Adirondacks,” the author interviewed more than 50 people who fought for and against the APA, some of whom have since died.
By Brad Edmondson
As the Adirondack Park Agency worked on its land-use plans in 1971 and 1972, William Doolittle, publisher of Saranac Lake’s Adirondack Daily Enterprise and self-appointed defender of the little guy, grew suspicious of the agency and its board chair, Richard Lawrence. Lawrence did not open agency meetings to the public, and Doolittle claimed that he didn’t make much of an effort to keep the paper informed, either. “He didn’t give a shit about us,” Doolittle said. “That was so obvious.”
Doolittle wasn’t being fair. Lawrence did a lot of charitable work in the Adirondacks. He was on the founding board of Saranac Lake’s North Country Community College, among other things. But Doolittle is still angry. He believes that the APA is a violation of home rule, which gives county and local governments in New York and several other states the power to make their own laws as long as they don’t contradict the state or federal constitutions. And in 1971, zoning laws were rare in Adirondack towns. The idea of state bureaucrats telling you what you could and couldn’t do on your own land seemed like a communist takeover, and about as likely.
To environmentalists like Lawrence and the agency’s George Davis, however, the Adirondacks were globally important. The park contains one of the world’s largest intact temperate forests. Moreover, a 1912 law makes it clear that all the land inside the park’s “blue line”—its boundary on New York maps—public and private, is under the state’s jurisdiction. Most of the nine APA board members were solidly in favor of strong land-use regulations. Lawrence could count on the votes of Peter Paine, Lake Placid philanthropist Mary Prime, two board members who worked for the governor, and union official Joseph Tonelli, who Lawrence knew would vote with him as long as the APA did not attempt to regulate timber and paper industries.
A majority wasn’t good enough, however. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller had told Lawrence that he would not support the plan unless the board’s vote in favor of it was at least 7 to 2. And three APA board members—Jim Bird, Whit Daniels, and Bill Foley—kept raising concerns about the impact the plan would have on the local economy. Meanwhile, the staff struggled to complete its research in time. As the deadline loomed, the fate of the plan remained uncertain.
The day that stood out in Davis’ mind was Oct. 23, 1972, when the staff had to finish checking a map before presenting it to the board the next day. He and fellow staffer Anita Riner left Ray Brook at 4:30 in the morning so they could start field-checking as soon as it was light enough to see. They worked without a break until dark, then ate dinner and drove back to Ray Brook, arriving just after midnight. “All eight of the professional staffers were still there, plus the janitor, who I guess was there just because he felt left out,” Davis said. “We gave them the stuff, and the janitor got our beer while we changed the maps. A few hours later, we drove the maps 90 miles to the meeting in Glens Falls and presented them to the board at 10 a.m. It was that total commitment that made the whole thing fall into place.”
Lawrence managed to hold his majority together, and the commission released its draft Land Use and Development plan on Dec. 21, 1972. The plan places private land in the park into six categories and allows gradually decreasing levels of density. The two most restrictive categories are Rural Use, which originally allowed a maximum of 65 units per square mile (one for every 9.8 acres), and Resource Management, with 10 per square mile (one per 64 acres). The only permissible uses in Resource Management areas were tree farms, hunting and fishing clubs, agriculture and game preserves. And 85% of the park’s private land fell into these two categories. When many park residents read the plan, the effect was like throwing a lit match into a puddle of gasoline.
In case you missed the, here are links to the other parts so far:
Part 1: Abbie Verner’s head-on collision
Part 2: Clarence Petty’s surveys
Part 3: Harold Jerry takes on a Rockefeller
Part 4: George Davis’s lucky break
Part 5: Harold Hochschild’s big score
Part 6: George Davis’s big map
About the author: Journalist Brad Edmondson, of Ithaca, is the author of several books, including “A Wild Idea: How the Environmental Movement Tamed the Adirondacks.”