By Gwendolyn Craig
The Adirondack Park Agency held a public hearing on Friday about a shoreline setback variance request, but a whole marina renovation was part of the proposal, too.
Owners of Saranac Lake Marina on Lower Saranac Lake have been trying for years to upgrade and expand their facilities. The marina has submitted a permit and variance request, which in sum would allow the business to expand its boat storage capacity by about a third.
The APA is taking public comments on both the permit and variance until Thursday.
Under APA regulations, structures greater than 100 square-feet must be set back 50 feet from the main high-water mark. The marina is seeking a variance to build 577± and 20,773± square feet structures, above and below the mean high water mark, respectively, at the main marina. It is also seeking to build a 15,018± square-foot building below the mean high water mark at the annex. The permit request involves the construction of covered structures over 2,230± square feet of wetlands at the Main Marina site, and the dredging of road sediment, the placement of 5± square feet of fill, the construction of docks and open-sided covered structures with skylights over 25,403± square feet of wetlands, and the removal of 14,871± square feet of buildings in wetlands at the Annex, according to APA’s project description on this public input page on the website.
The public can submit comments by Thursday, Aug. 27 to John Burth, Adirondack Park Agency, P.O. Box 99, Ray Brook, NY 12977 or (518) 891-4050. To submit, go to apa.ny.gov/Hearings/index.cfm. Scroll to the Saranac Lake Marina project, and click on “Make a Public Comment for this Project.”
It was a crowded public meeting on Friday, even by virtual standards.
Keith McKeever, the APA’s public information officer, said about 50 people were in attendance. About half of the people spoke, and many were in support of the expansion and renovation.
Those who spoke against the project, however, had two different concerns. Some said they supported a renovation, but they thought the marina’s proposed expansion was too big. Others contended the APA and the marina were wrong in how they brought forth the project.
Tom Jorling, former commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation under Gov. Mario Cuomo, said “this is in effect using variance procedure to make a case of first impression for what constitutes a marina in the Adirondack Park.”
With no formal rule-making in APA regulations on marinas, what happens with the variance request for the Saranac Lake Marina could shape all other future marina proposals, he continued. That would be “a complete abrogation of its (APA’s) authority and responsibility.”
“That, to me, is bad public policy,” Jorling said. “It’s bad regulatory policy.”
Even those in support of the project expressed doubt in the variance process.
“As an environmental lawyer, I have grave reservations about staff’s claim of variance jurisdiction here,” said Peter Crary, who also championed the marina expansion and asked that it be approved. “I think that claim is not only contrary to statute, it’s contrary to prior ruling.”
In an email, McKeever said, “APA helps all applicants with jurisdictional determinations on proposed projects through evaluation of the proposed project against all Agency administered acts and regulations.”
It’s not clear if the APA board will vote on the variance request and the entire marina project, at its September board meeting. The marina owners, a company called LS Marina, certainly hope the board will.
A letter from LS Marina’s attorney Matthew Norfolk dated July 17 said, “it is imperative that we get on the September meeting agenda to ensure the success of LS Marina’s economic viability.”
Mike Damp, one of the members of LS Marina, recounted the long journey for his project proposal starting back to the marina’s origins in the 1920s. It has been the main entry point for portage to the Lower, Middle and Upper Saranac Lakes.
The marina includes three commercially zoned lots, including a full-service marina and an annex marina. They are located in the Town of Harrietstown.
Saranac Lake Marina, first called the Crescent Bay Marina, slowly decayed over the years. In his virtual presentation, Damp and his team showed photos of the dilapidated buildings, roofs caving in and docks plunging into the lake.
Damp purchased the property with visions of revitalizing it, but the process has been slow, full of paperwork, plenty of public feedback and litigation. The project proposal has been through several iterations over the years. A freedom of information law request led to 12 folders of submitted application documents dating back to 2016.
In July 2019, a lawsuit over who owned the lake bottom in front of the marina ended. The State of New York’s Supreme Court Appellate Division ruled in favor of the marina. Damp recited a laundry list of items his team has completed, too, to get to this point. Some of them include a fish study on the Lower Saranac, boat capacity studies, wetland analyses, visual simulations and impact studies, wetland mitigation plans and purchasing underwater land.
“Amazingly enough we are still standing after a long, grueling quest to improve a commercial property in a hamlet,” Damp said. “Our team stands ready to see this project through.”
Damp and his team want a new marina with covered dock slips, paddle sports rentals, eco-friendly rental boats, pontoon boats, a gas station, full-service mechanic, store and launch. They want to install a “state-of-the-art floating dock system, covered with low-profile roofs.”
McKeever said the overall increase in boat storage at the marina would go from 219 to 292 boats.
Though the public hearing was on the request for a variance from the APA’s 50-foot setback from the shoreline rule, it turned into a commentary on the entire marina project.
A number of people were excited about the expansion and upgrades and the prospect of covered docks. Some residents described walking along the marina’s old docks and hoping they didn’t collapse.
Colleen Farmer, a member of the public, said her husband grew up using the marina and her family was in support of the expansion.
“We need people to enjoy this part of the park,” Farmer said. “The marina has jumped through, I feel, very many hoops … making a lot of compromises and taking into consideration more than I could have possibly imagined.”
Craig Dumond, another member of the public, made a plea to the DEC and APA to approve the project. Generations of his family have enjoyed lake access from the marina, he said.
“The lake is large, but the access is so limited,” Dumond said. He called state ownership of lands in the area “both a blessing and a curse,” and said a state boat launch at Second Pond “does not come close to addressing the capacity of the associated water and shoreline for recreational purposes.”
Dumond said it’s not just the locals, who benefit from the marina, but tourists can rent pontoon boats and fishing boats, too. He warned that the marina could have been purchased and turned into a private property, ending the public’s access.
“I urge the bureaucracy of New York State to do what is right for tourism in the area, right for the local economy, right for the continued access to a wonderful state-owned recreational resource on the behalf of many rather than the exclusive few, and the property rights from the perspective of the landowners of Crescent Bay, not just from the perspective of the rights of those nearby,” Dumond summarized.
Several members of the public echoed Dumond’s sentiments.
Some nearby property owners and members of the Friends of Lower Saranac Lake spoke out against the proposal, upset over the size of the expansion and the precedent the application could set.
Ian and Kathleen Stewart, of Saranac Lake, shared their written comments with Adirondack Explorer after Ian spoke at the Friday hearing. The Stewarts said the APA’s decision “should not be based upon emotion, popularity or rhetoric. It should be fact-based, public policy led and consistent with governing rules and the letter and intent of the Adirondack Park Act.”
The Stewarts’ letter also addressed the confusion in the number of boats the marina might be able to accommodate in its expansion, something the Adirondack Explorer clarified with McKeever following the hearing.
The Stewarts said they’re “supportive of reasonable expansion and modest minimally intrusive change to the historical footprint.”
Jack Drury, a resident on Lower Saranac Lake, also sent Adirondack Explorer his written comments and spoke at the public hearing. Drury took issue with the marina’s reasons for requesting a variance, which involved financial sustainability. Drury said that “should have no bearing, since the primary purpose of the APA Act and its environmental regulation on new development is to protect the integrity of natural resources, not to support the economic interests of businesses. Insufficient anticipated profitability by the applicant is not a legal reason to grant a variance.”
Drury called for an ajudicatory hearing. That is a special hearing separate from one on a variance about the regulation of land use and development, according to the APA rules and regulations.
The APA is slated to meet on Sept. 10, but as of Wednesday morning, no agenda was posted.