Woodward Lake project’s approval renews calls for smarter subdivision design
By Gwendolyn Craig
Some Adirondack Park Agency board members touted the subdivision planned for a little Fulton County lake as a model for developing homes in harmony with natural resources.
The plan that they approved for homes around Woodward Lake exceeds the standards that a proposed state law might impose in the Adirondacks, agency staffers said.
The man who wrote the book on conservation design doesn’t see it that way.
Randall Arendt is an expert on conservation design, and has consulted for the APA in the past. After looking at the plots ringing Woodward Lake in the plans of this newly approved project, Arendt told the Adirondack Explorer that it looks like a conventional subdivision—not one built to conserve its waters and other unique assets.
The plan could have better protected the lake by pulling lot boundaries away from it and keeping a vegetated belt with trails for the residents to access the water, he said.
“I’m not saying it shouldn’t be approved,” Arendt added, “but don’t call it a ‘conservation subdivision.’”
The 32-home development is the first project approved under the APA’s new large-scale subdivision permit rule, created in 2018. That rule requires consideration of open space, wildlife and other resources on properties. Some advocates and lawmakers don’t believe it’s enough.
A conservation-design bill to supersede the rule is moving slowly through the state Legislature. Downstate Democrats have sponsored it for several years, looking to give the APA more teeth. The bill has hit several roadblocks over the years, and agency attorneys made clear that they do not believe it is warranted.
They also made clear, in response to the board’s questions, that the agency doesn’t have the power to ask Woodward Lake’s developer for a different design. Watchdog groups reject that assessment, but they also point to it as a reason legislation is needed.
State Assemblyman Steve Englebright, a Long Island Democrat, said he believes the Legislature has a better shot at passing the bill this year. His counterpart in the Senate, Long Island Democrat Todd Kaminsky, added that he would work “to ensure that anything we do has meaningful, lasting, and beneficial results for the region.”
If passed, the bill’s influence could be small in any given year: Large projects come before the APA only every couple of years. But some developers and local government officials worry it could lead to overregulation of an already heavily regulated corner of the state.
Woodward Lake presented a case study in how far the APA would go to protect the water body, adjacent forest and surrounding wetlands. The board ultimately approved a design with home lots that stretched almost all the way around the lake, rather than choosing a more clustered design that advocates had pointed to as a better option. Board member John Ernst abstained, but the rest supported the plan.
Ken Lynch, an APA board member and former regional director at the Department of Environmental Conservation, said the plan features “carefully, well-selected sites.” Art Lussi, another APA board member, said the staff did “an outstanding job protecting that resource.” Board member Andrea Hogan called it an example for the future.
The developers, New York Land & Lakes, dubbed their project an example of a “conservation subdivision.”
The agency referred to Arendt’s work during a slide presentation touting Woodward Lake’s environmental protections. But APA did not contact him to seek his opinion about it.
“If that design is legal and approvable,” Arendt told the Explorer after reviewing the plan and the agency’s slides about it, “their regulations are not where I believe they ought to be if they’re going to start using the term ‘conservation subdivision.’”
The long conversation around conservation design for the Adirondacks has been heated, never more so than back in 2012.
At that time, the APA approved a controversial 719-unit subdivision in Tupper Lake called the Adirondack Club and Resort. Developers planned to build great camps, homes, a hotel, a restaurant, a spa and marina near the idled Big Tupper Ski Area. Many in the area saw that plan as a needed economic boost.
Richard Booth was the only APA board member then to vote against the Tupper project, calling the developer’s projections unrealistic. He did not believe the developer or agency had adequately surveyed the wildlife habitat and other resources.
That project’s grand vision has since fizzled as its backers faced foreclosure actions. But its potential sprawl energized opponents who have since sought legislation to prevent more like it.
Though projects of that size are rare, environmental advocates think improving on the APA’s review and permitting process would better protect the park’s ecology and open space.
Lands in some of the most remote and wildest reaches remain vulnerable, said John Sheehan, communications director for the Adirondack Council. “We’d like to button up that loophole, and it will mean a lot in an agency that has struggled to control this for the last 50 years, to finally get this under control.”
At its core, the bill would amend executive law for the purpose of curtailing rural sprawl. It would require more land planning and environmental reviews, and ensure the APA makes developers protect a minimum amount of open space, with the ability to require them to protect more. It would apply to residential subdivisions of 25 or more lots in the park land plan’s designated low-intensity use areas; 10 or more lots in rural use areas; and five or more lots in so-called resource management areas.
It would also allow the APA to work with developers before they have a fully engineered plan. Homes would generally be “clustered” so utility lines are more easily installed and accessed. The idea is to place homes and roads on the most suitable slopes and soils and protect wetlands, water bodies and large forest blocks.
Kaminsky and Englebright introduced the bill’s latest iteration in 2019, and again this year. It is slated for review by both houses’ environmental conservation committees.
Former state Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, held up the bill in the past, a number of environmental advocates have said. Her successor, Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, does not support the bill. Stec said he has heard that APA is already vetting projects well enough.
Englebright said Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration has held up the legislation, too.
“They have been joined with some of the developers and development interests in the Adirondacks, which is why I find it interesting that they’re (APA) claiming that this (the APA’s new permit) is something that is more restrictive than if they had an additional tool to work with,” Englebright said.
Sheehan also said the Cuomo administration appears to have resisted the idea that APA’s rules and regulations need modernization.
“It has paid the price,” he said, by watching two conservation experts leave because they thought APA “was not living up to its potential.” Booth, a former agency lawyer, left the board years ago. Wilderness management expert Chad Dawson resigned from it this winter.
Some believe the bill has failed so far partly because it arose from the contentious Adirondack Club and Resort fiasco.
Bill Farber, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors, said the proposal created an “adversarial place.”
Overall, Farber said, the idea of conservation design “makes extraordinary sense,” and the APA’s new permit rule and the proposed legislation are both attempts at fixing the same problem. But so far, Farber said, he has not seen cooperation or collaboration between APA and those supporting the legislation.
“I think in a lot of ways that’s an unfortunate tribute to where we are,” Farber said.
Dave Gibson, managing partner of Adirondack Wild, said negotiators made changes to the original bill with local government representatives in the room. One option that environmentalists offered, for example, was to grant developers extra homes if a project protects more than the minimum required open space.
Farber said some of those changes led to a better bill, even if it’s not perfect. For example, the legislation does not apply to smaller family subdivisions.
Woodward Lake is perhaps not the best proving ground for conservation design. It’s an impounded water body close to a gravel pit. It’s not exactly the pristine natural resource in the middle of nowhere, and is not a drinking water source. Arendt said his unpopular prescription would be to get rid of the dam and lake altogether and put the wetland back the way it was.
But it is the most current example that advocates can use to frame this year’s debate.
The two-day March APA meeting focused almost exclusively on Woodward Lake. For more than two years, New York Land & Lakes worked with APA staff on the application. Agency staffers consistently recommended that the board approve the permit, stating the development would have “no undue adverse impacts.”
The wrong comparison?
APA attorney Sarah Reynolds used some of Arendt’s work elsewhere to show board members that the agency’s review process can better protect the environment than a conservation-design law could.
She referred to his design of a Massachusetts subdivision with a small stream, and said Woodward Lake is better protected.
The Woodward Lake plan exceeds the conservation-design bill’s prescribed open space preservation for two rural and resource-management zones that it spans, she said. The bill would set aside 55% and 75% of the land in those zones, respectively, while APA’s calculation for this subdivision exceeds 90%.
But Gibson said Reynolds failed to note that the bill would set minimums, not maximums.
“The agency can protect as much open space as they want in a permit,” Gibson said.
Arendt said his Massachusetts project is not a suitable comparison, as it is in a more urban area with no lakefront.
He provided a different example, where he designed a greenbelt as a vegetative buffer around a commonly owned lake. That’s what he would have done at Woodward Lake, he said. The common would be accessible to all residents of the subdivision.
Under the approved New York Land & Lakes plan, the homeowners’ individual lots extend to the lake. The agency is requiring the property owners keep a vegetative buffer around the lake, but Arendt said that’s “make-believe conservation.”
“There may be a restriction on it, but who is going to enforce it?” Arendt said. “I think it’s absolutely a pretense to bring your lot lines down to the water and cross your fingers that people are not going to take down lots of trees to get an unbroken view. It’s their land. They’re not going to read the fine print.”
New York Land & Lakes said in an application letter that buyers typically don’t want commonly owned space. “This is especially true in the Adirondacks where there are already huge amounts of open space.”
Arendt gave the APA credit for protecting forestland and habitat in the back of the complex. He suggested that APA look at Woodward Lake in five or 10 years and see how it has fared.
“Anything that they do and enact is probably an improvement over the current situation,” he said.
Alternative plans for a waterfront development show a standard subdivision with lots extending to the water (left) and a conservation-design subdivision with vegetation and common space protecting the water. Drawings courtesy of Randall Arendt and Natural Lands.
Englebright was outraged over the APA’s authorization of the subdivision, and over the stance attorneys took on his bill. Woodward lake provided no “model of excellence,” he said. “That’s nonsense.”
Why is an assemblyman who lives on Long Island so concerned about the Adirondacks? Englebright said he wants to protect the Adirondacks, “the wellspring of most of our major rivers.”
He has also seen the damage development can do in Long Island’s “the land of sprawl.” Places like East Hampton, South Hampton and Shelter Island saw the wave coming and adopted rules requiring home clustering to conserve open space.
Developers were not happy.
“Oh, the big fuss,” Englebright said.
He added that homes in the clustered communities still have giant price tags.