By Tim Rowland
When a Miami developer announced plans for a luxury development on the fringe of Au Sable Forks complete with mansions, clubhouse and hotel, Jay Supervisor Matt Stanley saw it in a different way than those who believed it to be an over-the-top affront to the Adirondack Park ethic.
In a story that would be familiar in other communities around the Park, the former mill town has lost its businesses one by one – the restaurants, the pharmacy, the hardware store. But unlike communities such as Keeseville and Port Henry, it hasn’t lost its supermarket.
But for Stanley, it’s always a fear. Without a food market, what would be left to draw people to the Forks? And if a few extra shoppers were, figuratively speaking, popping in for olives for their martinis, it could save the supermarket and the hamlet.
About this series
Adirondack Explorer is highlighting the region’s housing challenges, with a multi-part series running in our magazine, online and in a regular newsletter you can sign up for here. Award-winning Freelance Journalist Tim Rowland investigates causes of the housing shortage, housing’s effects on other aspects of Adirondack life, hacks that people use to get into a home and potential solutions being tried here and elsewhere. His reporting is based on review of real estate data, documents and extensive interviews.
From town halls to advocacy groups to the Adirondack Park Agency, hamlets and hamlet expansion are viewed as the best hope for affordable housing. But many of these hamlets are hanging by a thread, and face multiple barriers to becoming hubs of affordable housing filled with people who might encourage a rebirth of lost commerce.
According to state planning documents, “Hamlet areas will serve as the service and growth centers of the park. They are intended to accommodate a large portion of the necessary and natural expansion of the park’s housing, commercial and industrial activities.”
Researchers at Cornell University write that there are three ways in which fading hamlets can right the ship: “increase per capita income, attract money from outside sources, or grow in population. These growth opportunities require some type of physical expansion.”
But as seemingly is the case with all proposed housing solutions, this is easier said than done. Hamlets have an added benefit in that they are largely free of APA regulations. This relative independence was predicated on towns passing their own zoning laws for villages and hamlets, and without planning staff to finely tune regulations to a hamlet’s individual needs, towns more or less just photocopied plug-and-play zoning laws that might have worked in other parts of the state, but were blind to the communities’ housing needs.
Special thanks to Champlain National Bank for sponsoring our upcoming housing event and this series. Contact us to become a business-level supporter of our work.
To see how traditional zoning in a hamlet can be a problem, consider auxiliary dwelling units – small apartments fashioned out of a basement, garage or free-standing cottage, typically for a family member who wants some independence. An aging grandmother might want one in a big, five-bedroom family home that has become impossible to maintain and would be more efficiently inhabited by a growing family.
But if a zoning code only allows for one single-family home per lot, these sensible, add-on apartments are illegal.
Even towns without zoning tended to develop that way.
“This town was built on company housing,” Stanley said of the Forks.
MORE TO EXPLORE
Young people in search of housing say the story is less about a lack of opportunity than a lack of housing commensurate with Adirondack salaries. But some unique remedies are arising, with housing networking increasingly high on the list of success stories.
Residential houses went up on the other side of the hamlet from the sounds and smells of the mill. Commercial space was crammed in between the two.
Early settlers did not consider sustainability in their designs, so everything that’s happened in the Forks over the past century was both predictable and inevitable.
On a spring day in 1925, the densely built business district went up in flames, sparing the towering Mason’s lodge and the bar across the street. Less than 50 years later the pulp and paper mills closed to the detriment of the rebuilt commercial district, and 40 years after that Tropical Storm Irene wiped out a great swath of the residential district.
Stanley firmly believes the hamlet of Au Sable Forks can be reinvented with a stable, affordable housing base that can support a thriving commercial center.
It will take an almost ground-up reimagining of the hamlet, including a new comprehensive plan to replace the one that’s been gathering dust for the past quarter century; state money to help refurbish long-vacant storefronts (ideally with upstairs apartments), private developers willing to take on these projects with the lower profit margins and higher amounts of red tape, and buy-in from a community that can be suspicious of change.
Ultimately, Stanley hopes Au Sable Forks can show enough progress that the state will consider it for a $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant.
Yet Stanley believes that much of this vision depends on keeping the one supermarket on the road from Lake Champlain and Lake Placid open for business.
As hamlets reimagine themselves as growth spots for affordable housing, the type of housing is also an issue.
Jeremy Evans, executive director of the Franklin County Economic Development Corp., said American housing has evolved to include single family homes on one side of the spectrum and massive high-rises on the other. The “missing middle” consists of duplexes, townhouses, add-on apartments and the like that encourage housing density at a level that the Adirondacks’ sparse population can hope to fill.
In Franklin County, planners believe there will be a need for nearly 1,000 additional housing units over the next decade. The good news, Evans said, is that 200 units are currently in the works courtesy of four major projects. The bad news is that the next 800 won’t come that easily, and will likely depend on incremental projects of 10 units or less – a mountain to be chipped away with the work of land banks, nonprofits, municipalities and the occasional community-minded contractor.
Even these modest projects, though, can run into roadblocks. County supervisors believe the boundaries around hamlets are too constrictive, and “hamlet expansion” is often pitched as a remedy. Yet hamlet expansions are complex exercises that are rarely proposed, and those that are proposed often have a tough time winning APA approval.
APA officials say they are open to hamlet expansion that would free up space for housing, but acknowledge there are difficulties. Many hamlets simply have nowhere to grow, being hemmed in by steep mountainsides or rivers. Those that have suitable land usually lack public sewer and water.
Essex County seat, Elizabethtown, has no sewer, meaning that imminently developable lots in the middle of the otherwise thriving town remain bare. Affordable-housing construction today, said housing consultant Adam Feldman, depends on scalability – multiple dwelling units that can share the same land, same driveway, same utilities or the same roof. But developments of any such scale also require public utilities.
Yet public utilities that would accommodate denser housing are enormously expensive, and with only small populations among whom to divide the costs, they too can work against affordability. The affordability dividend that comes with (generally cheaper) hamlet housing can be erased by high quarterly bills for sewer and water.
Keith McKeever, communications director for the APA, said sewer and water costs can be mitigated through state grants and loans, perhaps made available from the state’s $4.2 billion environmental bond financing.
“Securing Bond Act funding would help reduce costs to a more manageable level,” he said. “APA will continue to support the proliferation of infrastructure necessary to accommodate growth in hamlets.”
The agency is prepared to help communities meet their housing needs in other ways, some of which they may not be aware of.
Join for a discussion of the future of housing, as our series wraps with a free, in-person event from 9-11 a.m. on Nov. 1 at The Wild Center in Tupper Lake.
“Understanding the critical need for affordable housing, the APA undertook a legislative change that resulted in the establishment of an affordable housing density bonus,” McKeever said.
“For certain projects proposed in low or moderate land use classification areas that meet qualifications, a four-for-one density bonus is possible for residential proposals.”
Through its Hamlet Development and Envision Adirondacks initiatives, the APA also helps communities simulate how their hamlets’ commercial areas might flourish under freshened planning and zoning that foster growth while protecting the natural environment.
Other work prioritizes the vacant land development and the adaptive reuse of existing, underutilized properties within hamlets, McKeever said. The initiatives also help to review and recommend changes to local zoning ordinances and advise about federal and state programs that could reduce costs of “critically needed public infrastructure projects,” McKeever said.
Some of these APA initiatives have been slow to gain traction not because they lack potential, but in a space as broad and as isolated at the Adirondack Park, news might as well travel on the back of a particularly slow moose.
That’s doubly true for rural localities that seem to have trouble communicating with the state, said Mike Borges, executive director of the Rural Housing Coalition of New York. Along with funding for infrastructure and help with smaller-scale projects, Borges said he’d like to see the return of a New York Office of Rural Affairs that could be a conduit between rural towns, schools and farmers and the governor.
That would help communities learn about state initiatives they might not be aware of, while alerting the administration to rural problems, like housing, before they become crises.
“We don’t have that right now,” Borges said. “The demand for affordable workforce housing has been encountered over and over and over again.”
This series is funded in part by the Generous Acts Fund at Adirondack Foundation and by the Annette Merle-Smith Community Reporting Fund at Adirondack Explorer. Special thanks to Champlain National Bank for financial support. If you would like to support our community reporting, get started here.