As Big Tupper debate enters final weeks, questions linger about wildlife impacts and financing.
By Brian Mann
The Adirondack Club and Resort project has been scrutinized and debated for seven years, and yet, although the Adirondack Park Agency may vote on the project in January, several important environmental and financial questions remain unanswered.
One of the biggest involves the APA’s decision to allow the review of the developer’s permit application to move forward without a comprehensive wildlife survey of the 6,200-acre property, which borders the Big Tupper Ski Area.
The lack of a wildlife survey was noted repeatedly at the APA’s monthly meetings in November and December, both of which were devoted to the project.
“This has been bothering me now for quite a while that some of the basics that one would expect for a project of this size were not undertaken,” said Richard Booth, one of the agency’s board members.
Earlier this year, in hearings before a state judge, the developers argued that their crews kept detailed notes about wildlife observed on the property and concluded that there were no endangered species or rare plant communities. They provided lists of species observed during that fieldwork. But APA staff noted that other biologists visiting the property quickly identified eleven amphibian species that were not found by the developers or their consultants.
“In the application itself, no amphibian species were reported by the project sponsor,” APA environmental program specialist Ed Snizek told commissioners. That could be a significant omission as one part of the resort, known as the West Face Expansion, would be built in an area that some experts say is crucial
upland habitat used by amphibians.
Snizek pointed out that APA field staff raised other concerns about the lack of a wildlife assessment. “More could and should have been done by the project sponsor to identify wildlife species and assess habitat impacts,” he asserted.
Nevertheless, Snizek said buildings, roads, and other infrastructure planned near sensitive areas would be designed to protect habitat, including a hundred-foot buffer zone surrounding wetlands and a set-aside area for deer wintering grounds. “The project sponsor has done what APA hearing staff normally require to protect wetland wildlife habitat,” he told the APA board.
Still, some environmental groups have called for a much larger 750-foot buffer to protect areas used by amphibians. They also are asking that thorough wildlife surveys be undertaken before construction begins. “The public has a right to know what’s going on before anyone gives permission to start turning over dirt on the property,” said Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan.
It’s unknown whether the wildlife questions will be a serious roadblock. During the adjudicatory hearings last summer, APA senior staff member Mark Sengenberger was asked whether the lack of wildlife data could be grounds for denying the project. “Potentially, if it’s significant enough information,” Sengenberger testified, adding that the developers were aware that the lack of a wildlife survey “was an outstanding issue.”
The Adirondack Council has downplayed the possibility of filing a lawsuit if an APA permit is granted, but some environmental activists have suggested that the lack of wildlife surveys could prompt a legal challenge. “I think the parties involved are not going to give up any tool in their quiver, depending on the outcome,” said Adirondack Wild spokesman Dan Plumley.
The shortcomings of the review caused some commissioners to call for changes in the way big projects are scrutinized in the future. “I think there are four or five areas that we have learned about and that different procedures and regulations can be discussed after this project has come to some conclusion,” said APA Commissioner Sherman Craig.
Questions also have been raised about the developers’ plan to pay for tens of millions of dollars worth of start-up costs. Michael Foxman and Tom Lawson, two of the lead developers, have proposed raising most of their capital through the sale of $35 million worth of low-interest bonds, which would be issued through the Franklin County Industrial Development Authority.
The resort would repay the bonds through payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs). Essentially, this means that millions of dollars that otherwise would go to local governments as property taxes each year would be used instead to cover debt service. The resort’s backers want homes and condos to remain in the PILOT deal even after they are sold to private buyers. Having taxes on private land help pay off the bonds would reduce the developers’ costs dramatically.
But many experts see the PILOT proposal as unorthodox, and APA commissioners raised a number of questions about the deal at November’s meeting. “I have some experience doing industrial-development bond financings … and I don’t quite understand it from all this,” remarked board member Cecil Wray, who is an attorney.
Franklin County IDA officials have also expressed doubts about whether the PILOT deal is workable or even legal. “When this idea was first introduced and up to the present day it has not been clear how this would work,” IDA Executive Director John Tubbs said in an e-mail to the Adirondack Explorer.
That concern was echoed by Tupper Lake Mayor Paul Maroun, a champion of the resort. “That’s been one of the biggest questions I’ve heard from people,” Maroun said. “They say, ‘Paul, we like the project, but we don’t think it’s right that after a home is built and someone moves in, that they should have a PILOT.’ I’ve talked to some learned jurists on this, and they think that after a certificate of occupancy is issued, there shouldn’t be a PILOT.”
Indeed, this is a rarity in the Big Tupper debate: something that local boosters of the project and environmentalists agree on. In briefs filed during last summer’s hearings, Protect the Adirondacks also questioned whether Franklin County was likely to sign off on the financing deal even if an APA permit is granted. “The Applicant has not proven that its proposed PILOT funding arrangement has been, or can be, approved,” Protect argued.
APA officials tried to explore the issue during the hearings, but they say their questions were blocked by the developers’ attorney, Tom Ulasewicz. “We’re not here to determine whether the IDA is going to give us approval and under what circumstances they will grant that approval,” Ulasewicz argued, according to a hearing transcript. IDA officials chose not to testify during the lengthy hearings.
If the APA grants a permit, the developers will resume negotiations with the IDA over the bonds and the PILOT. But if the proposed arrangement isn’t workable, it’s unclear how tens of millions of dollars in start-up costs will be covered.
At November’s meeting, doubts were raised about the developers’ projections that they will be able to sell thirty to forty high-end luxury homes each year. “The cross-examination of the project sponsors’ experts revealed that the resort’s APA permit application does not provide a reliable basis for projecting either the number of residential sales … or the likely prices of those units,” noted APA Executive Director Terry Martino.
Even if the APA issues a permit, the developers will still have to obtain approvals from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Department of Health, and Office of the Attorney General. Observers say this could take another year.
Tom Lawson remains optimistic that an APA permit will be granted and that construction will begin fairly soon thereafter. “I have been working with architects and engineers and everything trying to get plans going. The intent is not to get caught flatfooted. We’d like to get started immediately. We want to get people back to work,” he said.
Maroun, the Tupper Lake mayor, said he thought some of the resort’s lots would sell quickly, but it might be five years before the project brings significant economic benefits to the community. Although he expects the APA to issue a permit, Maroun fears that the agency will impose environmental conditions that could pose serious problems for developers.
He is eager for the project to move forward so Tupper Lake can begin to heal from the long, divisive debate. “I know that I’ve lost a lot of friends over my position on this, people I grew up with,” Maroun said. ■