Environmentalists want the state to do more to protect and enhance the region’s identity as a special place.
By Kim Martineau
The Adirondack Park is more than double the size of Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks combined, but its greatness is not always apparent. Silver lakes and dark woods beckon from some roadsides, while lawns and driveways interrupt the wild scenery from others. With its mix of private and public land, the Adirondacks have always had something of an identity problem.
Four decades after the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) was created to oversee development on private lands, the Park is still in search of a coherent look. Brown road signs with yellow lettering suggest to visitors they are in a special place. But are signs enough?
“The Adirondacks mean nothing if you don’t know you’re in a park,” said George Davis, who led the state’s Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century in 1990. “Where else do you have six million acres of [largely] forested land? Not this side of Minnesota.”
The commission proposed a series of recommendations to make the Adirondacks more park-like, including establishing an Adirondack Park Administration to oversee planning of both private and public lands and an Adirondack Park Service that would manage the public lands.
Recognizing that many tourists experience the Adirondacks primarily through their windshields, the commission also set forth recommendations to reduce signage, write design standards for necessary signs, open visitor centers at the Park’s main entrances, create pull-offs at scenic overlooks, and protect backcountry views.
In short, the commission sought to fix the Adirondack Park’s identity problem by making it look more like a park and by managing it more like a park.
The panel’s report, however, ran into a buzz-saw of opposition, and its recommendations were largely shelved. As a result, critics say the region’s park-like character remains at risk—from roadside sprawl, shoreline construction, and upland development, among other things. They note that the Adirondack Park outpaces other rural communities in new construction, with little thought given to the cumulative impact of this development.
“The Park aesthetic is important because it’s a sense of a wild landscape that’s different from the rest of New York and the Northeast,” said Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks. “We have a Park Agency that is unwilling to confront the problem.”
But APA spokesman Keith McKeever says preserving the Adirondacks’ natural beauty is at the forefront of the agency’s mission. “APA approves all new land use and development with conditions to ensure the scenic appeal of the Adirondacks is not diminished,” he said. “The Adirondack landscape is the foundation of a vibrant tourism economy which is economically critical for many Adirondack communities and businesses.”
Indeed, the APA can point to some success stories. A decade ago, environmentalists feared that cell-phone towers would pop up across the Park, creating eyesores that would be visible from highways and mountaintops alike. To date, more than a hundred cell towers have been installed in the Park, but few are noticeable due to strict design standards. The first to go up, a cell tower disguised as a pine tree dubbed “Frankenpine” on a ridge above Lake George, is nearly impossible to pick out among the real trees.
“The APA was proactive,” Bauer said of the cell-tower policy. “Too bad they haven’t identified other issues of equal concern.”
The APA, however, has no control over most development in the Park. Towns and villages approve nearly 60 percent of new homes and businesses in the Park, yet many municipalities lack planning or zoning boards or detailed development guidelines. The authors of the 1971 APA Act, which created the agency, expected that the towns would eventually take responsibility for planning. Forty years later, less than a fifth of the towns have an APA-approved land-use plan.
“It’s a big disappointment,” said Lake Placid attorney Bill Kissel, the agency’s first counsel and one of its former commissioners. “I’ve met the second and third generation of our adversaries from those days who say the Park is really important and positive, but it hasn’t translated into an interest to develop planning and zoning.”
The agency’s oversight of development is defined in the Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan, enacted in 1973 and incorporated into the APA Act. Its authors intended to steer development away from the relatively pristine backcountry—lands zoned Rural Use or Resource Management—to hamlets where roads, sewers, and other infrastructure already existed. But the plan, watered down after intense lobbying from developers and local officials, has proven to be only partially successful.
Just nine years after the APA’s creation, an agency task force in 1980 identified roadside sprawl as “the greatest danger facing the open space character of the Adirondack Park.” The task force noted that just 11 percent of state highway in the Park was bordered by the forever-wild Forest Preserve, leaving most of the rest vulnerable to unsightly development. It found that nearly half of the state-road corridors lacked any effective development controls. “Action is needed if they are not eventually to lose their distinctive character,” the task force warned.
Just as the Twenty-First Century Commission would do, the APA panel offered many ideas for preserving roadside aesthetics, such as screening development, minimizing the amount of development, purchasing scenic easements that would restrict development, and toughening sign laws.
George Nagle, who wrote most of the report, doesn’t believe any of the task force’s recommendations were adopted. “I don’t think the agency took the whole thing seriously,” said Nagle, who was an APA policy analyst at the time.
Nagle thinks that the problem has only worsened in the intervening three decades.
In 2001, the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks issued another warning about roadside sprawl. In a report examining growth trends in the 1990s, the RCPA found that development often took place along roads even in Rural Use and Resource Management areas.
“The weaknesses of the APA Act are found in the rampant development of the Park’s shorelines, development of roadsides, and sprawl development through Rural Use areas,” the report said.
Rural Use land is more vulnerable than Resource Management land because more development is permitted in RU areas. In RM areas, a developer may build only one house for every 42.7 acres. In RU areas, it’s one home for every 8.5 acres, making this land more lucrative to develop. Also, APA approval is not required if a landowner is building fewer than five homes on RU land, whereas building anything on RM land requires an agency permit.
Bauer, who wrote the RCPA report as the group’s executive director at the time, said sprawl is most visible on roads entering the Park from the Plattsburgh, Glens Falls, Saratoga, and Albany regions—the very arteries that give many visitors their first impressions of the Park. “The Park’s visual landscape should be seen as an asset for tourism and economic development, but it’s not,” he said. “The agency has stopped functioning as a long-term planning agency.”
The APA does recognize the importance of roadside scenery. In the early 1970s, two staffers drove around the Park and cataloged thirty-seven vistas (identified as black dots on the agency’s land-use map) where the state might want to construct scenic pull-offs. To date, however, few pull-offs have been built, and environmentalists say little has been done to protect the views from development.
After driving to their campsite or hotel, many tourists experience the Adirondacks from a canoe or boat on the water. Sadly, critics say, the Park’s natural beauty also has been marred by excessive development along lakes and rivers.
During the negotiations over the Land Use and Development Plan, proposals to limit development on waterfront were loosened to permit smaller building lots and narrower shoreline setbacks. Also, the land-use classifications gave local governments oversight for most lakeshore development, which often resulted in relaxed standards on tree clearing and other measures to screen homes. Thus, the changes to the legislation ensured not only that there would be more development, but also that the development would be more visible.
“Shoreline sprawl was practically built into the act,” said Dave Gibson, a founder of the environmental group Adirondack Wild.
A few years ago, the APA Act was amended to prevent homeowners from replacing cottages that predate the law with McMansions, but in the meantime iconic views have been lost.
“One of the great tragedies of the act is the shoreline-protection measures, which contrary to all modern wisdom provide for more development closer to the shorelines and on smaller lots than would otherwise be the case,” said Peter Paine, an attorney in Willsboro who helped write the legislation. “It is fair to say we have lost from an environmental and aesthetic standpoint a great many of the developed shorelines in the Park.”
Often waterfront development is visible from roads as well. Several years ago, for example, a modest home on the outskirts of Essex was replaced with a five-bedroom mansion. A stockade fence now blocks roadside views of Lake Champlain. On Schroon Lake, a wall of suburban-style town houses cuts off views of the lake for those driving through town.
With many lakefronts now fully built out, development is creeping uphill, notably in Keene and along Lake George, but examples can be found throughout the Park. When the APA has jurisdiction and identifies scenic resources, it routinely requires homes to blend in with the landscape through the use of natural paint colors and non-reflective windows and roofing and by limiting tree clearing. But some of the most noticeable development on hills and ridges is occurring in Rural Use areas. If the homeowner meets the 8.5-acre lot requirement, the APA usually lacks oversight.
All told, the APA Act would allow up to four hundred thousand principal buildings in the Park—including 156,000 in Rural Use and Resource Management, the open-space lands that contribute greatly to the Adirondacks’ scenic character. The Twenty-First Century Commission had recommended reducing the number of buildings allowed in RU and RM areas to somewhere between ten thousand and fifteen thousand.
Given current development trends, it could take centuries for the Park to reach full build-out, but environmentalists warn that sprawl and poorly sited or stick-out houses are already diminishing the beauty of the landscape. They say more needs to be done to lessen the visual impact of development.
Because the APA doesn’t track Park-wide growth, environmentalists worry that by the time sprawl registers fully on the public radar it will be too late. “They aren’t making any more land, and many of these uses are difficult to revert back to a natural state and restore ecologically,” said Ann Ruzow Holland, a planning consultant in Willsboro.
Protect the Adirondacks is studying development patterns over the last decade, picking up where the RCPA left off.
Some believe the APA should be doing this work. “If the Park is a statewide resource, not just a concern of the town of Willsboro, Inlet, or wherever, it seems to me you need to keep track of the impact of development—both positive and negative,” said Peter Paine.
Many local residents and officials want more development and say current protections are adequate. They argue that new homes bring construction jobs and additional tax revenue to towns still recovering from the loss of mining and logging jobs. “It’s a balancing act between preserving nature and giving communities a chance to pursue their own identity,” said Nick Rose, executive director of CAP-21, a community-development agency in Old Forge.
Aesthetic concerns are not limited to development and the protection of scenic landscapes. The Twenty-First Century Commission also complained that sign clutter and power lines often detract from the aesthetic experience of travelers. It recommended burying power lines, but cost remains a major obstacle. When National Grid recently built a new transmission line to Tupper Lake, the company declined to bury it, citing the high price tag. “Sure it’s unsightly, but some things we learn to live with,” said Curt Stiles, a former APA chairman.
As for signs, the Adirondacks are better off than most places: in 1924, the state legislature banned billboards inside the Park to keep the roads “open, clean and in good order for the good of society.” As billboards disappeared from the landscape, visitors were treated to views of nature instead of ads for shaving cream and diners. “That makes a huge, immediately visible difference in how the countryside looks,” remarked John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council.
Nevertheless, the 1990 commission found that sign clutter was still a problem. A photo in its report depicts a phalanx of highway signs at a crossroads in Warrensburg, with the warning that excessive signage “can distract and confuse the motorist as well as impair the Park’s beauty.” The same phalanx of signs exists today. The panel also found fault with the proliferation and appearance of many commercial signs and proposed that design standards be written. For example, it said business signs in hamlets “should be fixed to buildings, be made from natural materials, avoid back lighting, and use color schemes harmonious with natural environments.”
The recommendations went unheeded at the time, but today some towns are adopting sign laws to create their own rustic Adirondack look. Willsboro recently spent $3,500 on new signs that feature a setting sun sinking into purple mountains on a lake. Wilmington is phasing out the large, back-lit signs popular in the 1950s. “We don’t want to look like Route 3 in Plattsburgh,” said Supervisor Randy Preston. “We want down-to-earth signage with an Adirondacky feel.”
Anyone who drives around the Adirondacks will notice the brown signs that identify hamlets, towns, roads, and rivers. George Davis borrowed this idea from National Parks. In the early 1970s, when he was the APA’s deputy director, he took the state’s transportation commissioner to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to show him how brown signs and rusted guardrails helped communicate an idea of man and nature in harmony. The state Department of Transportation agreed to bring both to the Adirondacks. With time, however, the rusted guardrails proved less durable than galvanized-steel guardrails. Since 2008, DOT has been phasing out the brown guardrails, but it’s experimenting in Wells and Tupper Lake with a coating that will gradually turn galvanized steel brown.
The Adirondack Park differs from National Parks in that visitors do not pass through a gate at the boundary. Often there is not even a sign. Sheehan, of the Adirondack Council, contends the state should erect prominent signs wherever roads cross the Blue Line. “Almost everybody enters the Park in a vehicle,” he said. “It would be helpful to remind people not only that they entered a special place, but that they ought to treat it that way too.”
The council also would like the state to open welcome centers at major entrances to the Park, including in or near Lake George, Mayfield, Forestport, and Plattsburgh. Sheehan said the centers could stock maps and brochures and inform the public about the Park.
“They wouldn’t have to be enormous,” Sheehan said. “They would be an opportunity for the state to establish regional tourism offices at the same time.”
Yet the state seems to be going in the opposite direction. In 2010, the APA cut funding to its two visitor interpretive centers, in Paul Smiths and Newcomb. For now, the centers are being kept alive by Paul Smith’s College and the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Sheehan argues that the state should resume funding and managing the VICS. “We are really undermining the public’s understanding of the Park and making it more difficult for the state to share this wonderful model with the world,” he said.
In one of its boldest proposals, the Twenty-First Century Commission sought to overhaul the state’s management of the Park through the creation of an Adirondack Park Administration and an Adirondack Park Service. Essentially, the first entity would be a beefed-up APA, with the power to write performance standards for development and to review land-use decisions by local governments. The Adirondack Park Service would consist of all employees of the state Department of Environmental Conservation who work in the Park. It would be headed by an Adirondack Park superintendent.
As things stand, the Adirondack Park is split between two DEC regions, and each region covers large territories outside the Blue Line. Davis argues that the Park would be better served by a cadre of DEC workers focusing only on the Adirondacks. “They’d be committed to the Park,” he remarked.
Davis said the Adirondack Park Service could educate the public about the Adirondacks, in part by staffing information centers, and reinforce the notion that the Park is a special place. He envisions a corps of rangers wearing uniforms distinct from those worn by DEC rangers in other parts of the state. “It’d be just one more thing to make people feel they’re in a Park,” he said. ■
“Assessing the APA” is made possible in part by Furthermore, a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, and by Jane Bickford.