In the News  Archive

Bitterness leaving Adirondack debate

March 20, 2015
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By Will Doolittle

With the Adirondack Park Agency taking the reassuring line that it must operate within the law, as written, the other sides in the debate over Adirondack land use can concentrate on finding common ground.

A few years ago, and for most of its history, the APA was accused by those who wanted to build houses and run businesses in the Adirondacks as stretching the limits of the 1971 legislation that created it. But in recent years, the agency has shown an inclination to follow the law, even when that upsets environmental advocates who are the agency’s natural allies.

The agency’s recent approval of a large-scale housing development in Fulton County at a former Boy Scout camp along Woodworth Lake was criticized by all four of the Adirondack Park’s major environmental groups.

What the groups wanted was for the developer to follow something called conservation design, which makes preservation of the natural environment its top priority. Conservation design calls for clustering of homes in backcountry development projects like the one in Fulton County. When the homes are placed close to each other, that leaves most of the land in the project undisturbed by roads or other infrastructure and untrammeled by the activities of human beings.

“Conservation design” doesn’t appear in the APA Act. Clustering does, but as one consideration among others.

The environmental groups would like to see the law changed, to make conservation design and clustering the mandated approach.
But the leaders of these groups are not talking about suing the APA; they’re talking about working with legislators for a change in the law. Nor are they making overblown statements, as some have in the past, about losing the Adirondack Park to the forces of commerce and greed.

On the other side, Fred Monroe has acknowledged that clustering can be the best practice in backcountry development. Monroe is a local politician who has a seat on the APA board as the head of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board and is a longtime critic of the APA.

State Sen. Betty Little also indicated support for a legislative change that would encourage clustering.

In return, they would like development made easier on land close to the Park’s hamlets, as in a bill sponsored by Little that would allow landowners to transfer development rights from backcountry areas to land near community centers.

A couple of longtime environmental leaders — Neil Woodworth, director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, and John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council — said their groups are open to talking about schemes to protect the backcountry while allowing greater development near hamlets.

This sort of back and forth, which could be the prelude to a compromise, is a big improvement over the recriminations and lawsuits of just a few years ago.

The credit for this improvement goes to the APA itself, which by sticking to the law has undermined claims from developers that the game is rigged and persuaded environmentalists that working with the other side is the most effective way to get what they want.

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