In the News  Archive

Change in approach in Adirondack Park

Post-Star
4/13/14

By, Jamie Munks

There’s a new norm in the Adirondacks.

That was the phrasing Adirondack Park Agency Chairwoman Lani Ulrich used last week at a forum during the Adirondack Local Government Conference, but state, local government, environmental and economic development leaders also acknowledge seeing a shift. Discourse in the 6 million acre park, where major decisions have been marked by battles among varying interests, is moving away from discord and toward collaboration.

People who once were devoting much of their energy to “counteract each other” are now working together to find “the best idea,” Ulrich said at Wednesday’s forum in Lake Placid.

“You are helping to change the rhetoric, helping to change the future, instead of fighting the old battles,” Ulrich told the local government leaders in attendance.

Perhaps one of the most telling recent signs of this shift was the passage last year of a constitutional amendment for a land swap between the state and a mining company.

The NYCO Minerals constitutional amendment state voters approved in November, in which the state swapped land with the mining company in exchange for even more land in Essex County, was supported by some of the most prominent Adirondack environmental groups. The amendment is allowing the company to expand a wollastonite mine into what was once state land, preserving about 100 jobs.

Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council environmental organization, said the council supported the constitutional amendment after some changes were made to earlier proposals.

Much of the environmental community is conscious that preserving jobs is one of the ways the park will continue moving forward and the sum of the park’s varied components are greater than each taken individually, he said.

“People shifted to focusing on what we agree on rather than what we disagree on,” Janeway said, adding the meeting Wednesday was “a great example” of a collaborative event that wouldn’t have taken place 20 years ago.
Janeway worked in the Adirondacks for years, then worked in Albany and returned last year to lead the council. The change in the region was palpable, he said.

“At least some of the environmental groups, the ones we’d consider more rational, recognize it’s not good for the communities to have ghost towns all over the Adirondacks,” said Chester Supervisor Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Local Government Review Board. “I think they have changed to a certain degree — they’re listening more to the economic argument.”

In the early 1970s, when the Adirondack Park Agency was created, people weren’t used to zoning and land controls, said Neil Surprenant, director of library services at Paul Smith’s College and the institution’s resident historian. He referred to the region of that era as “the wild east.”

Plus, there has historically been tension between “outsiders” and “insiders” in the Adirondacks, Surprenant said, but that eased.
“They don’t argue as much as they used to. I think they see their common interests — they always had them,” Surprenant said.
Balancing act

Maintaining a balance between conservation and the needs of the park’s 103 communities has always been and continues to be a challenge. The 6 million acre region is a patchwork of public and private lands. While many agree progress has been made, local government leaders maintain more changes are needed, especially since the economic downturn racked many communities and a “brain drain” of local youths skewed the region’s demographics older.

Monroe has been meeting with environmental leaders and Cuomo’s top environmental staff, advocating for changes to the Adirondack Park State Master Plan, to bring the document that was drafted decades ago in line with issues facing the park today.

“The time seems to be right to tackle some changes,” Monroe said. “There’s a provision for review every five years, and it just hasn’t happened.”

One of the biggest issues for Monroe, which he believes contributed to the direction of the discourse on Adirondack issues, is a line in the introduction of the land use master plan that states: “The protection and preservation of the natural resources of the state lands within the park must be paramount.”

The Adirondack Park Agency Act, however, emphasizes the balance between natural resource protection and the needs of local residents, Monroe said.

The use of paramount, he said, “to me rejects balance, and every time there’s an issue, the environmental groups quote that.
“We think that should be changed to reflect what the law says,” Monroe said.

Other issues that plague the region but aren’t addressed in the plan have popped up recently, such as the march of invasive species into Adirondack waters.

“There’s nothing in there about invasive species,” Monroe said. “I think that’s because it wasn’t a big issue in ’72 but it is a big issue now. Local government is very concerned about boat inspections and invasive species.”

Local government leaders in the Adirondacks have “long-standing wish lists” for changes to the plan, which would need to be reviewed by the APA, which would then make a recommendation to the governor, Monroe said.

Public hearings would have to be held before any proposed changes could move forward, but if environmental groups and local government officials can reach a consensus, the biggest obstacle would be cleared.

Those in local government have been leery to go down the path of changing the plan for fear “we’ll end up with something worse than we have now,” Monroe said.

But he believes political forces could be aligning to bring about positive changes.

“It’s just not good government to have rules you don’t follow,” Monroe said. “(The changes) would allow them to do directly what they’ve struggled to do indirectly for years, which has fostered lawsuits. It’s painful to watch — issues drag on for years and it’s like watching paint dry.”

A broader perspective
The region isn’t alone in some of the economic troubles it’s facing, said Mark Lapping, a professor at University of Southern Maine who specializes in rural planning. A number of “resource-rich” areas of the country, like the Adirondacks, face a degree of decline as the economy becomes less resource-reliant, he said.

“I think many of the issues people feel and face in the region go back to what I would call ‘the original sin.’ When the APA was created and the master plans were developed, it was very clear the emphasis was to be on land use and land use management,” Lapping said.

“What a lot of folks didn’t understand at the time is in a rural region when you manage land, you’re also managing the economy,” he said. Because a sister agency focused on economic development in the Adirondacks was never created to work alongside the APA, a lot of “after-the-fact thinking” has taken place, Lapping said.

“Perhaps a lot of the conflict that has really defined the region for decades now might have been avoided,” he said.
The region has been facing loss of population, higher than average unemployment and a decline in manufacturing jobs, Margaret Irwin of River Street Planning and Development said, during an economic strategy report at Wednesday’s conference.

Irwin outlined a number of ways negative economic trends could be reversed, such as expanding broadband, continued growth in green energy, addressing housing issues, workforce training and continuing to further tourism as a main economic driver.

State Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury, pointed to a 2009 demographic report — the Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Project — as a tipping point in the Adirondack debate.

“It really showed the aging population, and that’s what we thought was happening, but that made it very factual,” said Little, who represents a large portion of the park. “The balance had maybe tipped too far into the environment.”

Little has been trying for years to have attraction signs placed along the Northway that would tell travelers which exit to get off for the Depot Museum in North Creek and Wild Center in Tupper Lake.

The biggest obstacle is an APA regulation that says no sign can be erected solely for the traveling public, Little said.
“Attraction signs on the Northway stop at Exit 21 and don’t start again until Exit 35,” Little said. “But I think we’re closer than we’ve ever been.”

Warren County resident Keith Altarac recently noted a marked change in his dealings with the APA after battling the agency for years over his Lake Luzerne property.

Altarac bought a 10-acre parcel in the town a decade ago with intentions to build a home, which has yet to happen.
“My lawyer was fighting them and fighting them for four years,” Altarac said recently. “I decided to go up there and all their staff had changed and all of a sudden, they’re trying to act like the kinder, gentler APA. There was finally someone with some sense up
there.”

Altarac bought his land decades after a nearly 300-acre parcel was subdivided, apparently without an APA permit, something he wasn’t aware of when he purchased the land. As a result, Altarac and some of his neighbors were the subject of an APA enforcement action in which the agency asked the cluster of landowners to sign settlements agreeing not to further subdivide the land and to get an APA permit each time they built.

The tone of his discussions about the building plans changed, he negotiated some conditions and was granted an APA permit about six months ago.

“It hurt me bad,” Altarac, a builder by trade, said about the protracted dispute. “I still haven’t been able to build during that time.”

Moving forward
At Wednesday’s forum, several regional projects that are in development and aim to bring the Adirondacks into the 21st century were presented. The Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages is creating a multifaceted mapping project that will give leaders of the 103 Adirondack municipalities more easily accessible data about their communities.

Brian Towers of Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages said the geo-database puts together data including land classifications, availability of public water and sanitary sewers, broadband networks and electric and gas service.

When it goes live, it will give municipal leaders the ability to tap into a cloud-based database and use the information for community planning, regional collaboration and economic development.

The information could, for instance, help move along infrastructure projects.

“We should be able to get together with the agency or (the state Department of Environmental Conservation) and say ‘Look, the utility needs to put a new power line through here, let’s not put road blocks up here,’ ” Towers said.

An Adirondack mobile app and web portal were rolled out earlier this year, to make navigating the park easier for visitors reliant on mobile devices.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration has been largely supportive of the Adirondack region: Last summer, his inaugural Adirondack Whitewater Challenge had politicians and dignitaries rafting their way through the Indian and Hudson rivers, drawing positive attention to the region.

The three regional economic development councils that touch the park were named “top performers” in 2013, funneling millions of dollars for economic development and infrastructure projects within the Blue Line. The Adirondack tourism web portal and app is among the projects that have received funding from the councils.

The Adirondacks fall within three different regional economic development councils: Most of the region is covered by the North Country council, a portion falls within the Mohawk Valley council and nearly a quarter of the park is represented by the Capital Region council, which is where Warren, Washington and Saratoga counties reside.

Since the councils were launched three years ago, $65.8 million has been awarded for economic development and infrastructure projects in the Adirondacks, money that has been funneled toward broadband development and expansion and tourism development, said Roseanne Murphy, the North Country regional director for Empire State Development.

One of the state’s initiatives is to increase collaboration between the APA and state Department of Environmental Conservation when it comes to the park, to streamline the process of working with the agencies, become more “user-friendly,” and be clear about “where one stops and the other starts,” Ulrich said.

One of DEC’s goals is to create a connection between the state Forest Preserve and the communities of the Adirondacks, and better promote the numerous recreational opportunities, DEC Region 5 Spokesman Dave Winchell said at Wednesday’s conference.

For Janeway, the key is to seize the chance to move forward, he said. “I don’t think we have ever had this level of collaboration and cooperation among stakeholders,” Janeway said. “The biggest thing I worry about is that we will miss this opportunity and revert to the much more difficult environment we had 20, 30 years ago

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