In the News  Archive

Opinion: APA should require conservation design practices for subdivisions

April 2, 2015
Adirondack Daily Enterprise

By Tom Woodman

A key to successful protection of the Adirondack Park is wise oversight of privately-owned lands within the Blue Line. Such properties make up roughly half the acreage in the Park and include wild lands that are important both for ecological integrity and the natural, park-like character of the Adirondacks.

Unfortunately, the state agency responsible for regulating this development, the Adirondack Park Agency, has failed to consistently apply the principles that would most effectively protect sensitive lands and at the same time promote smart economic growth. This discouraging reality was once again apparent when the agency in January approved the Woodworth Lake subdivision of former Boy Scout property in northern Fulton County.

The APA required modifications of the proposal by developer New York Land and Lakes aimed at reducing its impact. But the agency failed to apply the principles of "conservation design," especially those calling for a thorough - and early - ecological assessment of the land and the clustering of buildings in a plan that provides maximum protection for wildlife, environmental quality and the natural character of the area.

These principles need not be obstacles to developers or burdens for property owners. Studies have shown that well-designed subdivisions cut developers' costs by reducing the amount of infrastructure like roads and utilities. And the property values of the homes in such developments can be higher than in developments that don't incorporate conservation design.

It's baffling, then, that the APA does not make conservation design its default requirement for applications for subdivisions on sensitive lands. The presumption should be that any sizeable subdivision on land classified as Resource Management will take this approach. If a developer does not want to follow those precepts the burden should be on them to demonstrate why conservation design would not be viable. Only then would the APA approve a different plan.

Resource Management is the most restrictive classification within the park, and it is applied to the most environmentally important areas. The impact of design errors is especially damaging in Resource Management areas, which by their nature are likely to have woodlands, wetlands and waterways. The state's Private Land Use and Development Plan recommends that Resource Management lands be used for conservation, commercial forestry and farming, not residential housing developments.

A key sentence in the law governing APA private land decisions allows residential development on resource Management lands "on substantial acreages or in small clusters on carefully selected and well-designed sites." A state court recently held that the APA should consider this language a guideline rather than a bind rule.

The Woodworth Lake plans call for 24 building lots over 1,119 acres, in the towns of Bleecker and Johnstown, most of which is on Resource Management land. The property is adjacent to the state-owned Shaker Mountain Wild Forest. It's a prime example of the kind of high-value natural area that the Resource Management classification is designed to protect.

With twenty-four building lots on more than 1,100 acres, it might seem that the plan preserves open space. But the lots extend across the property, creating sprawl, fragmenting wildlife habitat and creating risks to the health of forests and the two lakes, extensive wetlands and streams on the property.

A rigorous use of conservation design techniques would likely have resulted in buildings placed closer together but screened from one another. The location for the cluster would be chosen based on terrain and ecological characteristics in order to minimize impact.

The first planning step would have been an extensive independent survey of the property to identify ecologically important and environmentally sensitive features. The survey would have included a thorough ecological study of the land and would have been undertaken in different seasons to identify seasonal features like vernal pools, and wildlife that relies on the land for portions of the year. While the developers did conduct a limited survey, it took place over just three months and provided in the words of one environmental group "only the most basic ecological information."

The extended layout of the building lots requires more roadways than a cluster would. The developers and the APA staff noted that development roads would use the routes of existing roadways where possible. This may mitigate impact for the time being. But if fewer roads were needed, old roadways would grow in and the property over time would have more uninterrupted woodland for wildlife habitat and human enjoyment.

When the agency approved the plan, a commissioner said that the agency considered fifty factors and that to automatically require clustering would be to improperly elevate that one concern over all the others. A lawyer for the agency also reminded people of the court ruling that the language calling for clustering was a guideline and not a requirement.

But conservation design is not one factor among fifty. It is a fundamental way of judging an overall project, within which other factors are considered. And looking for legal rationales for avoiding this approach reveals a lack of will to apply best practices for land use regulation.

In granting a permit to New York Land and Lakes under these conditions the APA has shown the need for an update in state law that would, among others things, make conservation design the default requirement for Resource Management subdivisions. Park advocates across the Adirondacks have called for such strengthening of the APA. It's time for Albany to act.

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