To Build a Better Park, Look to the Localities
More than forty years ago, the Adirondack Park Agency was created in large part because local governments were averse to taking the steps that were necessary to protect the character of the Park. Last week, forty years after the New York State legislature approved the Agency’s Private Land Use Master Plan, the Adirondack Explorer magazine hosted a conference at the Adirondack Visitors Center at Paul Smith’s to assess the Agency’s condition. The consensus among the speakers was that the original plan has failed to protect water quality and curb sprawl; indeed, that it inadvertently damaged water quality by directing development toward lake shores and promoted sprawl by discouraging the clustering of new houses built in areas beyond the hamlets. It also appeared to be the consensus that there was little political will in the state capitol to amend the APA’s Private Land Use Master Plan to bring it into conformity with more recent advances in land use planning, in which lake shores are buffered, wild life habitat and open spaces are protected, urban runoff is treated and houses are situated appropriately and unobtrusively within a rural landscape. It was also the opinion that any attempt by the Agency to exercise whatever broad powers it may claim to have to protect the Park without explicit authorization from the legislature would be challenged, politically as well as in the courts. There was, however, reason to leave the conference feeling hopeful about the future of the Adirondacks, and not because the alignment of power in Albany might conceivably change. It was because things are changing at the local level. Lake George, for instance, was held up as a model for protecting and, in fact, restoring water quality. The Town of Day was featured for its restrictions on upland or ridgeline development. Outside the Park, Cayuga County’s regulation of septic systems, which the Town of Lake George is in the process of adapting to its needs, was highlighted. Willie Janeway, the executive director of the Adirondack Council, affirmed “that we can build a better Park” by “re-uniting economic and environmental interests and working across the aisles.” No doubt, but that co-operation is most likely to happen within the localities themselves, where conversations are still possible, as the communities on Lake George have also demonstrated through the coalitions of business, governmental and environmental groups that have emerged to fight invasive species. Moreover, the local boards – the town, planning and zoning boards – already have the authority to accomplish much of what the APA is unable to do, such as requiring developers to create clustered or conservation subdivisions, or assessing cumulative impacts of new construction and regulating ridgeline development. This is not to suggest that the Adirondack Park Agency is irrelevant. It still has a critical role in overseeing large projects affecting the character of the Park and small projects in towns with no land use plans. Still, it’s somewhat ironic that four decades after the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency, a better park may eventually come about because, and not despite, local governments.