Plinyville is Dying. Should You Care?
The Town of Long Lake has a population of 800, thereabouts. (Actually, according to the 2010 census, the town has lost 139 people, or 16.35% of its 2000 population.) So of its 711 year-round residents, approximately forty of them throw pots, weave scarves or make twig furniture as their primary occupation. That, at any rate, is what we were told at a forum on the future of Adirondack towns at the Visitors Center in Newcomb on September 30.
North Country Public Radio journalist Brian Mann, whose essay for Adirondack Life, “The Other Endangered Species,” was the genesis of the forum, argues that Long Lake and other Adirondack Park communities are in danger of becoming “ghost towns and hollow vacation resorts;” the mission of the Adirondack Park Agency, he writes, should be re-oriented toward sustaining those communities. Mann’s essay has generated inches of ink and yards of cyberspace, but his fundamental premise – that communities that are not economically viable should be placed on artificial life support – has not, so far as I know, been explicitly challenged. But it’s a question that deserves to be asked. Why should tax payer dollars support communities that cannot support themselves?
Mann is among those who have adopted the revisionist posture that the Adirondack Park is “a great experiment” that “accepts that people are one of (the park’s) intrinsic values.” Bill McKibben, Mann and others assume, correctly, in our opinion, that most of us can fulfill our potential as human beings only as active members of a community. (That’s what Aristotle meant when he said that we are political animals.) But pot luck suppers in the fire hall do not a community make. Every town in what is now the Adiriondack Park came into being for their capacity, real or imagined, to produce wealth, and they remain viable communities only insofar as they are able to generate wealth. Towns that sawed lumber, tanned hides and milled grain like Lake George and Bolton re-invented themselves as resort towns, and are thriving today. A town like Ironville didn’t re-invent itself after its iron ore was depleted, and today, it’s a museum.
Shouldn’t it be the responsibility of every community within the Adirondack Park today to re-invent itself if it wishes to survive? Granted, today’s towns may be constrained by the amount of Forest Preserve lands within their borders or by the Adirondack Park Agency’s Private Land Master Plan, but those are the historical conditions in which we find ourselves, and to which we have had to adapt. (Mann’s assertions notwithstanding, the founders of the Adirondack Park Agency had no mandate to give equal weight to both the preservation of the park’s open space and the residents’ need for employment. If that were true, Adirondack legislators would not have fought so bitterly against the creation of the agency.)
We left the forum in Newcomb as soon as it ended, and we didn’t arrive back in Bolton Landing until 11 pm, but when we did, Main Street was lined with cars and the restaurants were open. Much of Bolton Landing’s vitality can be traced to the investment in the Sagamore which Norman Wolgin made in the mid-80s. And to be sure, a town’s re-invention may, in reality, be the influence of one single-minded entrepreneur. As it happens, one of the first tests of the Adirondack Park Agency’s authority came in the mid 1970s when Louis Brandt, who owned the Sagamore at the time, argued that he had the right to build as many homes on the island as he wished, regardless of the local wastewater treatment plant’s capacity to accommodate them. The courts upheld the new agency’s authority to classify lands according to their character and carrying capacity.
As towns re-invent themselves, an intact Adirondack Park Agency will be needed to make certain that any new development is appropriate development. (We can only imagine what the Adirondack Park would look like if gambling casinos were to proliferate, unregulated.) Protecting the environment remains the task of the Adirondack Park Agency, because it’s an unfinished one. Rug weavers, pot throwers and rustic furniture makers, alas, must fend for themselves.