A year of vehement democracy

Many of the top 10 news stories of 2012, as determined by a vote of our news staff, are about the messy process of democracy: of people clamoring to have their views heard, to influence others and ultimately to help decide how things will be.

They’re also stories about people digging their heels into their chosen sides’ turf on issues: about deep conflicts of views, and how hard it is to achieve compromise – or acceptance when others get their way.

Some of this year’s big events aren’t like that: not the missing-people searches, the rape trial, the robber-killer’s arrest and death, or the especially mild winter.

But many are: the passionate arguments for and against building the Adirondack Club and Resort in Tupper Lake; the public conversation about when the state will buy pieces of the former Finch, Pruyn timberlands and how it will classify them; the election, of course; a public clamor at school board meetings about Lake Placid’s school superintendent; and the wide-open debate about whether the Adirondacks’ primary railroad should be replaced with a multi-use recreational trail.

We hope, a year from now, that we can write about 2013 as a year of progress: when Adirondackers and Americans reckoned their differences on big problems, when various sides gave a little and when people and their political representatives made big decisions that most people found to be reasonable.

About our No. 1 story

The general public of the Adirondacks doesn’t have much power to influence the ACR decision – if so, the resort would probably have been started years ago – but nevertheless, people have used their freedom of speech, of the press and of peaceful assembly to pressure the official deciders. Some also used their right to sue, hoping the court would reverse the approval the state Adirondack Park Agency gave the resort in January.

This was our staff’s runaway choice for No. 1 story of the year. Depending on whom you talk to, 2012 was almost the best year in decades for Tupper Lake’s economy or the worst in decades for the town’s environment. But then it was neither. The lawsuit that environmentalists filed in March dampened a huge ACR victory, making this one more year it waited in the wings.

The battle line here is, quite starkly, the balance of economic and environmental considerations in the Adirondack Park.

On one side are people who find it incredible to deny private people from building homes on private property around an existing ski area next to an existing golf course in a built-up but declining community that desperately needs economic opportunity. The woods are well-logged, not pristine, and there’s true wilderness right behind them, plus the Follensby Pond tract that’s likely to join the state Forest Preserve before the ACR is fully built out. If not here, where?

Nowhere, the opponents tacitly reply.

The plaintiffs say they believe some illicit dealing went on behind the scenes to sway the APA. If they can prove that, it would obviously be a major exposure of government wrongdoing, but in all honesty, that would only be a means to their end. Their primary aim here has always been to stop this project and to prevent others from following its precedent. They see the Adirondack Park as a place where development of this scale is not allowed, and the APA as gatekeeper.

Granted, the ACR may never achieve its full promise – the projected sales figures seem pretty starry-eyed – but still, the Enterprise stands by its opinion that this project deserves a chance. If a court overturns the APA’s decision, it would effectively condemn one of the Park’s largest towns to wither, with little hope of reviving. Who would want to pass that kind of sentence on a community of 6,000 people, and for what greater goal?

That doesn’t mean we want to see an explosion of development in the Park. The Enterprise’s view of the APA has evolved over the last four decades as succeeding generations of editorial writers – like Adirondackers in general, we believe – came to appreciate its upsides and accept many of its downsides. Yes, we want people to be able to live in these hamlets and villages, and we wish the state would announce an endgame to its expansion of the Forest Preserve. But we also deeply believe that these six million acres are a special place, a protected patchwork of public and private lands, and we think most Adirondack residents like it that way.

Adirondackers want a true balance: not a real estate field day but also not a statewide guilt trip to make reparations here for all the environmental harm humans have done elsewhere.