Saranac Lake looks into APA-compliant land-use plan

SARANAC LAKE – The village is exploring the possibility of taking over administration and enforcement of some state Adirondack Park Agency land-use regulations in the community.

The village Board of Trustees met Monday with APA officials to discuss what it would take for the village to create an agency-approved local land use program. Eighteen of the Park’s 103 municipalities have APA-approved land use plans. Most are towns; the only village with an APA-approved plan is Lake George.

If it were to happen in Saranac Lake, the village would have to align some of its land-use regulations, in particular its shoreline controls, with those of the APA. The potential benefit to the village is that it would take control of the agency’s review and approval process for shoreline variances for things like docks, boathouses and buildings within 50 feet of a shoreline.

The timing of the village exploring this option isn’t accidental. It comes just weeks after Malone developer Chris LaBarge announced plans for a 90-room shoreline hotel on Lake Flower. The project will need multiple levels of approval, including from the village and the APA, and potential shoreline impacts will be a big topic of discussion during each authority’s review process.

“The village of Saranac Lake is experiencing some proposals for some great projects,” Mayor Clyde Rabideau said at Monday’s meeting. “We’re re-examining our planning in light of those proposals, noting that there is a neighboring village, Lake George, that has a status with the APA that we would like to explore for ourselves.”

The APA’s Brian Grisi and Robyn Burgess outlined the basics of the local land-use program, which is written into the Adirondack Park Agency Act. Quoting former APA staffer Jim Hotaling, Grisi said it’s a complex process that’s “a marriage, not a divorce” between the APA and the municipality.

The village is located in a “hamlet” area, which is the agency’s least restrictive land-use category. The only time a project in a hamlet generally comes under APA jurisdiction and review is if it’s taller than 40 feet in height, involves wetlands or is a subdivision or tourist accommodation that involves more than 100 units.

For the village to get an APA-approved land-use plan, Grisi said it would have to amend its zoning laws to mirror key provisions of the APA Act, such as definitions for “boathouse” and “dock.” The zoning law would also have to include all the agency’s shoreline requirements.

“The village would have local approvals for shoreline variances,” Grisi said. “If someone needed a variance for a dock, a boathouse, a retaining wall – something like that – they wouldn’t come to the agency; they would come directly to the village for the variance.”

Although the APA wouldn’t have oversight of shoreline variances, it could file a legal challenge against the village if it didn’t follow proper protocol “but that would have to be something terribly egregious for the agency to head down that road,” Grisi said.

Village Community Development Director Jeremy Evans said the village’s basic shoreline setback regulation – 50 feet from the shore for principal buildings – is essentially the same as the APA’s. Other village shoreline regulations and definitions for shoreline structures like docks and boathouses would have to be tweaked to meet the APA guidelines, he said.

The process of the village being granted an APA-approved plan could take from as little as six to eight months, or up to two years, Grisi said.

Noting it could involve a lot of village staff time, Trustee Allie Pelletieri asked if there would be funding or grants available for making the change. Grisi said the agency doesn’t have funding but the Department of State does have grant money for projects like this.

Pelletieri asked if the village could set its own height limits, greater than 40 feet, as part of the process. Grisi noted that village of Lake George recently approved a change in its land-use code that allows for buildings taller than 40 feet in one particular district of its downtown. He said the agency didn’t need to approve that zoning change because it’s within the village’s hamlet area, but a project greater than 40 feet in height that’s proposed in that district would still need an APA permit.

Saranac Lake is in the process of updating its land-use code based on the recently adopted village comprehensive plan. A draft of the new code is expected from the village’s consultants in October.

“This might be the opportune time” to update the code and align it with the APA’s guidelines, Rabideau said.

In order for the village to move forward with the process, it would have to submit a letter of intent to the agency. APA staff would then begin a review of the village’s zoning laws.

“That seems pretty straightforward without overly committing to it,” Rabideau said.

Tupper Lake’s Planning Board is also in the early stages of establishing its own APA compliant land-use plan.