Panelists: APA weak on water quality

PAUL SMITHS – State Adirondack Park Agency regulations should be updated to better protect the Park’s waterways from pollution caused by stormwater runoff and shoreline development.

That’s what environmentalists said Thursday during a “Strengthening the APA” conference hosted by the Saranac Lake-based news magazine the Adirondack Explorer. The conference was held at the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center.

A morning panel discussion on water quality opened with a presentation from Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks. He said stormwater is the biggest threat to the Park’s water quality.

“As we change land uses, harden surfaces, build buildings, build roads, build parking lots, we’re generating much more stormwater that goes into a lake, and does over time contribute to negative water quality trends,” he said. “We’re seeing that in major water bodies across the Park, a slow, steady decline in water quality.”

Bauer said APA regulations allow for a higher density of development along shorelines, the same areas that contribute the highest volume of stormwater to a lake.

“In some of our ecologically most fragile areas and economically most important areas, the (APA) Act actually channels development onto the lakeshores,” Bauer said. “That’s a major issue because the APA Act is very weak when it comes to stormwater management.”

Bauer noted that the word stormwater doesn’t exist in the APA Act and that the agency doesn’t require applicants to provide a stormwater management plan, “so it doesn’t deal with the biggest long-term issue we have for the water quality of the Adirondacks, which is stormwater management, and this is a tragedy.”

There are models out there that could work Park-wide, Bauer said, naming shoreline zoning regulations in the town of Queensbury and the Lake George Park Commission’s stormwater management regulations.

“The state of New York needs to get into the stormwater business for the Adirondacks,” Bauer said. “Now is the time to act if we’re going to protect our most important economic asset in the Park, which is water. The agency clearly has a role, but they’re not in the game right now.”

Lake George Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky said the APA largely relies on state Department of Environmental Conservation regulations when it comes to stormwater management, but DEC only provides permits for developments over one acre, “so you can see a lot of development falls under the radar screen.”

Navitsky said the state should change its regulations to require low-impact development, rather than just recommend it, to promote infiltration of water back into the ground, require shoreline buffers, maintain natural drainage patterns and protect areas with steep slopes and wetlands. Homes and buildings that are grandfathered under existing laws should be retrofitted to meet these standards when any redevelopment is proposed, he said.

“This can be done, and it can be done in a manner that allows development to proceed, and done in a manner that does not restrict people’s rights to develop,” Navitsky said. “It’s being done all around the country, and it’s actually benefitting land property values.”

But do the Park’s residents and local officials want more shoreline development regulations? Referencing the ongoing debate about the classification of the former Finch Pruyn and Co. lands, state Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, said many elected officials “are more concerned about the economy and the economic balance.

“They’re not sure that more regulation is what’s needed for their towns,” Stec said during a question-and-answer session with Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio.

Stec said more needs to be done to protect lakes from aquatic invasive species, and he said “there’s a compelling argument that can be made about stormwater.” But when asked if there’s an appetite in Albany to tighten water quality regulations in the APA Act, Stec said that could be an even “larger can of worms” than the Finch classification debate. It’s more likely to happen if there’s “less risk of confrontation” and local officials in the Park are on board with the changes, Stec said.

Asked by Explorer editor Phil Brown if the agency’s regulations allow too much development on lakeshores, APA spokesman Keith McKeever acknowledged that the current shoreline densities were part of a compromise crafted in a “smoke-filled room” in Albany when the agency was created.

“History can speak for itself with regard to that action and what has happened,” McKeever said, “and from the agency’s perspective, that’s why we fought so hard in 2008 to at least take back the regulation that allowed for expansion along shorelines with no oversight from APA.”

Other speakers

Another speaker, Eileen O’Connor of Cayuga County, talked about her county’s septic system inspection program. Cayuga is the only county in the state to require periodic inspections of septic systems. The county trains private contractors to conduct the inspections, which cost homeowners $60 to $80 and must take place every two years for lakefront property owners, but less frequently for those further back from the shore.

O’Connor said people “really hated” the program when it first came out. She said the county “generally gets good compliance” but it often takes sending several letters, summoning a property owner to a board of health hearing and the threat of fines to get compliance. Not having inspectors who are county employees and a scarcity of funding to repair failing septic systems have also been issues, O’Connor explained. The positives, she said, are that failing septic systems are being corrected, coliform bacteria counts have dropped and the county now has information on most of its roughly 16,000 septic systems.

Julie Regan of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency also spoke about her agency’s efforts to protect Lake Tahoe, which sits on the border between California and Nevada. Like the APA, she said her agency has a history of “polarization,” but has been focused in recent years on finding ways to integrate the environment, the economy and the community in its decisions.

“We’ve been focused in our planning at the agency on the environment,” Regan said, “but in recent years we’ve really needed to have that recognition that it all works together, and there shouldn’t be an expense on one side and a gain on the other, and that we have to work together in collaboration.”