Would Cuomo override the APA?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo waded into the details of an Adirondack debate two weeks ago when he visited the Park to talk about the classification options for 21,000 acres of newly acquired former Finch, Pruyn and Co. timberlands in Essex and Hamilton counties.

Cuomo’s office says he met with representatives of three environmental groups at Follensby Pond on the morning of Sept. 26. The gathering, which was closed to the press, was hosted by The Nature Conservancy and included the Adirondack Council and the Adirondack Mountain Club. Later that day, Cuomo met behind closed doors at Gore Mountain Ski Center with local elected officials from Long Lake, Indian Lake, Minerva, North Hudson and Newcomb – towns with former Finch lands in them – and state Sen. Betty Little and Assemblyman Dan Stec.

The governor’s trip raised a few eyebrows, not so much because of the topic but because of its timing. His meetings came in the middle of the state Adirondack Park Agency’s deliberations over the various Finch classification proposals, which will determine the extent of public recreational access to the lands. Sometime in the next few months, the APA board will deliver a recommendation to Cuomo on how the lands should be classified, ending an exhaustive series of hearings, meetings and collecting of public comment.

Why would Cuomo jump into the middle of the issue now, before he gets the APA’s recommendation?

Asked about the governor’s visit, a Cuomo administration official told the Enterprise that day that the classification process “is important to the people in your neck of the woods, and the governor wants to show he’s engaged in the process.”

“While the purchase of the former Finch Pruyn lands boosts our potential to attract thousands of visitors to the area every year, we must also make sure to invest in the area in a way that protects it for future generations,” Cuomo said in a press release issued the next day. “These meetings were about discussing how to meet those goals with all the stakeholders having an opportunity to weigh in.”

However, North Country Public Radio Bureau Chief Brian Mann, in an analysis broadcast the day after Cuomo’s visit, called it “extraordinary” and “a big, big detour” in the normal classification process for the governor “to be conducting his own negotiations, his own fact-finding – instead of waiting for his experts at the APA to make their recommendation.”

Mann also questioned the absence of APA Chairwoman Lani Ulrich from the meetings, saying it raises “real questions about his confidence in her ability to guide this to a finish.”

Others were miffed by Cuomo’s decision to only meet with select stakeholders. On the morning of Sept. 26, many of the Park’s environmental leaders, and top APA officials like Ulrich, had gathered in Paul Smiths for a conference. Some were not aware the governor was in the Adirondacks.

“We were not included in the meeting, and we were not invited or informed about it,” said Dan Plumley of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, a relatively new and small environmental group. “This has been the second time there have been events with the governor in the Adirondacks that have been closed-door events. That’s a concern. We want the governor to provide opportunities to all stakeholders when he comes to the Park. “

Nevertheless, Plumley said he has faith that Cuomo won’t “upset the APA process.”

Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said his group also wasn’t included in the meetings, but he’s since talked to people who were there. He said he didn’t see any issues with Cuomo jumping into the classification process while it’s still before the APA.

“Clearly (Cuomo) decided to start gathering information early in the process,” Bauer said. “I think he was very careful not to step over the line. He did not tell anybody in these meetings that he is thinking that he has a preference of wild forest versus canoe or primitive or wilderness, so he’s not pre-judging that.”

Bauer also said he didn’t see any issues with Ulrich being absent from the governor’s meetings as it would have been inappropriate for her to be there. The APA said the same.

“We were made aware of the governor’s visit,” said APA spokesman Keith McKeever, “and we’re very excited that the governor has taken a strong interest in the Adirondacks, but with Lani being the chairwoman of the board that’s going to be making the decision, it would not have been appropriate for her to be there.”

Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, said Cuomo has the right to investigate, on his own, the issue of how to classify the Finch lands, regardless of where the APA is in the process.

“If it was a major decision I was going to have to sign off on, I would want to know all the facts, and I think it’s definitely to his credit that he’s trying to learn all the facts,” Monroe said. “I don’t think other governors have delved into it to the extent he has. They pretty much rubber-stamped what the agency recommends.”

At a press conference at Gore Mountain following his meetings with environmentalists and elected officials, Cuomo said that “in a perfect world,” the APA’s recommendation on the Finch lands would coincide with his judgment.

“But, in any event, the governor is responsible legally for the decision and can override the recommendation of the APA if he or she sees fit,” Cuomo was quoted as saying in a Denton Publications report.

What if that happens? What if Cuomo doesn’t like the recommendation from the APA? Observers of the classification process say Cuomo can either approve or reject the agency’s recommendation. They don’t believe he can pick his own classification.

“We’ve done some legal research into this, and the governor cannot say, ‘I’m taking the agency’s wild forest recommendation, I’m rejecting that, and I’m hereby classifying these lands as canoe,'” Bauer said. “The governor does not have the authority to do that.”

Monroe agreed.

“If he doesn’t like the recommendation, I think he has to send (it) back to the agency for further review,” Monroe said, “but obviously if he was to send it back, it would be with instructions with what he wants to see different about it.”

The Finch classification package is not on the APA’s agenda for its meeting today and Friday in Ray Brook. A decision from the agency board isn’t expected until its November or December meeting.

Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.