Preservationists may have a point

There’s no question that the much-debated resort and second-home development around Mount Morris could be a good thing for Tupper Lake – if it’s done right. The proposed Adirondack Club and Resort is a 700-unit project spread over more than 6,000 acres. The question is whether this largest development ever to come before the Adirondack Park Agency will be done in a way that respects the natural environment and benefits the local community, and whether it will set a good or bad precedent for other projects, large and small, far into the future.

The APA thinks this is a suitable project and, after much back-and-forth, has approved it. Two environmental groups (Protect the Adirondacks and the Sierra Club) and some private citizens think this project would be detrimental, and they are suing the APA for allowing it. In response to the lawsuit, the developers have been conducting a PR campaign to score points in the “court of public opinion.” They regularly denounce their adversaries as ruthless “preservationists” who hate people and seek to drive Adirondack residents out of the Park. These attacks sound familiar to anyone who was around in the 1970s, when developers were accusing the Park Agency of the very same thing. (“The APA – Another Name for Tyranny!” proclaimed a local bumper sticker.)

Now it seems the game has changed. The ACR folks have sprung to the defense of the APA while berating the preservationists for having the nerve, as local real-estate mogul Jim LaValley recently wrote, “to impugn the integrity of the legally empowered professional stewards of the Adirondack Park.” Forty years can surely make a difference: The formerly maligned APA is now the hero, and those who dare to challenge its decisions are the villains.

Name-calling aside, an important question has been raised by the lawsuit. Did the APA act in the best interests of the Adirondack Park? Or did it approve a project whose design runs counter to the principles of “conservation development” – land-protection principles that have gained widespread acceptance since the APA’s Land Use and Development Plan was enacted in 1973? The crux of the problem is that ACR’s dozens of “great camp lots” range from 25 to more than 100 acres in size, and they are scattered over thousands of acres of forest land.

When the Park Agency set up shop four decades ago, it was generally agreed that the best way to preserve open space and wildlife habitat was to do one of two things. As the APA plan continues to stipulate in its guidelines for backcountry land, “residential development (should be done only) on substantial acreages OR in small clusters on carefully selected and well designed sites.” Since then, however, the thinking has evolved. Fragmenting land into “substantial acreages” has been largely discredited in favor of clustering (or concentrating) development to preserve most of the property in contiguous, intact open space. The key words are “contiguous” and “intact.” Conservation science recognizes that the spatial pattern of development is at least as important as the density of development.

In this view, the great camp lots of the ACR project represent a classic example of how NOT to treat open space. This is now seen as “rural sprawl” that needlessly disturbs the natural surroundings, alters species behavior and composition, increases human-wildlife conflicts and undermines the open-space character of the Adirondack Park.

Rural developers like the ACR continue to argue that large lots are the best way to preserve a natural landscape.

“We agreed that the buildings on each of the 24 eastern great camp lots would be located within a 3-acre building area,” they explain. “Therefore, development is restricted to about 80 of the project’s easternmost 3,300 acres” and “approximately 86 percent of our 6,235 acres is designed as open space.”

The problem is that this open space will be severely compromised by roads, driveways, houses, guest accommodations, garages, cars, pets and human activities. Studies show that each dwelling in a forested area has an ecological-effect zone that extends far beyond the immediate disturbed area of the site. For birds, the impact can extend for 30 acres and for small mammals such as marten, fisher and fox, up to 39 acres.

Conservation science leaves no doubt that concentrating development, and overlapping the impact zones as much as possible, is far preferable to fragmenting open space into huge lots. The preservationists who are currently suing the APA believe that the agency should have required the developer to concentrate his development. (Clustered development doesn’t have to be crammed together. For example, building homes on 5-acre lots would give occupants plenty of privacy while preserving perhaps 90 percent of the property in continuous, commonly owned open space.)

The APA seems to believe that the choice between clustering versus spreading out building lots should be the developer’s choice. The preservationists argue that the APA should have made that choice itself in favor of concentrating development, as it has in the past under different governors and with a differently constituted board of commissioners.

Another bone of contention is whether the APA required an adequate biological assessment of the Tupper Lake property before lot lines were drawn. With conservation design, this is always step one in the development process. Everything else flows from a thorough, professional, unbiased, four-season ecological inventory of the land to determine where roads and house lots should be situated and where development should NOT occur.

Mount Morris seems ripe for the kind of resort project that could give Tupper Lake a new lease on life. The question is whether the ACR project as approved by the APA is appropriate for its site and for the Adirondacks. The current lawsuit should be seen as a public service that will help to clarify the APA’s authority and responsibilities as “professional stewards of the Park.”

A resident of Saranac Lake, Dick Beamish was a staff member of the Adirondack Park Agency from 1972 to ’78.