Water, sewer projects are good for economy and environment

The central principle of the Adirondack Park is the balance of environmental protection and economic opportunity. Protected wild lands can co-exist with human communities. Environmentally wise use of private as well as public lands need not conflict with good jobs, smart growth and a good quality of life for the Park’s residents.

The key to making this balance work is to concentrate population and development in hamlets and villages, creating successful communities with jobs and services. At the same time that this focus strengthens the small-town lifestyle, it protects the Park’s natural wonders by preserving backcountry and rural lands in areas outside the hamlets.

Putting this principle into practice, though, is fraught with challenges. One of the biggest is that many of the Park’s hamlets struggle to provide the basic infrastructure needed to attract and keep employers. Without larger populations over which to spread costs, services like sewage treatment, drinking water and even decent roads are often out of reach. State and federal programs can help with some of these costs, but the state, in particular, needs to do more. New York made a substantial and farsighted investment in creating an Adirondack Park. It must now ensure its continued success by increasing funding for the services that, in turn, will lead to private investment in businesses, bringing the economic benefits to the people who live here.

A few examples:

In 2010, Elizabethtown, the Essex County seat, proposed a new wastewater-treatment plant. Large institutions in the central business area, including a hospital, nursing home and county offices, were making do with individual systems, and many residential septic systems were antiquated. A new system would safeguard the water quality of the Boquet River. It would support major employers already there and make it possible for new businesses to move in without taking on the cost of developing their own waste treatment. Even though government loans and grants would have reduced the cost, district residents voted down the project.

The hamlet of North Creek near the state-run Gore Mountain ski center has enjoyed a resurgence of its downtown business district. But business leaders still watch with frustration as skiers arrive for day outings at the mountain, then return home rather than stay in North Creek and contribute to the local economy. The hamlet simply lacks the number of lodging beds needed to fulfill its potential. But without a municipal sewer system, investors are deterred by the high cost of building a system of their own.

Johnsburg Supervisor Ron Vanselow says the town is working on plans for a North Creek sewer district that would need voter approval. The planning includes looking for government assistance to relieve residents of some of the costs.

And in Wilmington, home of the Whiteface Mountain ski area, local leaders want to expand and modernize their lodging. Supervisor Randy Preston says they aren’t looking for large-scale projects such as you would find in nearby Lake Placid. But potential developers believe they need 50 rooms for a hotel to work. Without sewage treatment in the town, they would have to shoulder the expense and for that size project, the cost has been a large obstacle.

“It definitely gets in the way,” said Preston. “It’s one of the key things stopping Wilmington from moving forward.”

Preston is holding out hope for a technological answer. The town has researched systems that could be used by a small number of commercial users at a lower cost than a traditional plant.

“We don’t want a $15 million plant that could fail before it’s paid off,” he said. “The whole thought process needs to change away from the traditional plant.”

These aren’t isolated examples. Essex County planners recently released a study identifying $67.2 million in needed sewage-treatment projects, ranging from new systems to major repairs and upgrades to old systems. Each of these needs represents a potential health and environmental threat from inadequate waste disposal. And it represents an obstacle to businesses that might want to locate in those communities. The report also identified another $31.3 million of needed drinking-water projects.

The government agencies that help fund water and sewer facilities tend to view them as public health needs. And clearly they are. Improperly treated waste can hurt human health and the natural environment. Safe drinking water is a fundamental need.

But we should also approach these needs as part of an economic mandate to bring services and jobs to small villages and hamlets. Succeeding at that would not only elevate the quality of life for Adirondack residents; it also would strengthen that crucial balance of viable communities and environmental protection that is at the heart of the Adirondack experiment.

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Tom Woodman is the publisher of the Adirondack Explorer news magazine, based in Saranac Lake. This essay appears as an editorial in the Explorer’s May/June issue.