The Adirondack Park has long been cherished by New Yorkers. Over 90 percent of the constitutionally protected public Forest Preserve in New York State is in the Adirondack Park, including the state’s grandest Wilderness Areas. The Forest Preserve is the People’s Land, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and free of charge. New Yorkers depend upon the Adirondack Park’s unique landscape of mountains, lakes and rivers, and unending forests, all surrounding small communities, for wild and unforgettable outdoor experiences.
The Adirondack Park Agency (APA) is celebrating its 50th year as one of the leading regional land use regulatory agencies in the U.S. The APA Act was passed in 1971, which set up the agency to develop a Park-wide plan for the development of private lands in the six-million-acre Adirondack Park, a place the size of Vermont. In 1972, the APA adopted the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan that established a management program for public Forest Preserve lands, which covers roughly half of the Park. In 1973, the Legislature approved the agency’s Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan, a bold zoning plan that covers all private lands in the Adirondacks.
The APA’s 50th year celebration is a genuinely impressive feat, given the decades of opposition it faced from leaders in Albany and local government that endured into the 2000s. The fact that the APA Act has not been updated or revised in any substantive way for 50 years is a testament to the prescience of its framers, but they could not anticipate everything.
The Act says nothing about climate change. It’s behind the times on stormwater management and subdivision planning principles. Current and widely used scientific assessment practices for wildlife and water quality protection do not easily dovetail with the APA Act’s outdated project review guidelines. The act is not a useful tool for addressing the affordable housing challenges in the Adirondacks.
The APA Act also invests significant discretion in its 11-member Board, three of whom are state agency designees and eight of whom are nominated by the Governor and must be approved by the State Senate. The APA Act does not specify the qualifications for serving on the APA Board, but for its first 25 years, the APA Board included members from both political parties who were leaders in environmental law and conservation science and had an appreciation for the history and uniqueness of the Adirondack Park. Today, unfortunately, the APA Board is dominated by business interests and local government leaders having little or no background in land use planning, conservation science, or environmental law, and who promote ever greater and sprawling development of ecologically sensitive private lands.
The decline of the APA’s leadership is underscored by three significant legal setbacks that the APA has suffered in just the past two years. These court decisions point to real problems at the APA, both in its oversight responsibilities for management of the Forest Preserve and in its regulation of private land development.
In 2021, the Court of Appeals ruled that extra-wide snowmobile trails on Forest Preserve lands built by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and approved by the APA were “constitutionally forbidden.” The Court found that the APA, along with DEC, violated the “Forever Wild” clause of the NYS constitution by constructing these snowmobile highways that required removal of nearly 1,000 trees per mile. In the years leading up to this landmark court decision, both the APA and DEC ignored repeated warnings from Protect the Adirondacks that the planned snowmobile trails could not pass constitutional muster.
Last month, the Appellate Division, Third Department, issued a unanimous 5-0 ruling annulling an APA permit for a large-scale expansion of a commercial marina on Lower Saranac Lake. The court stated that the APA had bent its rules for wetlands protections, and also found that the agency’s issuance of the permit in the absence of a carrying capacity study of the lake was “wholly unexplained and, indeed, inexplicable.”
And in another court decision handed down last month, the State Supreme Court in Warren County struck down a permit authorizing use of an aquatic herbicide in Lake George. The judge stated in his decision that the APA staff “failed to accurately summarize the substance” of public comments, and that its presentation of information to the APA Board was “one-sided.” The judge further noted that “the APA approval process was lacking in comparative analysis” and that the APA Board did not have “sufficient information upon which to make a determination.” The Judge concluded that the APA’s review and decision to issue the permit was “arbitrary and capricious.”
Other lawsuits are pending that also challenge poor decision-making by the APA. Unfortunately, not every uninformed or inadequately reviewed decision can be challenged in court.
This spring there are four seats that are open on the APA Board. This is a major test for Governor Kathy Hochul’s Adirondack Park agenda. The current APA Board is weak, feckless, and its decisions placing unbridled economic development before protection of the Park’s unique and irreplaceable resources are being overturned in the courts. Balance needs to be restored so that environmental voices and science are once again heard from members of the APA Board. The Board needs scientists and experts in Adirondack Park public policy, land use, and the law.
Over the last decade the pendulum at the APA swung wildly towards the pro-business and pro-development side. The APA is far out of balance. It needs to swing back to the middle because the Adirondack Park is a place where economic development and environmental protection go hand-in-hand. The APA should be an institution that truly balances the environment and the economy and does not put its fingers on the scales of greater development of Adirondack Park lands and greater motorized access of the Forest Preserve at any cost.
Click here to read a version of this article as an op-ed in the Albany Times Union.