In their recent Letter to the Editor, Philadelphia developer Michael Foxman and his partner Thomas Lawson, representatives of Adirondack Club & Resort (ACR) in Tupper Lake, impugned the “high motives” of Protect the Adirondacks in bringing a lawsuit against the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) for permitting this massive 6,000-acre development. Since PROTECT “could never have had a reasonable expectation of winning in court,” they argue, it is “clear that they simply wanted to . . . prevent economic opportunity for residents of the Adirondack Park.”
This, of course, is nonsense.
The developers are spinning their own tale, which is flawed in four important ways.
First, PROTECT’s lawsuit had nothing to do with either thwarting or encouraging “economic opportunity” in the Adirondacks. That’s not our job. There are hundreds of very capable local government officials and experienced personnel from chambers of commerce, state authorities, state agencies, and non-profits that work hard on the economic development of Adirondack communities.
Second, what we tried to do was to make the state follow its own laws and protect natural resources, specifically intact forestlands. Unfortunately, the APA has abandoned its legislative mandate to protect open space in the Adirondack Park.
Despite prolonged negotiations seeking compromise, the developers never budged in their subdivision plans. They pushed through a design to scatter 80 houses, including 35 so-called “great camps,” across 4,800 acres of Resource Management lands, which are supposed to be the most strongly regulated private lands in the Adirondack Park. Under pressure to promote economic growth, the APA cut corners, gave the developers what they wanted, and approved this poorly designed project. No attempt was made to design a clustered subdivision as had been used in other APA permits.
PROTECT would never have taken on the expense of litigation in the first place were it not for the ruinous precedent established by this poorly planned development. Following the precedent of other lawsuits against the APA in the last ten years, PROTECT brought suit because we believed there was a “reasonable expectation” that Resource Management lands would be protected, and a terrible precedent would be overturned.
Unfortunately, the courts decided that the APA has the authority to freely interpret key protective statutes as mere “guidelines” and let this terrible precedent stand.
Third, our lawsuit was an attempt to overturn this ruinous precedent for the development of Resource Management lands because we believed it would be repeated widely. More than half million acres hang in the balance throughout the Adirondacks. PROTECT’s litigation was aimed at stopping more permanent losses of biological integrity through the fragmentation of intact forest lands.
The costs of this poor precedent will be high for the ecological health of the Adirondack Park. Indeed, the ACR precedent is a fowl quickly come home to roost: at its January meeting, the APA approved an 1,100-acre development in Resource Management lands around Woodworth Lake in the southern Adirondacks. It follows a pattern similar to ACR’s “great camps” and will promote forest fragmentation through backcountry sprawl.
In justifying this decision, the APA referred to the ACR controversy by emphasizing its rationalizing rhetoric: that the APA Act provided mere “guidelines” for the agency to administer. It should also be noted that all Adirondack environmental organizations roundly denounced the APA’s approvals of the Woodworth Lake subdivision.
Fourth, the developers Foxman and Lawson descend to anti-democratic terrain when they argue that “special interest” organizations like Protect the Adirondacks should not be granted legal standing to litigate in the first place and at least should be required to pay special penalties when courts rule against them. This ignores centuries of American legal history. The courts are an essential part of the democratic process; American civil society has been shaped by lawsuits and court decisions. For private individuals and organizations to file and appeal lawsuits in open courts is as much an act of participatory democracy as voting.
The APA has been sued scores of times, mostly by aggrieved developers. Adirondack local governments and other environmental groups have also sued the APA. Are Messrs. Foxman and Lawson looking to punish fellow developers and area local governments for going to court or just looking to single out and punish Protect the Adirondacks?
The ACR project still faces regulatory hurdles that it will have to satisfy in the months and years ahead. The developers have not yet secured final permits from the APA, the Department of Environmental Conservation, or US Army Corp of Engineers, nor have they obtained necessary approvals from the NYS Attorney General. They cannot legally sell any lots. Foxman and Lawson are also pursuing financing from the Franklin County Industrial Development Agency, among other state grants, but no financing has been finalized. The future of this project is uncertain in today’s marketplace. A 200-unit high-end development in North Creek approved five years ago has built all of two houses despite close to $10 million in public assistance through the state extending new trails and ski lifts from the Gore Mountain Ski Area to the developer’s doorstep.
One final question worth asking, however, is this: now that court decisions have removed impediments to their scheme, what purpose is served by fomenting continued resentment in the community?