A test of the Adirondack Park Agency's dedication to its founding principles is about to occur. At its next monthly meeting on March 16, the agency will consider a map-amendment request by a landowner and his family to rezone about 10 acres of their property on Lake Clear from resource management to rural use. About 43 additional acres, including property belonging to other landowners, are also included by the APA in the map-change proposal to avoid what's called "spot zoning."
The basic question is this: Should the APA grant a request to change 53 acres from resource management to something less protective simply to accommodate a landowner's desire to create more building lots, make more money and avoid APA control? (If anything, it seems the zoning here should be MORE restrictive. This acreage is actually more natural today than it was 40 years ago, when the APA map was created, as a new forest has grown up on what was once a golf course.)
The APA zoning plan was enacted in 1973 to channel future development to areas best suited for it, and in this way protect the character of the Adirondack Park for present and future generations. As it is, the plan allows for a surprising amount of future growth. At the time the plan took effect, there were some 40,000 single-family dwellings in the Park. Now there are about twice that number. According to studies by the APA two decades ago and by the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks a decade after that, an average of 800 to 1,000 new houses are added to the Park each year. Under the APA plan, some 400,000 houses could be built in the Adirondack Park over time - or more than three times the number of dwellings here now!
So why, one wonders, should the APA need to jeopardize sensitive lands to allow for even more houses?
A major failing of the APA law is that it permits intensive development on most private lakeshores. This has resulted in the degradation of water quality and the loss of natural beauty on many Adirondack lakes. A major achievement of the APA law is that more than half of the Park's private land is zoned as resource management, the most protective of the land-use classifications. Four decades after the APA plan was enacted, these lands remain mostly intact.
Lake Clear has remained largely in its natural, undeveloped state, thanks to its ownership pattern. The most environmentally sensitive private land on the lake is in resource management, and much of the shoreline is Forest Preserve, owned by all residents of New York state and kept "forever wild" by the state Constitution. Thus the public has an especially big stake in protecting Lake Clear, with its popular beach, wild shorelines, clear water and views of Whiteface Mountain, the McKenzie Wilderness and the High Peaks.
All told, six new houses could be constructed on those 53 acres if the APA grants a map change. If the change is made (despite protests from other affected landowners who cherish the protections that resource management provides), this could represent a dangerous trend for Lake Clear and the Park in general. The zoning change would enable the landowners to escape APA jurisdiction (i.e., no APA permit required) for most of the future development on the rezoned property. New houses could be constructed near the water with minimal oversight, or built conspicuously on the northern ridge overlooking the lake. Without proper APA controls, the upland sites could be cleared of trees to allow "million-dollar views" of Lake Clear, while changing everyone else's view of that end of the lake.
By avoiding APA jurisdiction, developers are not subject to safeguards the agency can require to preserve water quality, wildlife habitat and ecological integrity. Developers can avoid APA permit conditions that might limit the size of houses or require exterior colors to blend into the natural surroundings. Developers would not be subject to APA requirements for vegetative screening and less intrusive outdoor lighting, for protecting wetlands and streams, and ensuring that septic systems are properly designed and installed at a safe distance from the lake and its tributaries. In other words, without APA review there would be far fewer environmental safeguards.
If the APA reclassifies this Lake Clear land to a less restrictive zone, it also becomes more likely that the adjoining Girl Scout camp will someday receive a similar map change from resource management to rural use. The Scouts own 91 acres and 7,000 feet of shoreline, and their stewardship has been essential in preserving the north shore of the lake. But who knows what the future will bring? A future zoning change would result in less protection for this vulnerable property. The impact on Lake Clear could be significant.
It is useful for the APA to remember that its mission is not to help landowners maximize their profit in land development. Its job is, first and foremost, to protect the Park.
What is being proposed for Lake Clear is not on the scale of the Adirondack Club & Resort development recently approved by the agency for Tupper Lake, or the scale of the conventional, bowling-alley-lot subdivision it allowed along a mile of shoreline on Union Falls Pond. But the agency's action on this current proposal is nevertheless critical in what it portends for Lake Clear, how it affects future map changes throughout the Adirondacks, and what it says about the course the APA has set for itself under its new leadership.
A resident of Saranac Lake, Dick Beamish served as the APA's first public relations officer from 1972 to 1978.