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Clarkson students question resort approval process

December 7, 2012
By JESSICA COLLIER - Staff Writer (jcollier@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

POTSDAM - A group of Clarkson University students studying the Adirondack Club and Resort this semester found some issues with the review of the large-scale development.

Seniors Tiyi Brewster, Brittany Rodriguez and Elizabeth Hartz and junior Geordin Soucie spent the fall in Saranac Lake, making up Clarkson's first Adirondack Semester. They lived and worked together for the last several months in a small compound on Lake Flower Avenue, but they presented their project Thursday at Clarkson's Potsdam campus, in part to drum up interest for the new program.

Studying the ACR for their final project, each of the four students focused on facets of the development. They were tasked with looking into whether the state Adirondack Park Agency used an adequate process to review it, what could have been improved in the process and what modifications could have been made to make the review adequate but quick.

Article Photos

Clarkson University junior Geordin Soucie explains the phasing plan for the Adirondack Club and Resort development project at a presentation Thursday morning on campus in Potsdam.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)

The students read background information, conducted interviews with people like former APA Chairman Ross Whaley and ACR developer Tom Lawson, and read primary documents from the APA's review of the project.

Together, they found that defining terms in the APA's regulations and laws like "undue adverse impact" would help clarify the review process. Without clearly defining terms, it opens them up to wide interpretations and opinions, the students said.

"The Adirondack Park Agency could easily solve this problem," Brewster said.

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They also decided that it's a problem that the APA has to make decisions based on guidelines drawn up in the 1970s. Science has progressed since then, and there are now ways to define and measure things that were more difficult to measure then. Using the newest science to make clearer guidelines for development would help business people know what sorts of projects will be allowed and how to plan them.

They also recommended that the APA should encourage smaller development projects that can be reviewed in a shorter period, completed and then evaluated on how successful they are and what their impact is before moving on to other developments. They noted, when someone in the audience asked, that there are some benefits to reviewing the project as a whole up front, such as installing infrastructure like wastewater piping in a way that's not piecemeal and looks to the future.

Hartz focused on reviews of the wastewater impact of the project, and she also looked at the use of artificial snowmaking and the impact of increased salt use on the Big Tupper Ski Area and surrounding roads. She said there was little review she could find of the salt impacts, which she believes should have been done because it can have an effect on surrounding bodies of water.

Fact Box

THE ADIRONDACK CLUB AND RESORT, proposed by a Pennsylvania-based investment group called Preserve Associates, would overhaul the Big Tupper Ski Area in Tupper Lake and build out the land around it with about 700 luxury housing units and various amenities including a spa, a marina and an equestrian center. The project was approved by from the state Adirondack Park Agency on Jan. 20 after eight years of negotiating, reworking the application and an extensive adjudicatory hearing.

In March, two environmental groups and three nearby landowners filed a lawsuit to challenge the APA's decision. That suit is working its way through state courts.

In addition to that, the project must also obtain a number of other approvals, including from the state departments of Environmental Conservation and Health, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the local town-village planning board.

She also noted that snowmaking uses bacteria that sometimes have health impacts, and that should have been considered more.

She said the APA largely looked at impacts from the project in individual segments, but it might have been a good idea to look at them as a whole. She said an environment can often stand up to one or two contaminants coming in, but when there are a number of contaminants added at the same time, that might be a different story.

Rodriguez looked at the project from a biological assessment standpoint, focusing on the lack of wildlife assessments. The APA had asked developers to provide more wildlife assessment information during the review process, but in the end, the APA board decided there was enough information to make a legal decision on the project. The board did require that further study be done as the project moves forward, though.

Rodriguez said part of the problem was there are no clear APA guidelines for how and when a developer should conduct a wildlife study.

Brewster looked at the the public arena, the dilemma regulators face when looking at a project like this, and the incorporation of the community and local government.

She found that communication should be improved among key actors in the project. She noted that much of the adjudicatory hearing on the ACR included passive involvement from people involved, because for the most part they were able to listen to the proceeding but weren't allowed to comment or interject in many cases. Instead, much of the communication between key groups about the project has happened through things like lawsuits and retorts posted on websites.

"That's not the type of communication that needs to happen between different groups," Brewster said.

"It's not a discussion in Tupper Lake," Soucie said. "It's a hostile environment. People get very emotional and very upset."

Brewster said that issue needs to be solved in order to get groups to start working together to move the Park forward.

"Without that, the APA is going to continue to struggle," Brewster said.

Soucie looked at whether the project was legal from the perspective of economics. He said that clearly there are potential economic benefits if the project succeeds, but the APA is also tasked with looking at the potential burdens on local municipalities. He found that risk has been reduced as much as possible for the town of Tupper Lake, so the review there was adequate.

Part of a lawsuit challenging the APA's decision on the ACR alleges that the APA shouldn't weigh the potential economic benefits of the project against the potential environmental impacts of it. Soucie said it's clearly within the APA's charge to balance the two interests, though.

He said, though, that the environmental impacts are not clear, because not enough information was provided on them, as his classmates found.

"You can't weigh an economic benefit against an impact you don't know about," Soucie said.

At the end of the presentation, students noted that there was plenty of information they didn't have time to review, and there is some difficulty in judging some of the information in the case, since there are differing opinions on much of it, and even many of the facts are fuzzy. Soucie said one hour with official documents from the APA was worth a week of working with some of the other sources of information.

Jim LaValley, a Tupper Laker and passionate ACR advocate who operates part of his real estate business out of the Potsdam area, attended the student's presentation on their project at Clarkson Thursday. At the end, he told the students that as someone who is immersed in the intricate details of the ACR every day through his work with Lawson and ARISE, a group created to advocate for the development, he was impressed with how thorough an understanding the students were able to develop of the case in such a short amount of time.

"For one semester ... you guys did a phenomenal job," LaValley said.

This isn't the first time college students have looked at the ACR. In May of this year, Rebecca Steinberg's North Country Community College classes presented their year-long look at the development. Their study found the APA's decision wasn't based on the common interest but instead favored development and business interests.

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The Adirondack Semester

Michael Dinan is the program coordinator for Clarkson's Adirondack Semester. This was the first semester the university tried the program, and Dinan said all the feedback he's gotten so far has been positive.

"Everything went really well," he said.

The class was broken up into seven two-week modules, each with a different professor focusing on a different topic. One week, students would focus on environmental science, and the next week, they would study wildness philosophy.

Dinan taught a module called "A Sense of Place," in which he encouraged students to interact with the local community. He noted that the demographics in Tupper Lake feed into the issues there, as Brewster talked about in the presentation.

The set-up for the spring Adirondack Semester will be the same: seven two-week modules, but two of the focus areas are going to change, and a final project topic hasn't been decided yet. He and colleagues are pondering a few options, including wind turbines, cell phones and a proposed wilderness area on former Finch Pruyn timberlands in the Newcomb area.

Whatever they decide on, it won't be as obvious a choice as the ACR, Dinan said.

"This one was just screaming for someone to look at," he said.

The class size is expected to double in the spring, growing to seven or eight students. There are already students from several other colleges and universities applying for the fall 2013 Adirondack Semester, Dinan said.

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Contact Jessica Collier at 518-891-2600 ext. 26 or jcollier@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.

 
 

 

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