Current IssuesCountry road with trees lining the edges

By David Gibson, Managing Partner, Adirondack Wild

Another Test of the APA’s Large Subdivision Review

Concerning a proposal for about 120 units of townhouses, “estate” homes, a hotel or clubhouse, associated several miles of roadways, parking lots, driveways, and trails on 385 mostly wooded acres in Jay near Ausable Forks, the applicant has just submitted new information to the APA.

The APA issued their second additional information request of Mr. Stackman last September, 2022. This month Mr. Stackman writes that he has been working diligently to respond. You can find it all on the Agency website. For this post, I’ll focus on just one aspect of that response to the APA’s second request for additional information: biological surveys.

Biological Survey Required: Stackman’s proposed subdivision falls within the APA’s large-scale subdivision application threshold. Last September (and in 2021), APA advised Mr. Stackman that his submission of “a biological survey prepared by a qualified biologist and spanning multiple seasons will also be required. This biological survey will need to include a report detailing potential impacts to the mapped forest resources, unique natural communities, wetlands, fish/amphibians, and wildlife, and an assessment of how wildlife dependent on the forest blocks and unique communities will be impacted by the proposal, particularly area-sensitive and edge-affected species such as interior forest birds, American marten, and wide-ranging mammals.”

Mr. Stackman ought to have known for over four years that APA’s Large Subdivision Application criteria for applications of 25 or more lots in Low Intensity Use (which is the land use class for Mr. Stackman’s development) included a biological survey. Eighteen months have now passed since Mr. Stackman’s first submission to the APA. With respect to biological surveys, to date how well has Mr. Stackman complied with APA’s requirements?

  • A qualified biologist: The developer’s biological consultant, B. Laing and Associates, seems well qualified in wetland ecology and delineation. Based on Long Island, the consultants’ website appears to be centered on coastal, estuarine and marine environments rather than Adirondack temperate, mixed hardwood forest, causing one to wonder why an Adirondack Park biological consultant could not be located.
  • Multiple Seasons: To date his field investigations have been, according to Stackman, “carried out this fall and early winter and during this period, no state or federal species considered threatened or endangered were observed on site, though the late date made surveying for invertebrates (e.g., insects), herptiles (i.e., amphibians and reptiles), or migratory/hibernating species inconclusive.”

Inconclusive?  Stackman doesn’t know and cannot know because up to now he hasn’t looked for these species and their habitats, like vernal pools, during the spring and summer months.  Scheduling field work in the non-growing seasons is completely unresponsive to the APA’s requirements. Why biological field work was not conducted last spring and summer is not explained. It appears that little of the requested information regarding interior forest birds, frogs and salamanders, or mammals, and their breeding and migratory habitats or corridors has yet been submitted. Stackman did submit a list of observed actual and potential breeding birds lifted from the last breeding bird atlas of 2005.

  • Unique natural communities, significant wildlife habitats: Here, the applicant has at least identified and mapped uncommon natural heritage woodland communities of Northern Hardwood/Oak/Pine Forest, noting that it is “a high-quality occurrence of an uncommon community type, and occurs in two separate areas. The forests are very large, moderately diverse communities with relatively large, intact, putative old growth cores, in a moderately intact landscape.” One is 275 acres, the other 179 acres. While he may have mapped this uncommon forest type, he appears not to have evaluated it at all.

Mr. Stackman admits that the club house, as well as the roads, driveways, and houses located near the clubhouse would all fall within the oak-pine forest and require over four acres of forest cutting and tree removal, but states that this “would not fragment the forested area.”  In fact, he asserts this month that “the development is not, effectively, in the middle of the woods, or creating any additional significant segmentation, except for minor areas where it is being minimally disturbed or impacted.”

Mr. Stackman is unqualified to determine if, when and in what manner an uncommon forest community becomes disturbed, impacted, or fragmented. His own biological consultant should be making the conceptual, qualitative, as well as quantitative evaluation of forest impacts and fragmentation, in concert with the APA staff.

Is Logged Land Waste Land? No. Mr. Stackman also demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Adirondack environment when he attempts to dismiss potential undue adverse impacts of his proposal on the basis that the land was previously logged and that the Ausable River and Rt. 9N running by the river already fragment the area.  He writes:

“The development is not, effectively, in the middle of the woods, or creating any additional significant segmentation, except for minor areas where it is being minimally disturbed or impacted. The AuSable river already represents a significant, natural fragmentation of these woodlands. Further, the direct proximity of Route 9N and associated residential, agricultural, or otherwise disturbed properties, provides a historic and substantial corridor of disturbance at this location. While there is minor, localized segmentation of the woods, the proposed development was designed to be as clustered as possible- in the overall scheme of things….it is worth mentioning that this parcel is not “virgin land.” It has a history of man-made disturbance. Older images, dating back to 1947, show significantly logged and largely cleared areas within the property and the proposed development site.”

Mr. Stackman is not alone. Many assume his unscientific viewpoint that logged land is waste land, so why worry about the forests’ development as house sites.  Adirondack and other scientists know the fact of prior logging disturbance in no way diminishes the potential for forest ecological recovery and establishment of a rich biological diversity. APA also knows there is a world of difference between a logged landscape and a developed landscape. The former is part of the ecological continuum in the Park, and soil nutrients and many forms of early successional plants, trees, wildlife, and birds quickly inhabit and help regenerate a recovering forest. The latter, the developed landscape, is permanently converted for humans, lawns, pets, lights, and noise, forever unavailable to sensitive species, sustainable forestry, and open space recreation. Hopefully, the APA staff will quickly advise Mr. Stackman of the difference.

Of course, Rt. 9N has long bisected the area, fragmenting it. Mr. Stackman’s development, particularly the proposed several miles of new roadway and driveways, would spread fragmenting impacts westward of Rt. 9N for miles.

Ecological Footprint vs. Development Footprint:  Mr. Stackman’s narrative continues:

“Further, the proposed footprint represents less than 10% of the overall acreage, leaving over 345 acres undisturbed and protected for future generations…The proposed tree removal would result in a minor reduction of Pine-Northern Hardwood Forest when compared to the overall acreage in the area.”

Here, again, Mr. Stackman demonstrates a lack of understanding of ecological impact. Like most of us, he views impact from a new land use as limited to the footprint, be it of a building or a road or a front lawn. Independent Adirondack and APA staff biologists have both described to the APA board how the ecological impacts of new land use and development in an otherwise or mostly undisturbed matrix forest extend outward several hundred meters in all directions from the actual development footprint. APA staff understand this concept well and its ecological basis and, with Mr. Stackman’s full cooperation, should apply it now, at the conceptual phase.

In other words, APA already knows that the four acres of tree cutting proposed in this uncommon oak-pine forest needed to construct the hotel units and roadways at the top of the hill, followed by subsequent hardening and permanent development of the units, would impact much more than four acres. The first house, roadway and driveway built there would radiate impacts out some 200 meters in all directions, translating into an ecologically impacted area of some 30 acres for that one unit of development (see 2013 paper in Urban and Landscape Planning, Size of the ecological effect zone associated with exurban development in the Adirondack Park, NY by Adirondack ecologists Michale J. Glennon and Heidi E. Kretser). If six new hotel units were built in this admittedly sensitive location, the uncommon hardwood-pine forest, and if their impact zones did not overlap each other, nearly 200 acres in this uncommon forest environment would be ecologically altered, practically forever. That alteration would encourage plant, animal and bird species well adapted to human presence, birds such as blue jays and robins, and displace ecologically sensitive Adirondack plants, mammals, and birds such as the wood thrush and ovenbird, while encouraging all manner of invasive plant and animal species.

Overall, after two notices of incompleteness, one wonders when Mr. Stackman will fully comply with the large-scale subdivision application, including but not limited to biological surveys spanning multiple seasons.  Until then, APA should declare the latest submission incomplete.

Need for Redesign: One also wonders why APA and Mr. Stackman cannot work together better now during this conceptual phase to redesign his subdivision to avoid any impacts to the uncommon oak-pine forest. That would be a true demonstration of the APA’s large-scale subdivision application and the process of conservation subdivision design. Redesign should ensure that ecological impacts of the new houses and roadways overlap, rather than spread out, and that infrastructure is similarly pulled closer together, at less cost.

On-Site Septic? There is another urgent reason to conceptually redesign now.  According to Mr. Stackman’s latest APA submission, some or even a majority of the proposed 120 units may need to be served by onsite septic systems rather than community sewer. If so, locating suitable onsite septic for so many units will be a significant challenge and conservation subdivision design will become even more important.

Redesigning this project should be squarely faced now, during the conceptual stage. Therefore, APA is facing yet another test. To quote the APA, its large-scale subdivision application was established in 2018 to “protect open space, wildlife, and habitat resources, and in accordance with the objectives of conservation design. The project applicant will benefit from the opportunity to review conceptual designs and public comment with Agency staff early in the application process. Following these initial steps, the application process will lead to the development of preliminary and detailed design plans before presentation of the project to the Agency board. This review process is intended to improve efficiency and to help avoid unnecessary costs to the project applicant.”

The Woodworth Lake subdivision, 34-unit permit in 2021 revealed the shortcomings of the APA’s large subdivision application. That review took nearly three years, was not efficient, imposed all sorts of costs, yet its design failed to protect Woodward Lake itself from being ringed with new housing, with resulting ecological, water quality, and aesthetic impacts.

Adjudicatory Hearing: If APA and Mr. Stackman cannot do better at project redesign during this preapplication phase then added to the Woodward Lake experience the large scale subdivision application is a proven failure – new conservation design legislation is needed to give the process legal weight.

Be that as it may, APA has the existing legal authority to call for a full adjudicatory public hearing to comprehensively consider all the complex, interrelated issues associated with Stackman’s proposal. The legislature gave APA authority to hold hearings to ensure expert testimony before an impartial law judge, and fair, comprehensive, transparent, public examination of all significant issues involved in a large, complex, controversial, new land use and development, such as Mr. Stackman’s.  Over 150 public hearings were held from 1973-2011, none since. Supreme Court in Warren County just ruled against APA for, in part,  the Agency’s failure to hold an adjudicatory hearing at Lake George. Hopefully, that court ruling sends a very clear message that APA must resume its practice of calling public hearings.

Photo at top: The area of Rte. 9 where the Jay resort subdivision entrance might be. Photo by Roger Gray