"My personal experience and readings convince me that preservation
of wild places is the best of American traditions.
Wilderness is at the heart of the nation.
It tells one generation what is right and lasting about
all generations and about the land itself."
—Michael Frome


Commentary: More Badly Designed Development

By David Gibson

Woodworth Lake tract as it will appear under the APA permit.

September 2013 was the high point in the Adirondack Park Agency’s history of engagement on conservation development for new subdivisions.

By January, 2015, as evidenced by their actions in support of New York Land and Lakes corporation’s project for 24 residential lots that parcel out two water bodies (along with streams and wetlands, all on Resource Management lands), APA had lost interest.

Yes, APA staff confidently asserted that they had influenced the location of the building envelope and driveways on 18 of the 24 approved building lots at Hines Pond and Woodworth Lake in Fulton County. No doubt they had. But judging from their own words at the agency’s meeting last Thursday, those staff changes were undertaken strictly to avoid direct impacts on wetlands, vernal pools and steep slopes.  APA staff acted much as a glorified local planning board would in telling the developer “don’t build directly on ‘constrained’ lands”. The changes APA staff made were not part of an overall design intended to reduce or avoid a range of direct and indirect impacts of the development.

Not a single question about conservation subdivision design was asked by the APA board members at their January meeting, despite the fact they had learned about it in September 2013 from experts in the field. At the APA’s own request Heidi Kretser and Leslie Karasin of the Wildlife Conservation Society presented on the topic on September 12th. Two weeks later, Randall Arendt, the foremost expert on conservation designed subdivisions, spoke during the “Strengthening the APA” conference, which was well attended by APA staff and members.

Not one APA member asked their staff biologist Mark Rooks a crucial question derived from the lessons of the 2013 conference: do the building and driveway envelopes themselves overlap much with each other in order to reduce the overall fragmentation effect from spreading of impacts on Resource Management lands?

APA members might have remembered that Mr. Rooks had made a significant point about the importance of such overlap during the agency’s review of the Highland Farms project in Keene in the summer of 2012. APA approved that subdivision after praising this aspect of the staff’s analysis and the design of the lots. Less than three years later nobody on the APA apparently cared to remember the staff’s analysis of the Highland Farms project, or wished to pursue its example elsewhere in the Adirondacks.

As Randall Arendt had pointed out in 2013, with conservation designed subdivisions you can reconfigure the lot lines and the building envelopes in order to gain conservation value, gain overall public values, gain re-sale value, and keep approximately the same number of lots. 

The process begins with a field walk of the site, a sketch map and a complete analysis of not only the wetlands and steep slopes – the constrained lands – but also the secondary conservation objectives so crucial to the overall integrity of the land in question. These include aesthetic, biological, ecological, recreational assets on the land (such as conservation areas and public commons), and how they may be integrated, enhanced, and restored through a design process that begins with basic data collection and only ends much later in the process when lots are finally laid out. No significant expenditures on lot layout and engineering are made until that time, which makes sense from a developer’s standpoint.

In the case of New York Land and Lakes, conservation design was either not in the APA’s vocabulary, or if it was, then it was quickly dropped because the applicant maintained that such an alternative design failed to meet their economic expectations. For today’s APA, that assertion by any developer is enough to end the conversation. Yet, isn’t the APA, as a regulator, in a perfect position to influence applicants to see their designs differently?  For fear of being at loggerheads with applicants APA is ignoring the economic benefits of conservation subdivisions cited by national experts during presentations itself sponsored. Today’s agency seems incapable of advancing its own mandate to conserve lands in Resource Management through conservation design despite its many examples of doing exactly that in the past.

Posted 01/20/14
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The mission of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve is to advance New York’s ‘Forever Wild’ legacy and Forest Preserve policies in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, and promote public and private land stewardship that is consistent with wild land values through education, advocacy and research.

Top left, Moose River ©2010 Ken Rimany; Field Notes photographs ©2011 Ken Rimany. Wild Action Now photograph ©2011 David Gibson

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