By David Gibson, Managing Partner, Adirondack Wild
Oct. 20, 2023, at Gore Mountain
This year’s CGA meeting had a different feel from those in the past in that it was much better attended by current and past local government elected leaders – town supervisors, etc. One reason is that the co-sponsor of CGA this year was the AATV. Another reason: towns and counties are eager to be eligible and compete for funds from the $4.2 billion environmental bond act of 2022.
I attended the Bond Act break-out session. Keynote speaker was DEC deputy for natural resources Katie Petronis. Her rapid-fire presentation about bond act eligibility and competitiveness was joined by Keene Town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson and former St. Lawrence County supervisor and current APA member Mark Hall. “Start your planning now for these funds, don’t wait” was the best advice in that the bond act doesn’t fund planning, it funds projects which require advance planning.
Joe Pete Wilson stressed his reliance on nonprofit partners to help with the advance planning – such as the Ausable River Association, AsRA and others – who help guide his town board to infrastructure grant funds available from the Environmental Facilities Corporation, etc. Town boards often lack the capacity, o to know when, how and where to apply, and to actually write the complex application. Essex and Warren Counties may have professionally staffed planning offices to help with this, but other counties do not.
Joe Pete explained that In Keene, for example, just 200 water users fund the town’s new water system through their taxes. This is a heavy burden. He, Joe Pete, will never attempt to sewer Keene because of the heavy cost placed on so few taxpayers.
Whether it be drinking water, parking, trail access issues, the bond act can only help if advance plans are written. In Keene’s case, a master plan for trails, access, childcare, housing and more has been developed because the town relied on 100 volunteers from many organizations to pull together on the data and analysis. These small town/Forest Preserve issues are all interconnected, he stressed, noting that the simple issue of designing and locating parking lots for recreational access are not at all simple in an era of changed climate and heavier precipitation. Erosion of gravel lots has become a big concern.
Kelley Tucker of the Ausable River Association has been a big help to the towns of Keene and Jay. She noted that one simple way to gain technical assistance is, simply, to ask; AsRA and other groups have remarkable capabilities to find answers or to point towns in the right direction.
Julia Goren of the ADK brought up the matter of public restrooms, and how few there are. ADK’s High Peaks info center off Rt. 73 (formerly Cascade Ski Ctr) provides public restrooms as a service, but that means 5000 gallons a year of wastewater reliant on a septic system in need of investment.
She and ADK are advising localities on the tricky issue of bondability (under the 2022 bond act) of trail work. The bond act funds durable infrastructure and funding less durable trail work through the bond act is an art, not a science.
The Adirondack North Country Association, or ANCA in Saranac Lake, provides technical assistance with federal and state grantmaking sources for infrastructure, inventory of natural resources and more.
Katie Petronis of DEC noted that the bond act’s $600 million for open space conservation is a significant way that towns and counties can restore and maintain their ecosystem services, fish and wildlife, pollution prevention, and community resilience during flood periods, etc.
DEC Region 5 regional director Joe Zalewski attended and provided some reassurance that DEC will be helping towns and counties to access the bond act. The environmental facilities corporation (EFC) is the source for environmental infrastructure, water and sewer, and EFC has a community assistance team to help towns access funding opportunities, he said. This was good news for many in the room.
The Essex County planning office team is also extremely helpful to towns within that county. They noted that the state’s funding criteria for disadvantaged communities puts most Adk towns – whose tax base is heavily weighted to seasonal residents – at a distinct disadvantage. The eligibility criteria does not work well for the rural Adirondacks. The criteria needs to be altered. 100% grant funded infrastructure must be the objective. Less expensive, decentralized solutions, including community septic systems, also need to be eligible but these systems never “score well” when competing against urban-designed and built infrastructure systems that can spread costs onto much larger tax bases.
I noted that one high priority of CGA should be to focus on achieving local community planning assistance funds for the Adirondack Park from the state legislature. This could be effective through a focused lobbying effort in 2024. Recalling that Senator Ron Stafford was the last legislative sponsor of these funds funneled through the Adirondack Park Agency – and that long lost funding stream dated way back to 1990.
There were many sidebar conversations happening throughout which was perhaps the best outcome of this 2023 CGA conference. The attendance was excellent. Thanks to CGA’s Zoe Smith and others for facilitating the discussion.
Photo at top: Common Ground Alliance meeting at Gore Mtn in 2022.