Reform or Abolish? What to do about the Adirondack Park Agency?

Back in January,  there was a series in the Glens Falls Post-Star called “Showdown at Black Brook.”  It highlighted some of the problems that Adirondack residents have faced when dealing with the Adirondack Park Agency (APA).   The APA was originally created to create land-use plans for the Adirondacks – a sort of “zoning board” within the Park boundaries.   Over the years, it expanded its authority, creating rules and enforcing them.   What was most disturbing about the series was the detailing of the incredible amount of influence various advocacy groups, in particular, the Adirondack Council, have with the APA.  Several current APA board members are former officers of the Adirondack Council, and there is at least one case where an Adirondack Council officer appears to have given orders to an APA employee on enforcement.     Nothing in these articles came as a surprise to people who live in the Adirondacks.

When I first moved back to the Adirondacks, I was surprised to learn that being called an “environmentalist” was an insult.   Why was I surprised?  Because really I am an environmentalist.  I even spent a lot of years in school studying environmental science, and worked in the field.   In talking to people, I found that the vast majority would be labeled “environmentalists” or “treehuggers” anywhere else.   The reason “environmentalist” had become a dirty word can be laid at the feet of the APA and various environmental advocacy groups.   It didn’t take long for me to start seeing the problems with them.  Arcane, arbitrary rulings that didn’t make sense from an environmental standpoint.  Long, drawn out battles over things that really had nothing to do with protecting the environment.  So I was not surprised by the Post-Star’s reporting.  It just publicized what many had been saying for a while.  There is a state agency which is out of control, which dances not to the tune of the law, but of outside interests.

That has led to calls to disband the agency.  In fact, the Town of Long Lake has passed a resolution calling for that.  Other voices are now being raised as well.  As an  editorial in the Post-Star said:

You can’t have that many horror stories over such a long time and not have at least some of them be true.

And you can’t reverse decades of well-earned distrust simply by being charming.

This is not the only newspaper calling for changes. The Adirondack Daily Enterprise had a three-part series calling for changes. Part 1:

So yes, we support an APA, but this one was never set up right. Recent developments highlight its inherent flaws even more.

Part 2:

We do, however, have a problem with the APA acting as judge, jury and executioner as well as cop and DA. Many people distrust the current system, and it creates all kinds of knotted procedural problems, as we’ve seen recently in the cases of two Silver Lake residents.

and Part 3:

The agency should only apply laws passed by elected lawmakers, but under current Chairman Curt Stiles especially, this unelected body has grown much more activist in rulemaking. Two prominent examples are the recent shoreline regulations, which rolled back a grandfather clause on expanding pre-1973 shoreline homes, and the new effort to further regulate boathouses simply by redefining them. The former rule should have gone through the state Legislature, but the latter one is simply ridiculous.
…..
This is especially true when double standards emerge, such as the fact that Chairman Stiles pushed this redefinition just after finishing his own boathouse, larger than the new definition.

If this was a recent trend, that would be disturbing enough.  It’s not.  It’s been going on for a long time.  The APA has come to be regarded by many residents as an agency that is controlled by of outside interests, above and outside of the law.   .Almost a decade ago, I made a comment to a friend up here – “One day, they’re (the APA) going to tangle with the wrong person,  and they’re  going to regret it.”  I’d like to claim that I was prescient, but really, it was just (I thought) wishful thinking.  As it turns out, they did run into that person, a man named Sandy Lewis.

The APA has a decades-long history of backing up its enforcement actions with victories in court, where the agency is represented by the state attorney general. The APA, as North Country Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward said, is known as being “6 feet tall and bulletproof.”

But the APA had never fought someone like Sandy Lewis, someone with not only the will but the financial resources and the political savvy to match the agency move for move, in court and out.

What this case did, and others like it, was to bring media attention to what has been well known to the residents of the Adirondacks.   The APA has been exceeding its mandate for quite some time, and no one has stopped it – until now.  The idea of the APA is a good one.  The reality is not.   That’s what people outside the Adirondacks didn’t see – the reality.   With the current budget climate pushing to reduce the state government workforce,  candidates for governor stumping on reducing the number of independent agencies and commissions the state has, and the media attention it is receiving, the Adirondack Park Agency is under pressure like never before.  The original idea that created it was a good one, but the question now is whether it can be reformed,  or whether we need to abolish it.   Either way, the APA as it has been operating is long overdue for the changes it’s going to face.

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7 responses to “Reform or Abolish? What to do about the Adirondack Park Agency?

  1. I have thought about this post (off and on) since reading it yesterday.

    I have come to the conclusion that the agency should be abolished. I say that not just because of my libertarian views, but I look at the abusive nature of the agency. What true benefits is it providing? It seems like this agency has no accountability to anyone for actions it chooses to take. If it has been so rogue for so long it seems it is time for it to be shut down totally.

    • I rather thought you’d like this one, given our earlier discussions on when do you say “enough” to government. :)

      The original idea was to have an agency which would develop state land use plans, provide templates for localities to use, and serve as a central coordinator for all the agencies that have responsibilities inside the park.

      People often don’t realize just how big the park really is – it’s 6.2 million acres, covers a good part of 12 counties in the state, and the attendant issues of “who’s supposed to do what” are pretty daunting. So having an agency making sure that everyone is “working off the same page” is a pretty good idea. Surprisingly enough, most of the people inside the park – even the people who are the most antagonistic towards the APA – agree with that idea.

      Which leads to the question of whether it’s better to abolish the agency and worry later on whether the needs that led to its creation can be addressed; reform it so it does what it was originally meant to; or do a “wipe and restore.”

    • I should also point out that I’m not the only blogger who has addressed this: Adrondack Citizen had a pretty good editorial commentary on it:

      . But as fun as it would be to slay a bureaucracy, abolishing the APA is not the answer. The Adirondacks do need protection and APA should provide it. Nonetheless, reform of the agenda-bent APA is imperative and must be a prerequisite to its continued existence.

      They also covered why the APA manages to piss off so many residents of the region. It’s an amazing talent that agency has.

      • I went and read the article, good piece. Seemed very complete. Yet it doesn’t change my thinking that the APA should be abandoned and some different mechanism put into place (maybe each county should be concerned with their portions of the park – complying with land use protocols set forth in some manner?).

        The agency has no credibility, so how could you truly reform it to prevent the very same types of problems raising their ugly head again?

        • That has been the big question recently. Can it be reformed, or not? There’s an obvious need for some form of oversight/coordination, but the best way to accomplish that is what the current battle is about.

          It’s remarkable how antagonizing so many of the various environmental groups can be when it comes to the locals. The people here who are labeled “pro-development” by them would be called “treehuggers” anywhere else. I know from my own experiences with them, that it’s amazing at how arrogant they can be – one once told me that I “didn’t understand the environmental principles.” My response was “Yeah, I skipped those when I was going for my Master’s in environmental biology.”

  2. I support responsible use and care for our environment, yet shake my head at the eviro groups want to go in their “protection” for the environment. I sometimes feel the only way to please them is to wipe out every human on the planet.

    I’m no educated guy in this sense and so apply what I feel in a common sense standard to the environment. I leave the more intricate issues to the experts in the field (just like I’d leave surgery to the surgeon) such as yourself.

    • I fall into the “common sense” or (ahem) “data trumps ideology” school. I go out and actually walk the area, study it, and make my conclusions based on that. There’s a lot of activists that just parrot what the current “ideal” is, whether or not it matches the ground reality. One of the other professionals in the area told me they spent three years trying to persuade the powers that be that it would be a good idea to install a few outhouses in one of the more popular wilderness areas – as he said, “it was dangerous to step behind a tree, because there were piles of shit all over.” But an outhouse might have spoiled the wild nature of the area, you know. (yes, I’m rolling my eyes)