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.
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.
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.