RAY BROOK - Proponents of the fire towers atop St. Regis and Hurricane mountains rejoiced last week as officials at the Adirondack Park Agency approved a plan that will allow the towers to be restored at their current locations.
The APA's State Land Committee approved a resolution Oct. 14, that will classify a half-acre plot surrounding each tower as historic land and allow private fundraising groups to finance renovation and maintenance of the towers.
The decision, which passed 9-0 during the afternoon's Full Agency meeting, brings a tentative end to a long-running dispute over the towers' future.
In February, the state Department of Environmental Conservation proposed to remove the towers as the State Land Master Plan considers them non-conforming structures under their current classifications. Lands on St. Regis Mountain are classified as canoe area, while Hurricane Mountain is in the process of being reclassified from primitive to wilderness.
Both towers have been awarded designation on state and national registers of historic places, however, which required the DEC and APA to consider alternatives that would allow the towers to remain in place.
A series of public hearings conducted by the DEC and APA throughout the past several months drew dozens of comments.
Environmental groups in favor of the towers' removal claimed they disrupted the wilderness character of their surroundings, but the vast majority of people expressed a desire to see the towers stay, arguing they represented an important part of the region's history and culture.
The New York State Office of Parks and Recreation, too, indicated a preference to reclassify the land around the towers as historic, which would legally allow them to remain.
"For me this has been a difficult decision," said commissioner Richard Booth, noting his reluctance to circumvent the way fire towers were regarded in the SLMP "but I think the reality is that historic resources are at a different place than they were 30-plus years ago."
"I think these towers are absolutely a part of the history of the region," Booth added. "While there is an impact on the surrounding areas, other than aesthetic impact, it's an extremely limited impact."
DEC Region 5 director Betsy Lowe indicated that, with the state in the midst of a financial crisis, funds for the towers' restoration would likely have to come from community fundraising efforts.
The resolution enables maintenance of the fire towers but "does not require, obligate, or anticipate state funds for restoration."
One fundraising group, the Friends of Hurricane Mountain Fire Tower, claim they have already amassed $10,000 to assist in restoration of that tower.
"Obviously, we're very pleased with the decision," said David Petrelli, president of Friends of St. Regis Mountain Fire Tower, who estimates it would cost between $5,000 and $15,000 to make the tower safe and accessible for hikers.
But not all were as keen on reclassification as a solution.
"What the agency is doing is abandoning its responsibility towards wilderness," said Dan Plumley of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve. "The further they stray away from their obligation to protect these areas, the closer they steer to their own oblivion."
"You can't be next door to a five-story metal structure and call it wilderness," he added.
Plumley said the better solution would have been to relocate the tower in a conforming area where it would be more accessible as an educational and cultural icon. He noted how the town of Keene passed a resolution offering a different location for the Hurricane
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"The agency failed to consider what we thought would have been a win-win situation," Plumley said.
According to Plumley, the postage-stamp historic classifications in the middle of vast wilderness areas set a dangerous precedent that could open up both public and private lands in the park to other non-conforming structures, such as cell towers and wind turbines.
"That's ridiculous," said Petrelli. "The reason this can all happen is because these are historic structures."
Work could begin on the St. Regis tower as early as next summer, Petrelli said, but noted there are still several steps that must first take place at the state level.
Meanwhile, Plumley said his group will now take their fight to the office of Gov. David A. Paterson, who must approve the APA resolution for it to take effect.
"We will be lobbying as well," Petrelli said, "but right now, the momentum is with us. Things are going pretty well right now, and I don't see any reason why the governor would step in at this point."