RAY BROOK - The Adirondack Park Agency is considering a proposal that could result in variance-seeking landowners rewarded for acts of environmental stewardship.
During a recent discussion - that could someday lead to APA staff handling minor shoreline setback variance requests instead of the agency board - APA counsel John Banta said stewardship of shoreline vegetation should be a consideration during variance review.
"There has never been a reward for stewardship," Banta said.
The controversial 2009 shoreline setback regulations bring the sideways, rearward or vertical expansion of pre-1973 structures under APA jurisdiction for the first time.
APA chairman Curt Stiles wouldn't call the stewardship consideration a trade-off or a compromise. Instead, he said it is an attempt for the agency to begin to look at the many "grey areas" that surround a specific variance request.
"I don't look at is as compromise. I look at it as an enlightened solution - it's a better solution," Stiles said. "The question is how do you meet the mutual objective? The applicant wants this. We want to protect the environment this way. There is something in-between sometimes that makes more sense."
Stiles added if the idea is implemented, the consideration given to vegetative stewardship could actually better serve the intent of shoreline setbacks.
"Lots of times you look at variances as a binary decision: Yes or No," he said. "What we believe, is that there is a time when you can create - with a variance - additional conditions that protect the environment further and compromise some of the standard perhaps, so it's not so black-and-white."
Researchers often blame vegetative clearing for increased levels of phosphorus and nitrogen in water bodies. The increased levels of the two compounds gives way to increased algae and reduced oxygen, dramatically reducing indigenous fish populations.
Last year, local governments undertook an unsuccessful legal challenge of the new setback regulations.
Of the nine counties that originally sued the APA for overstepping its statutory authority and expanding its own jurisdiction, four are now appealing the state court's decision.
Adirondack Local Government Review Board executive director Fred Monroe said he remains hopeful the appeal will strike down the revised setback regulations.
But he notes a streamlined process, including consideration of good property management, would be welcome.
"I believe it's non-jurisdictional because it has been for 35 years," Monroe said. "But a simplified procedure with a trade-off versus the flow blown expensive hearings I think are reasonable to talk about."
Monroe and several commissioners said they would like to see statutory amendments that would allow the variance process to more closely mirror action taken by town zoning boards of appeal. Unlike the local process, commissioners are not directly involved in the public hearing process.
APA officials tout the merits of the delegation of minor shoreline variance requests to staff as a means of streamlining the overall process and reducing the cost for both the agency and the applicant.
Commissioners are expected to be presented with more detail of the proposal in September.