Last week, I retreated from the ice and snow to spend a few days inside at the monthly meeting of the Adirondack Park Agency’s Board of Commissioners.
January’s monthly meeting was the agency’s first meeting of the New Year, and the first to be presided over by Leilani Ulrich, the APA’s new chairwoman of the board. The meeting also offered the promise of a decision regarding the fate of the Adirondack Club and Resort development, which had first been proposed in 2004.
I’ve attended numerous meetings at the APA’s headquarters in Ray Brook over the years. While most of them have been rather benign affairs, many were rowdy, rancorous events, with insults, recriminations and criticisms being hurled in all directions. Typically, there’s been a group of protesters, equipped with standard, ‘Abolish the APA’ signs, awaiting attendees, and there always seemed to be an adequate supply of scowls, scorn and scandal to go around. APA meetings are not just simple, dull, bureaucratic affairs, they can be entertaining events, regardless of which side you’re on.
I came of age in the early days of the APA, and I’ve watched the agency grow. I’ve listened to many stories, concerning the agency’s actions, both good and bad. The battle-song, “Someone mentioned the APA, how much land did you steal today?” still reverberates in my head. It was written and recorded by my old friend, Matt McCabe, who now owns a guitar shop in Saratoga Springs.
After the eventual approval of the project, Jim LaValley, a Tupper Lake businessman who organized local efforts to support the project, claimed a new tune was in his head, “What a long, strange trip it’s been,” by the Greatful Dead.
My intention in attending the meetings was not to analyze the arguments, or to scrutinize the board’s final deliberations concerning the largest development proposal ever to be presented to the APA. I simply wanted to observe the entire affair, from a ‘fly on the wall’ perspective. I wanted to take it all in, without judgment or prejudice, with no personal opinions or preconceived notions.
My first impression, as I pulled into the agency’s parking lot, in Ray Brook, early on a bone-chilling, Adirondack morning, were the protesters, or rather, the lack of them.
A portion of the lot was cordoned off with barricades to corral the expected protesters, but there was just one, lone soul standing in the cold, holding a placard. He was masked against the cold rather than for anonymity, and his sign read, ‘Save the Adk’s’, ‘There’s too much development’.
Something didn’t sit right. But when I interviewed him, and discovered he was from Long Island, it all began to make sense. Development wears a different mask on Long Island.
Entering the conference room, I noted it was surprisingly empty, with less than half the available seats occupied. I wondered, “Does this reflect a lack of interest after eight years, or is it a signal of capitulation for what many believe, is a foregone conclusion. ”
Although there were a few of the regular APA followers, and the advocacy group members in attendance, it seemed that there were far more media types than concerned citizens.
Following preliminaries, including the introduction of Dan Kelleher, the agency’s new Special Assistant for Economic Affairs, the meeting got off to a quick start.
Kelleher was soon on deck, providing the board with a comprehensive financial analysis of the proposed development, complete with projections for the estimated sale of properties, work force development opportunities and a full spectrum of associated economic impact issues.
Commissioners scrutinized these economic projections and promptly questioned Kelleher about issues involving the complex financing, PILOT’s, sales projections, labor costs and other financial issues surrounding the mega-resort project.
Commissioner Booth expressed his belief that the stated sales projections were unrealistic and inflated, and will result in undue adverse impact. Although Mr. Kelleher eventually explained the analysis to the satisfaction of most of the board, he often had the appearance of a deer caught in the headlights. Welcome to the APA, Mr. Kelleher.
The day wore on, and the questions kept coming, as commissioners expressed concerns with the projected volume of sales, the long term viability of the ski center, and the stages of development for the resort. Which phase will occur first? It was a ‘chicken or the egg’ syndrome played out with sales projections, infrastructure requirements, great camp lots, neighborhoods, wastewater treatment systems, power lines, new roads, and a renovated ski lodge.
As APA staffers detailed an extensive, laundry list of actions deemed necessary for the project, the phrase “Illegitimi non carborundum,” came to mind. This bastardization of the Latin language, translates roughly as, "Don't let the bastards grind you down.” I expect it is a term that Mr. Foxman understands all too well.
Day two found commissioners barricaded behind huge stacks of paperwork, which cluttered the tabletops, and spread onto the floor. By mid morning, the room began to fill, although there were still plenty of empty seats available. The crowd was largely a grey haired mob, with only a few younger folks in attendance.
The somber mood of the previous day’s proceedings was replaced with light joviality and anticipation. Testimony revolved around details of building restrictions, great camp lots, housing footprints, codes, outdoor lighting, vegetative clearings, energy consumption and conservation, protections for amphibians and from invasive species. Commissioners peered into a crystal ball, to discern impacts well into the future, and they wanted no stone left unturned, or unprotected.
The hearings were a formidable undertaking, with hour after hour of boring legalese, and regulations terminology. There were over a half dozen lawyers among the participants, and the list of state agencies included the APA, DOT, DEC, DOH, and the Department of State.
Mr. Foxman, the lead developer of the project, sat in the audience and appeared to be complacently patient. Commissioner Booth, who took on the reins of opposition, came across as a rumpled, frumpy curmudgeon. There appeared to be little doubt about which way his vote would go.
Day three brought the final testimony, and the dour, sour atmosphere that had hung over earlier proceedings, began to evaporate. There was still a lot of paper shuffling going on, yet Mr. Foxman maintained a poker face.
As the hearings wound through the final day, various stipulations were tagged to the development’s timetable, including agreements that independent monitors be employed to prevent the use of invasive and non-native plants and trees in landscaping and gardens. Similar restrictions were applied to the resort’s marina, which will be located on Tupper Lake.
To protect the community, developers also committed to keeping the ski area open and available to the public for at least 50 years.
Finally, after numerous writes and rewrites, fits and starts, restrictions, prescriptions and predictions, which promised both doom and boom, the commissioners cast their votes.
When Chairwoman Ulrich called for a roll of votes, the audience held their collective breath. Commissioner Booth offered the first vote, and as many had expected, it was “no.”
Next up, was Commissioner Sherman Craig, who delivered the first, of 10 consecutive “yes” votes. With the vote complete, there was an audible exhale among the crowd, and the energy in the air was palatable. Cheers and backslapping were the order of the hour.
It was a good day to be a Tupper Laker, and it was a good day for the APA. The agency and its dedicated staff provided concrete evidence that there is room for responsible, and compatible development in the Adirondacks.
It was also a memorable moment in the park’s history. I hope there are ramifications, beyond the lawsuits that are likely to be expected from a few disgruntled, advocacy groups.
Although there’s much work to be done, the decision sends a message of hope, and a belief in the future. Congratulations to Tupper!
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at email@example.com.