When I was leaving Adirondack Park Agency headquarters last Friday, after commissioners green-lighted the Adirondack Club and Resort on a 10-to-1 vote, green activist Richard Brummel walked over to share his views.
He hadn’t heard the discussion inside — he was picketing outside during the final two days of testimony — but he was convinced of one thing: the fix was in.
Approval of the Big Tupper resort had been orchestrated in Albany and the process of debate and voting in Ray Brook was window-dressing, a sham.
He pointed to the abrupt departure of APA chair Curt Stiles last summer as evidence that strings were being pulled.
Brummel’s view isn”t unique in the green community.
I’ve spoken to a number of environmentalists who say privately that they think the review process was deliberately skewed at various stages, with APA staff forced to soften or water down their concerns.
A press release issued by Protect the Adirondacks on Friday argued that the “decision has been unduly influenced by enormous pressure from several quarters to do something to try to revive the local economy.”
The APA obviously operates in a politicized atmosphere, facing pressures and influences from all sides. It would be naive to suggest that big decisions like this happen in a complete vaccuum.
But having covered this process closely, I think speculation about this kind of big fix is off the mark. Here’s why:
– Critics suggesting that the process was fixed, or skewed unfairly, are making a serious claim about what would amount to illegal activity. They have yet to offer any evidence to support their claims.
– My (fairly good) sources throughout the APA say this kind of manipulation didn’t happen. The hearing staff and the executive staff within the Agency concluded that the permit as written could be granted legally.
– My sources also say the APA’s experienced scientists and field staff concluded independently that environmental damage caused by the resort would not be “undue.” (“Undue adverse impact” is one of the standards for denying a permit.)
– The APA is a pretty leaky ship. If some kind of fix had been in, or if people suspected that kind of behavior, it’s a safe bet that someone inside the agency would be whispering about it. So far, no one is.
– The APA permit was voted for by Cecil Wray, a veteran commissioner with deep ties to the environmental community. Wray is an experienced attorney and has a sterling ethical reputation. I would need strong evidence to believe that his vote was fixed or unduly influenced by anyone.
– The one commissioner who voted No, Dick Booth, praised the overall process and raised no questions about undue influence or unfairness. Booth is a smart guy, a committed environmentalist, and a close observer of goings-on at the APA. I have no doubt that he would speak up if he smelled a rat.
– The permit drew support from the Adirondack Council, the Park’s biggest green group, which concluded that the project satisfied APA regulations and would not do undue harm to the environment. We’re they in on the fix? Not likely.
– Lani Ulrich, the new APA chair, told NCPR that she received no phone calls, had no conversations, and received no instructions from Cuomo Administration officials or anyone else while the process was underway. Ulrich is widely respected, even by her critics, as a straight-shooter.
Obviously, it’s fair for critics to argue that APA staff and commissioners got this decision wrong. We may see that question tested in court.
But an effort to fix the outcome unfairly would have required the collaboration of dozens of people over a period of years, all exposing themselves to significant legal peril.
As I report today, a far more plausible explanation for the environmental community’s defeat on Big Tupper is that they failed to organize effectively and failed to rally around a clear set of legal arguments against the project.
As always, your comments welcome.