Are green activists unwelcome on Cuomo’s APA commission?

Hanging in the wind?  Richard Booth wasn't reappointed to the APA commission by Governor Cuomo.  (Photo:  Adirondack Park Agency)

Hanging in the wind? Richard Booth wasn’t reappointed to the APA commission by Governor Cuomo. (Photo: Adirondack Park Agency)

State Senator Betty Little is delighted with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s picks for the Adirondack Park Agency board, which were confirmed yesterday.

“I think the three members who are returning and having a new term have really done a great job on the Park commission, really balanced with the economy and the environment,” Little told me on Wednesday.

She noted that the two new members are landowners and business-people, including Daniel Wilt from Hamilton County and Karen Feldman from the Hudson River Valley who owns property in the Park.

Environmental groups are less cheerful about the texture of Cuomo’s picks for the APA commission.

In an email sent yesterday Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan expressed comfort with Wilt and Feldman.

But he noted that veteran environmentalist Dick Booth — a professor of regional planning at Cornell University — wasn’t reappointed.

“We are disappointed that the Governor did not re-nominated existing commissioner Richard Booth of Ithaca,” Sheehan wrote, describing him as “an expert in environmental law” who “deserves a new term.”

A native of Plattsburgh, Booth has been an outspoken critic of some of the APA’s biggest decisions in recent years, including the approval of permits for the Adirondack Club and Resort project in Tupper Lake.

(Booth, ,who was once considered for the APA chairman’s post, continues to sit on the panel and will do so until Cuomo either reappoints him or chooses someone else to fill the post.)

Cecil Wray, a veteran APA commissioner with long ties to the environmental community, is stepping aside voluntarily this summer.  (Source:  APA)

Cecil Wray, a veteran APA commissioner with long ties to the environmental community, is stepping aside voluntarily this summer. (Source: APA)

Another APA commissioner with deep ties to the environmental community, Cecil Wray, is stepping aside this summer — departing voluntarily.

Peter Bauer, head of Protect the Adirondacks, issued a statement this week arguing that this latest round of appointments “makes a weak APA board even weaker.”

“Through these nominations, Governor Cuomo has made it clear what path he wants the APA to march,” Bauer wrote in a statement.

“There is not an environmentalist within five miles of his nominations.  The Governor has said the Adirondack Park is open for business and this group of APA Board members will single-mindedly implement the Governor’s wishes.

This week’s pushback from green activists follows an essay written last week by Adirondack Wild co-founder David Gibson, published in the Adirondack Almanack.

Gibson argued that Booth — who, again, wasn’t reappointed by Cuomo — “appears to be only one member of the APA today who, month in and month out, consistently practices what the law mandates.”

Environmental activists acknowledge that these complaints aren’t new.

In his column, Gibson quotes a letter written in the 1970s by former APA commissioner Mary Prime, addressed to then-Governor Hugh Carey.

In criticizing the qualifications of Carey’s appointments to the APA board, Prime worried that “the Agency commission will soon degenerate into a policy-making group of questionable competence and dubious commitment.”

This  new anxiety within the green community comes at a time when the APA commission has clearly pivoted to focus more on economic development and community sustainability issues

Increasingly, local government and pro-development voices — including Senator Little — have expressed satisfaction with the APA’s decision-making, while some green groups have been more adversarial, particularly following the Big Tupper decision.

But as we noted in a previous column, environmental groups themselves have also been shifting their focus, talking more about pocketbook issues and jobs in the Park, as well as open space and habitat preservation.

So what do you think?  Is the APA finding the right balance?  Would you like to see more commissioners with green cred?  As always, comments welcome below.

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27 Comments on “Are green activists unwelcome on Cuomo’s APA commission?”

  1. Dave says:

    “the APA commission has clearly pivoted to focus more on economic development and community sustainability”

    Which is not the mission of the APA.

  2. Paul says:

    “the APA commission has clearly pivoted to focus more on economic development and community sustainability issues”

    What do you mean by this Brian?

    Dave, economic development is part of the APA’s mission. Just read it. From the act:

    “The basic purpose of this article is to insure optimum
    overall conservation, protection, preservation, development
    and use of the unique scenic, aesthetic, wildlife,
    recreational, open space, historic, ecological and natural
    resources of the Adirondack park”

  3. Dave says:

    Where do you see anything about economic development in what you just quoted?

    You are reading into things.

  4. Brian Mann says:

    There is a real debate over the meaning of the Adirondack Park’s foundational documents, when it comes to community and economic development.

    Dave Gibson, in his essay, downplays this role, suggesting that it is entirely secondary. He cites some legal precedent to support his argument.

    But the APA Act says pretty clearly that its “basic purpose” is to insure a variety of things.

    That means protecting open space, but it also appears to include “development, and use” of the Park’s resources.

    The Act also talks about the need to provide for well-planned “growth and service areas, employment, and a strong economic base.”

    A similar spirit – respecting the human texture of the Park — is present in Article XIV of the state constitution. So there’s a tension here that I don’t think is easily settled.

    Responding to Paul’s question, the APA has clearly moved to indicate a focus on community and economic development.

    APA staff and commissioners have taken part in the Regional Economic Development Council process.

    Board members pointed to economic considerations when approving the Big Tupper resort and other projects.

    Finally, I think it’s pretty clear that the make-up of the commission hasn’t moved in the direction that environmentalists hoped.

    Not so long ago, the organization was run by Curt Stiles, a guy with close ties to environmental organizations.

    Dick Booth and Cecil Wray rounded out a strong “green” bloc, and for a time it seemed possible that they would be joined by Peter Hornbeck, one of the region’s most outspoken environmentalists.

    Now the panel is occupied mostly by business-people, current and former local government officials and landowners. That’s a big shift.

    –Brian, NCPR

  5. Dave says:

    People may try to argue about it, but it isn’t much of a debate.

    Cherry picked words out of the act – “basic purpose” and “development, and use” – are the foundation for claiming that the APA should be involved in “community and economic development”

    That is some serious linguistic gymnastics.

    If that was the original purpose or intent of the act, it would have been very easy to include a clear statement or two that say exactly that. Whenever you have to go digging through a document to try to find a phrase or a few words to support what you think it should say… you are not standing on very solid ground.

    And we wonder why our laws and regulations have to be so absurdly long and wordy, because absent absolute crystal clear text that specifically spells out everything beyond the shadow of a doubt, people will try to warp and interpret them in whatever way suits their agenda.

    The APA’s mission, clearly stated for all to read on their website, is to protect the forest preserve and provide oversight of development proposals on public lands.

    Once more. To protect the forest preserve, and provide oversight of development proposals on public lands.

    They OVERSEE proposals to develop public lands, and they are supposed to do so according to the law. They are not to promote, focus on, favor, pivot towards, bend rules for, make exceptions for, or otherwise engage in community or economic development.

    Economic development and community sustainability are important, for sure – but they are not the job of the APA.

  6. Brian Mann says:

    Dave –

    I think you have this exactly backwards.

    If the APA Act hadn’t envisioned a role for the Adirondack Park Agency in facilitating and guiding proper development and economic activity in the Park, it could easily have said so.

    Instead, the foundational documents of the modern Park point again and again to a tension between these priorities.

    The state’s Private Land use and Development Plan, for example, envisions a “necessary and natural expansion of the Park’s housing, commercial and industrial activities.”

    It’s the APA’s job to shape that and make sure it happens, for the most part, in the right places.

    The APA Act includes extensive language “obligating” the state and the Park Agency to consider community and local government needs.

    And Article XIV itself includes extensive language providing for human development needs in the Park, including construction of reservoirs, municipal water supplies and canals.

    Again, the Park could easily have been created very differently, in the 1800s or the 1970s. The APA Act could say simply, “No more human development.”

    Or even, “Begin dismantling the human foot print.”

    Instead, the general standard applied here in most cases is to determine that projects won’t have an “undue adverse impact” on the Park’s ecology.

    That’s very, very different.

    Here’s why this is important. Good land-use regulation in a place like the Adirondacks is obviously sometimes about saying No.

    But a lot of times, it’s about saying, “Yes, but only if you do it right.”

    Getting at that balance requires grappling with this constant tension, and wrestling with the inherent complication it implies.

    One reason I find this so fascinating is that it is a microcosm of the larger environmental debate.

    Rather than just booting people out and creating a Disneyland-style park preserve, creators of the Adirondacks have forced us to live in this gray zone.

    Granted, it’s a gray zone with far, far greener laws and regulations than most of New York or America. But it’s not Yosemite or Denali either.

    –Brian, NCPR

  7. Pete Klein says:

    Definitions – the things lawyers love.
    Adirondack Park vs Adirondack Forest Preserve.
    The Adirondack Park is a blue line drawn on a map. In essence, it is no different than all of the other lines we draw on maps, lines such as those that mark where one town ends and another begins, where one county, state or nation begins and ends. It is only a line and it doesn’t matter what color you use to mark it.
    The Adirondack Forest Preserve is the land owned by the people of NYS who pay taxes on those lands to counties, towns, villages and schools.
    Since all the people of NY own all the land in the Forest Preserve, they have a right to determine how the land is used. This is why they have the right to vote their opinion on how the land is classified because how it is classified determines how much they get to use the land they own.
    Since people are the basis of government and without people there is no government, the economic interests of the people will always be a prime consideration when it comes to any and all policies.
    Recently some relatives from the Bronx paid us a visit. Among them was a little girl in 3rd grade who asked, “Do you have any parks around here?” I answered, “You are in a park,” and then took her to a nearby town park.
    The Adirondacks is the exact opposite of Central Park which is a park surrounded by buildings while here it is the buildings surrounded by a park. But whether you are talking about Central Park or the Adirondack Park, both exist only for the use of the people. If you want to risk forgetting why the Adirondack Park exists, you put the Adirondack Park at great risk.

  8. Paul says:

    “development and use of the”. Dave the APA is a zoning agency it is not a preservation agency?

  9. Paul says:

    “Whenever you have to go digging through a document to try to find a phrase or a few words to support what you think it should say… you are not standing on very solid ground. ”

    No digging required. It is right there on page one.

  10. Paul says:

    Green groups have worked very hard to convince folks that the agency has some responsibility to prevent development on private land within the park. Being a private landowner in the park I would love that! I wish my neighbor didn’t build that camp he just built. But their job is to make sure that the park is developed in a way that abides by what the legislature has envisioned in the act that was passed.

  11. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Completely off topic, but I’m wondering why terrorists, one from Galway just outside the Park and one from Hudson, with ties to the KKK and the Tea Party who were attempting to build an x-ray weapon to sicken Muslims aren’t treated seriously by the media? A google search finds that the word terror or terrorism isn’t being used by most media outlets except for regional papers and radio. Of course, these were white guys and their names weren’t Hamid or Rashid so the media seems to have coalesced around a message that these were just a couple of hapless bumblers with bad intentions but were never really any threat. They weren’t targeting normal white people or members of Congress or Wall Street so we don’t need to even call them terrorists.

  12. Two Cents says:

    way off, knuck….

  13. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Yeah…

  14. Two Cents says:

    the responsibility of the apa is to oversee that development is done without trading off the “park” aspect of Adirondack park. they were developed to provide a balance.
    that takes creativity to comply, (extreme lack of creativity in the world unfortunately) and more money than conventional development.
    Adirondack describes a lot of eponymous items. it’s time to take the term to describe a development paradigm. it’s just not for chairs and lean-toos.

    “are green activists welcome on Cuomo’s apa?”

    if they work late nights, keep their mouths closed, and do what he says?

  15. myown says:

    The APA is a regional planning and zoning board that was established partly in response to the lack of those functions at the local level. The APA reviews proposals brought before it as required by State law. Under its legislative authority it is not the APA’s role or function to advocate or propose projects. Just as the APA does not lobby for acquisition of additional Forest Preserve it should not be promoting the expansion of business or development. Its job is to be neutral and apply the regulations approved by the State legislature to incoming proposals. Nothing more. Whether those regulations are too restrictive or lax is a separate discussion apart from the APA’s function. The fact is an APA permit is not required for many types of activities and when a permit is necessary the APA approves the overwhelming majority of the applications it receives.

    The Agency’s professional staff play an important role for reviewing a project’s impacts, suggesting changes to reduce impacts and making recommendations to the Commissioners. Commissioners obviously bring their own viewpoints. However, to the extent they favor their own bias (or the Governor’s) over the regulations they become vulnerable to lawsuits.

    As an observation, I do believe the APA Commissioners have become less concerned with following their own regulations and more with achieving a preordained goal. Hence the lawsuits over the Lows Lake classification and the Tupper Lake Resort as examples. One Commissioner that tends to follow the APA law and regulations is Richard Booth, who the Governor notably has not reappointed yet. He has taken positions that could be viewed as pro-development and other positions that look green. However, they have been consistent with the regulations rather than a particular view. I agree with Mary Prime, that we need Commissioners who are competent and committed to following the law and regulations.

  16. erb says:

    Guiding development is not the same as favoring development. In recent cases the APA seems to have taken on a responsibility to encourage development in the park, rather than simply calling balls and strikes. As a park resident, I am as eager as any to support the communities we live in and see them thrive. But I am not convinced that the APA should be used to pump oxygen into the economic lifeblood of the Adirondacks.

    Plenty of communities hit on a “great idea” to replace the lost logging, resource extraction, prison jobs, etc., and some of them are good ideas. I really hate to see the APA adjudicating on which ideas should be supported. Their job is to review the facts presented and determine whether they fit with the APA Act. But, alas, I think we’ve moved far beyond this.

  17. Avon says:

    It’s all right there in the word “develop.”
    To “develop” a wilderness environment can mean to nurture, preserve, promote and plan a wilderness environment that will sustain itself as such.
    Or, to “develop” a wilderness environment can mean to nurture, preserve, promote and plan man-made projects that will sustain society there.

    They are both entirely legitimate interpretations of the word, and they both always have been.
    But I’d ask: which one squares with Teddy Roosevelt’s vision? With Old Man Phelps’s? With that of the developers (there’s that word again) of the Erie Canal and the Tahawus iron works and the hemlock timberers? With the developers (ditto) of trail-erosion control, alpine-flora protection, forest-fire towers, hiker regulations, and acid-rain remediation?

    Even a lawyer or a wordsmith could only look to the original purpose of the APA. And its original purposes were contested, so that the APA was created as it is to include competing visions of “development,” with one vision defeated by the others. Not easy! But, a Commission tilted to either side kisses the concept goodbye.

  18. Dave says:

    “No digging required. It is right there on page one.”

    You dug a few words out of one paragraph and are using them to interpret a larger meaning… that is digging.

  19. Dave says:

    “If the APA Act hadn’t envisioned a role for the Adirondack Park Agency in facilitating and guiding proper development and economic activity in the Park, it could easily have said so.”

    This is simply not how laws or policy work.

    Laws do not say everything they are NOT meant to be.

    They say what they ARE meant to be.

    Can you imagine if the APA act – or any other law – had to specifically spell out everything that wasn’t envisioned for it? That would be impossible.

  20. Brian Mann says:

    Dave -

    Laws are often written to delineate the power of a given statute or an agency’s authority. It’s a norm of policy-making to say, “This law will do this and it won’t do that.” Happens all the time.

    It would have been easy for lawmakers say, for example, “the APA will promote open space and environmental protection, while it will be the Department of State’s role to promote sound economic development.”

    Or, if the founding documents of the modern Park had wanted there to be no development of the kind the APA has been approving lately, they could have easily blocked it.

    Indeed, that’s what happens in most Parks.

    You just say, “No more human footprint” or even “Dismantle the human footprint.” But the APA wasn’t given that mandate on private land.

    Instead, they were told to recognize and promote the “complementary needs of all the people of the state for the preservation of the park’s resources and open space character and of the park’s
    permanent, seasonal and transient populations for growth and service areas, employment, and a strong economic base…”

    This wasn’t a one-off argument. Provisions for community and commercial development inside the blue line are made throughout the Park Agency Act, the Private Land Use and Development Plan, SEQR and the state constitution.

    Again, it’s perfectly fair to argue that this should be otherwise. You can argue that the APA Act should be changed or the Constitution modified to make development far less likely to occur.

    But you can’t read these documents and avoid the fact that development, health communities, and a vibrant economy were all viewed by “the founders” as integral to the Park’s future.

    I understand the desire on both sides to simplify and streamline this complicated mandate.

    Many pro-development groups have wanted to eliminate or defang the APA, so that the environmental role is weakened.

    And pro-environment groups have often argued that the pro-community or pro-economy side of the Park is marginal or vestigial or tertiary to the modern Park’s mandate.

    Either of those paths would have been much less complicated.

    The thorny path is the one where lawmakers and the drafters of Article XIV demand a permanent, gray-zone balance.

    –Brian, NCPR

  21. Dave says:

    “Or, if the founding documents of the modern Park had wanted there to be no development of the kind the APA has been approving lately, they could have easily blocked it.”

    You keep making my point. If the founding documents wanted the Park to be or do something, they would have clearly said so. In your example, if they wanted to block development, they would have done so.

    They didn’t so we can safely assume they were not intended to do so.

    Likewise, if they wanted the Park’s regulatory agency to be or do something, they would have said so. If they wanted it to be a force for economic development, they would have clearly said so.

    But they did not. They did not specifically state that the APA was to be an economic development agency. What they did clearly state was that it was to be a regulatory agency that oversees development and protects the forest preserve.

    Again, for the third time in these comments, the mission of the APA is clearly stated for all to read on their website. It is to protect the forest preserve and oversee development proposals.

    Not suggest development proposals, not encourage them, not favor them… but to oversee them.

    This is a regulatory, oversight agency.

    Look, it is clear that you think the mission of the agency should be different. I’ve been to your talks where you say exactly that. Its mission is X and you think it should include Y. That is fine. The problem in this discussion is that instead of saying that, you are now trying to deny X and argue that it is really Y. This is historically, factually, and ethically wrong.

  22. Dave says:

    “But you can’t read these documents and avoid the fact that development, health communities, and a vibrant economy were all viewed by “the founders” as integral to the Park’s future.”

    This seems to be the problem.

    You are conflating what the founders viewed as integral to the Park, with what the APA was created to do.

    One does not mean the other.

  23. Brian Mann says:

    Dave –

    First, the foundational documents DO say so – unambiguously.

    Second, I’m quoting THE foundational document of the Adirondack Park Agency. You’re not quoting anything. You’re just repeating your opinion, over and over.

    So let me say again. In the document which created the APA, economic development and health communities are described as “obligations” and sustaining them is included in the list of purposes of the Act.

    Here’s the quote:

    “The state of New York has an obligation to insure that contemporary and projected future pressures on the park resources are provided for within a land use control frame work which recognizes not only matters of local concern but also those of regional and state concern.”

    This is crystal clear. The legislature doesn’t say “contemporary and future pressures on the park resources should be blocked or rejected or banned.

    They say that they should be “provided for within a land use control frame work.” That frame work is required to recognize “matters of local concern but also those of regional and state concern.”

    When outlining how that would work, and establishing the basic DNA of the APA commission itself, the legislature saw fit to include a designee from the Conservation Department.

    But tellingly, they also saw fit to include designees from the Department of State and the Department of Commerce.

    Let me say this again: In creating the APA commission, the legislature designated one seat apiece to two agencies occupied largely with boosting economic activity.

    They were also careful to include in-Park board members and they created the Local Government Review Board to be certain that the APA’s function reflected the concerns of local communities.

    Finally, throughout the entire APA Act and Private Land Use and Development Plan, the APA is encouraged again and again to consider the economic aspects of conservation and development.

    There are unambiguously two missions being laid out here for the APA, two social contracts they are obligated to satisfy.

    One is to protect the Park’s environment and open space. The other is to protect the Park’s communities and economic vitality.

    The APA Act — again, the law which created the APA — describes these two missions as possessing an “essential interpendence.”

    Before responding again, I hope you’ll actually go and read the documents in question.

    And in explaining your views of the APA’s mission, I encourage you to quote the actual laws and legal precedents that shape the Park.

    –Brian, NCPR

  24. Don Dew Jr. says:

    I would also add that the Park Agency has a staff position called Special Assistant for Economic Affairs.

  25. Brian Mann says:

    “It is policy of the Adirondack Park Agency to support economic development activities that allow the balanced objectives of 801 of the APA Act to be met. The Agency will support the creation and retention of jobs within the region in ways that are consistent with its statutory responsibilities with the understanding that economic improvement and stability are vital parts of a collective effort to protect and enhance quality-of-life within the Park.”

    -Adirondack Park Agency Economic Development Policy

  26. Two Cents says:

    “balance”

  27. Will Doolittle says:

    Dave is providing a window into a certain mindset on the Adirondack Park. It’s not about the laws and rules and what they say; it’s about the goals that folks like Dave believe should be the focus. They have become convinced of their own rightness, because for years the APA didn’t follow the laws as written, but pursued this very path — of realizing certain environmental goals, regardless of the details of the laws. So now that more people in positions of power at the APA and elsewhere are trying to achieve the balance that is in the legislation, folks like Dave feel wronged.

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