The state Adirondack Park Agency is trying to push three bills through the state Legislature and trying to get institutions like us to endorse them. After stewing over them for many weeks, we think two are OK but one of them - the one that sounded best to us at first - should be dropped.
1) This bill would allow more intense "community" (read "affordable") housing development within three miles of hamlet areas, the populated clusters where development is encouraged to go. Here's the problem: It would have the agency reviewing not just the development proposal but every potential homeowner's income, to make sure it doesn't exceed 120 percent of the county's median income. The APA is a land-use agency, not a regulator of who is allowed to live in which house.
Better, but not great, would be if the APA set "affordable" criteria on each house itself - for example, saying the initial asking price cannot exceed 120 percent of the county's median sales the previous year - but that would create a mess because real-estate prices change so much and so quickly. In the end, it might be best for the APA just to expand hamlets, and also make rules that give a degree of general preference to any project that would create more homes for people who make less than median income.
2) Another bill is complicated but ultimately an improvement. It would change the procedure reviewing projects in several ways:
Now, when someone applies for a permit for a project, the APA has 15 days to give them a written response. Staff say and past practice shows that isn't enough time to visit the site and give a good response, so what APA staff often do is put in a bunch of requests for more information. Sometimes the quantity of these requests is an object of ridicule. This bill would extend that response time to 30 days, presumably enough time for APA staff to give each project a thorough initial review. And if they get done sooner, all the better.
It would also let the APA board deny a project without holding a public hearing, but still give the applicant the right to a post-denial public hearing. This could speed some thorny cases up by letting the applicant know earlier where board members stood and what sacrifices might be needed to change their minds.
3) The this bill would set up a grant program for municipal planning projects - a good thing, and seemingly apolitical since, although the APA would have to approve the undertaking, it would have no say over what plan each community came up with.
These bills aren't too controversial; we wish the APA would go through Albany every time it changes rules that have major impact on Adirondack residents. We were not impressed when it overhauled shoreline regulations to overturn the "grandfathering" that allowed people to make renovations or minor changes to shoreline homes that predated the agency's rules. The same goes for the definition of a boathouse that intentionally prevents the possibility of a second story.
If the APA thought these cases were so convincing, it should have taken them before the Legislature. Agency officials say they are assured of their legal right to make and change rules on their own, but we think their powers should be assigned by people elected by the people.
True, these rules were crafted in public over many years, including APA committee meetings and special meetings to gather public input. Our staff attended and reported on many of them. The problem is that the APA still does a poor job of truly conversing with the lay public, which usually doesn't realize what's happening until it's too late. Agency staff and board members seemingly want the public to come to them. They communicate to people who monitor what they do and speak the jargon, but still, after all these years, they have a hard time reaching out and talking plainly with everyday residents. As a result, they have a public-relations problem. They are perceived either as policy wonks or environmentalist ideologues. We tend to see the former more than the latter.
Chairman Curt Stiles told us he is trying to steer the agency toward simplicity and straightforwardness. That's no easy or quick campaign, so we won't know if it's successful for a while. But it needs to happen. In the future, the APA needs, for its own good, to honor Adirondackers by coming to them as a community member rather than an overarching bureaucracy.
All reasonable Adirondack residents want to conserve the things that make the Park one of the world's special places, but they have reason to be skeptical of agencies that control their lives without addressing their concerns.