At first glance the proposal might seem irresistible: a development that would bring affluent residents and visitors, resurrect a cherished ski resort, create jobs and revive an Adirondack region that desperately needs new vitality.
But we long ago moved beyond the first glance at the Adirondack Club and Resort proposal in Tupper Lake. And sadly, the development as currently proposed presents unacceptable environmental and financial risks.
The resort envisions a style of subdivision that forgoes crucial conservation principles, carves up land that's supposed to be protected as open space and rests on a financial strategy that Adirondack real-estate experts describe as far-fetched.
Developer Michael Foxman and his partners first announced their plans for 6,200 acres in Tupper Lake in 2004. After public debate and private mediation sessions, the proposal has evolved into a $500 million development with 660 residential units, a hotel, a restaurant and a refurbished Big Tupper Ski Area. The Adirondack Park Agency is in the midst of a hearing on whether to give the developers permits and whether to attach conditions.
The financial underpinnings of the project rely heavily on the early sale of "Great Camp" lots ranging from 19 to 770 acres. The land that the developers would subdivide into these lots is classified as resource management and by state law is supposed to require special care to protect natural open space.
While this large-lot development might appear to leave much of the forested property in a natural state, it is actually more destructive of natural values than clustered development. The building lots and the roads and utilities serving them would fragment natural areas, disturb wildlife habitat and threaten water quality through erosion and runoff. On the other hand, concentrating development around the ski area would preserve significant natural tracts surrounding a more intensively built-out core area, while still allowing for lots large enough to offer seclusion. Clustering development this way would have the added benefit of preserving forests that border on Follensby Park, a lovely wild area destined to become part of the state Forest Preserve.
Foxman has said that he hopes to sell 40 to 50 high-priced lots and homes a year, at prices ranging from $100,000 to $5 million, to pay for the infrastructure his plans call for. Sales like that would dwarf those on record in any market in the Adirondacks, including high-end property on waterfront, which the Adirondack Club and Resort has little of. Yet the improvements to Big Tupper that so many in the region support would not happen until these sales take place.
Some supporters of the project take comfort from the idea that once permits are in hand, other developers could be found to take over if the current developers can't make a go of it. In that view, if the first speculators' business model doesn't work, surely someone else will step in who is better capitalized or has a better business plan.
This thinking sounds uncomfortably like the notions that fueled recent speculative bubbles, not only in real estate but in financial markets. Even if an investment doesn't work on its merits, according to this rationale, there will always be someone else to take it over. Some call it the "greater fool theory." It's OK to make rash financial gambles on an investment as long as someone is willing to make an even rasher one and buy you out if you get in trouble. The flaw should be apparent. At some point you run out of people willing to buy an investment whose fundamentals don't make sense. Then the tech stock bubble bursts, the subprime lending market collapses, or someone is left holding the bag for investments in an unfinished development in Tupper Lake.
Tupper Lake and the surrounding region need development that's sustainable, in both the environmental and financial senses. A resort centered on Big Tupper could meet those tests if it is less sprawling and truly preserves open space - and if its financial underpinning reflects a more realistic forecast of what the real-estate market is likely to support. Maybe the Adirondack Club and Resort developers could transform their plans, but as currently proposed the project should not be approved.
Tom Woodman is the publisher of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine, based in Saranac Lake. This column first appeared as an editorial in the Explorer's July/August issue.