Saranac Lake in running for ‘Strongest Town’
SARANAC LAKE — The village of Saranac Lake is currently in a head-to-head competition to be the “Strongest Town” in North America, facing off against Valemount, British Columbia, Canada in the first bracket of a tournament based on finding a community as an example of good urban planning.
Strong Towns is a nonprofit media organization that has hosted this contest for the past eight years. Strong Towns advocates for urban planning models outside of the suburban model that became popular in the mid-20th century. This includes goals such as reducing reliance on vehicles; creating dense, walkable communities with housing flexibility; and transparency in local governmental accounting.
To apply to be selected for the contest, applicants had to answer questions about what their towns are doing to meet these goals.
“It’s not looking for a community that has everything figured out,” Strong Towns Communications Manager Lauren Ronnander said of the conest. “It’s looking for a community that’s looking for ways to grow more resilient.”
Valemount Mayor Owen Torgerson wrote in his village’s application that Valemount is a young community, incorporated in 1962. It is surrounded by marshes, the Rocky Mountains and a highway. Valemount has a population of more than 1,000. Saranac Lake has a population of around 5,000, according to U.S. Census data.
A panel of Strong Towns staff and board members narrowed the dozens of initial submissions down to 16.
Saranac Lake and Valemount, British Columbia will face off in the first round bracket, competing to advance to the Elite Eight round.
Voting in the first round will continue until 12 p.m. on Thursday. Strong Towns readers and listeners will vote, too, and theirs get more weight — comprising 50% of the tally and non-member votes making up the other 50%.
The winner will be announced on April 14.
The winning community receives accommodations for a representative to attend the Strong Towns National Gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina in May to receive an award. Strong Towns also produces a videos about winning communities.
Voting links and full answers to all the questions can be found on the Strong Towns website at https://bit.ly/42C73Ue.
How did Saranac Lake get entered?
Saranac Lake village Parks and Trails Advisory Board member Charli Lomino came up with the idea of submitting Saranac Lake for the contest. He moved to town a year ago after spending his life living in larger New York metropolises like Long Island, Rochester and Albany. Immediately, he said he noticed a difference.
“I think a lot of people here pride themselves on the fact that we don’t have your stereotypical suburbia with manicured lawns and all houses look the same,” Lomino said.
He feels this strengthens local culture.
Lomino has been a member of Strong Towns for a little while now and believes in its mission. He said he became interested in urban planning and how communities are designed before he moved here.
As he familiarized himself with the village and its development code, he felt that Saranac Lake is special and “had a good shot” at the contest.
“Saranac Lake has a pretty progressive development code,” Lomino said. “There’s a lot of things that Saranac Lake does that are really unique.”
The village is an urban center in the middle of millions of acres of public lands filled with mountains, lakes and easily accessible natural wonders, he said.
“It’s almost like a mini-city,” Lomino said.
He lived in more populated places his whole life, but he said Saranac Lake is the first time he hasn’t been reliant on his car to live a day-to-day life.
He said what makes that possible is the decisions by local leaders over decades to have local laws and zoning codes that make the village safe and easy to walk around in.
These things hang in the background, but have big implications in daily life, he said.
For example, he points out that many of the country’s population centers are zoned exclusively for single-family homes, which along with parking spot minimums, leads to suburban sprawl.
“Saranac Lake is a little more loose,” he said.
And more democratic, he felt. He said villagers are allowed to add apartments to homes or open business in houses after they go through a review and permitting process. In many places in America, that’s not possible.
Lomino fell in love with the area when he attended Clarkson University. He had wanted to move back for a while.
“I am not a fan of suburbia. It wasn’t for me,” Lomino said.
Last year, he followed his partner up here. The relationship didn’t last, but he stuck around and now works at North Woods Engineering.
Lomino worked with village Community Development Director Jamie Konkoski and Franklin County Economic Development Corporation CEO Jeremy Evans to enter Saranac Lake in the contest.
Valemount’s entry was submitted by its mayor, councilors and multiple other members of the community.
Saranac Lake’s application
Saranac Lake’s application touts things like abolishing parking minimums in 2016 to encourage walkability; not creating exclusively single-home zoning, which encourages density; recently making accounting documents searchable PDFs on the village website; and having policies encouraging pedestrian and bike accessibility.
When it comes to maintaining infrastructure instead of just expanding, Saranac Lake has a head-start since it is in the Adirondack Park, making new developments difficult.
“For this reason, it is not feasible for the community to expand outward; Saranac Lake must instead densify,” the application reads.
“Exclusive single-family zoning does not exist in Saranac Lake,” the application says. The application also highlights that there’s “a two-story minimum, and no maximum building height in the downtown in order to ensure that this area remains especially dense and walkable.”
The state Adirondack Park Agency has rules on maximum building heights, which supersede village codes.
The application acknowledges the local housing crisis and says it is “closely related to an influx of short-term rentals and derelict ‘zombie’ housing.”
It mentions the village’s proposed STR law capping the number of STRs allowed in the village, with potential exceptions for owners who rehabilitate “zombie” homes.
A brotherly connection
Out of the approximately 6,000 people living in these two villages, two happen to be brothers. John Crowley has lived in Valemount for 15 years. Enterprise employee and former managing editor Peter Crowley has lived in Saranac Lake for 22 years.
The two brothers were shocked Monday morning to learn that their tiny communities, each tucked away in the mountains 2,500 miles away from each other, were being pitted against each other.
John said he had lived in Jasper, the larger tourist hub of the region. He became a Valmountian because it was “a cool mountain town that was affordable” and he stayed for cheaper property, the mountains and “good friends.”
He said because Valemount is so small, it’s easy to get around in on foot or bike. The town’s mountain bike park can be ridden to from almost anywhere in town, he said.
John said he doesn’t think this vote disparity with his brother will create too large of a rift at family gatherings, though. He’s spent time here, and has no ill will against his town’s opponents. Peter said their mother is conflicted on which son’s town to vote for.
“We’ve got bigger mountains but Saranac Lake has more of a town,” John said.
In Valemount, they’re still working on paving their existing roads. Three streets remain dirt, applicants said.
“Pavement was not even a thing until the 1980s,” Torgerson wrote. “Didn’t need it.”