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APA soon to be tested

The Adirondack Park is one of the world’s natural treasures. It is not only the largest state or national park in the lower 48 states, but a rare example of how people and wild nature can peacefully coexist. The Adirondack Park Agency was created almost 50 years ago to help maintain this coexistence, at a time when a spate of large land developments, mostly second-home subdivisions, were threatening the natural integrity of the park.

The integrity of this state agency itself is about to be tested as it prepares to pass judgment on the application for the Saranac Lake Marina, a major expansion of a traditional business at the northeast corner of Lower Saranac Lake. Most of the rest of this remarkable lake, some 5 miles long with its forested shoreline and islands protected as “forever wild” Forest Preserve, is owned by all the people of New York state.

The purpose of the APA is to balance development and preservation, allowing for compatible economic activity and a wide range of recreational uses that are enjoyed by residents and visitors. The APA represents the public interest in maintaining the park’s wildness and beauty, and over the past half-century, it has mostly succeeded in this purpose.

Anyone who cherishes natural places and has traveled much beyond New York state will recognize Lower Saranac Lake for what it is — a natural gem. The sad reality is that tranquil, beautiful, largely undisturbed lakes like this one are exceedingly rare in the eastern U.S. and almost nonexistent west of the Mississippi. Most waterbodies outside the Adirondacks are ringed with houses, abuzz with motorboats and transformed by commercial development.

One place on Lower Saranac Lake where a commercial activity seemed appropriate, and served a community need, was Duso’s Marina at the village end of the lake. But Duso’s was abandoned years ago and had fallen into complete disrepair. It seemed a hopeful sign, therefore, when someone expressed interest in rescuing and restoring the facility. The only problem here is a typical one: Like most developers, this one believes that Bigger Is Better. Where the previous marina served the community well for many years with something like 160 boat slips, the new plan calls for 292 slips, or nearly double the original capacity. The new slips would also have a roof over them, which puts them in a category with boathouses under APA rules.

Nobody can blame the developer for wanting to maximize his profits. The problem is what this oversized project will do to the rest of a largely pristine lake. The proposed marina will fill much of its bay with covered structures totaling 36,368 square feet. The project will affect an adjoining wetland that happens to be an important fish-spawning area. Most importantly, it will affect the lake as a whole, three-quarters of which is “forever wild” land owned by all New Yorkers. If the project is approved as proposed, many more high-speed motorboats will disturb the natural tranquility, distract from the scenic beauty and threaten the safety of paddlers seeking peace and quiet in a superb setting.

According to the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan: “A genuine need exists to insure that the scale and intensity of water-oriented uses are consistent with uses of adjoining state and private lands and the general character of the Park, particularly so far as the type, speed and number of boats are concerned.”

To gain APA approval, the project sponsor submitted a “carrying capacity analysis” apparently based on a boating study of a North Carolina lake. There is a world of difference, however, between the pristine waterways of the Adirondack Park and the intensively used, over-developed lakes of North Carolina.

As conservation spokesman Peter Bauer recently reminded the Adirondack Park Agency, motorboats have a transformative impact on natural areas where their size, noise, speeds, wakes and waves magnify their presence. “The carrying capacity of [Lower Saranac Lake] must be based on the character of the lake and its traditional use,” Bauer notes, “and on the reasons why the public values this lake so highly.”

Replacing the derelict marina on Lower Saranac Lake would fill an important need. But the Bigger-Is-Better approach doesn’t work if we are to respect — and preserve — the natural character of the Adirondack Park. This out-of-scale development goes against everything that makes this part of the world so special.

Dick Beamish lives in Middlebury, Vermont, and formerly in Saranac Lake. He served on the APA staff in the 1970s and later founded the Adirondack Explorer news magazine, headquartered in Saranac Lake.

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