RAY BROOK - While few people saw it coming, there was a major shake-up in the leadership of the state Adirondack Park Agency this year.
It began at the tail end of the APA board's July monthly meeting, when then-Chairman Curt Stiles made the surprising announcement that he would step down. Even though his term had expired in June, Stiles could have stayed on until he was reappointed or replaced.
"I sent a letter to the governor on Tuesday morning that basically says I will not stand for reappointment as chair or as a commissioner of the Adirondack Park Agency," Stiles told his fellow commissioners. "It's not about the frustrations of day to day; it's not about the issues of the Park. It's about what I want to do with the rest of my life. That's the challenge for me to figure out, but it's also part of who I am. I tend to allow myself to get consumed by what I do, so I know when it's time to stop, and now is that time."
State Adirondack Park Agency Chairwoman Lani Ulrich, right, talks with APA Executive Director Terry Martino, left, at a Nov. 17 agency meeting in Ray Brook.
(Enterprise file photo —Jessica Collier)
Chairman since Gov. Eliot Spitzer appointed him in 2007, Stiles was seen as a strong advocate for protecting the Park's natural resources. A number of long-standing state land issues - like a mileage cap on snowmobile trails in the Park and the fate of the St. Regis and Hurricane Mountain fire towers - were resolved during his tenure. He also pushed for regulatory reform of the agency, including a bill approved by state lawmakers this year that promotes affordable housing in the Park.
But his tenure was also marked by repeated clashes with the Park's local government leaders. After the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board published a report that was highly critical of the agency, Stiles questioned whether the group represents the "best interests" of the Park's elected officials. Stiles was also at the helm of the agency during one of its most embarrassing losses, a battle over farmworker housing with Essex farmer Sandy Lewis.
As his record indicates, Stiles' decision to leave the APA drew a variety of reactions from stakeholders in the Park.
"Curt led the agency very well," said Dan Plumley of the environmental group Adirondack Wild. "We truly respect his incredible dedication to agency's staff and its programs."
But critics called Stiles decision to step down long overdue.
"Mr. Stiles in the past has been a lightning rod on certain issues, and I think this will be a breath of fresh air as we move forward," said state Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, R-Willsboro.
In the weeks that followed Stiles' departure, speculation began to build about who would replace him. Both environmentalists and local government groups submitted lists of candidates for Gov. Andrew C Cuomo to consider.
By October, that speculation turned to concern as the agency was preparing to begin a planned three-month review of the largest project it's ever seen - the Adirondack Club and Resort in Tupper Lake - with no chairman, one vacant seat and four commissioners serving on expired terms.
In early November, with just over a week to go before the ACR review began, the governor ended the speculation by appointing agency Commissioner Lani Ulrich to the post, making her the first chairwoman in the history of the APA. An Old Forge resident, Ulrich has been an agency commissioner since 2004.
"For my mother, my daughters-in-law and granddaughters - for girls and women known and unknown, I am delighted to mirror each of our aspirations and to have the privilege of building on the work I have done in the past seven years here at the agency and now in my appointment as chairwoman," Ulrich said at the opening of the agency's November meeting.
Ulrich's appointment wasn't necessarily a surprise. She had been publicly suggested for the chair by both local government leaders and environmentalists, in part because of her work trying to build consensus on Adirondack issues with the Common Ground Alliance.
Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan said his group hasn't agreed with every decision Ulrich has made during her tenure with the agency, but he described her as "somebody who takes a thoughtful look at all sides of an issue and tries to find somewhere in the middle."
Brian Towers, president of the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages, praised Ulrich for working to balance land preservation and open space with the need for growth and employment opportunities for the people who live in the Park.
In addition to appointing Ulrich, Cuomo also announced the nomination of Sherman Craig to Stiles' former seat on the APA board. A Wanakena furniture maker and former Rochester-area school administrator, Craig joined the agency board in November, pending his permanent appointment by the Senate in January.
Several other new faces joined the agency board this year. Former state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava took over in February as the Department of State designee. Jennifer McCormick, an executive at Empire State Development, joined the board in October as the Department of Economic Development designee. Following the resignation of state Department of Environmental Conservation Region 5 Director Betsy Lowe, her counterpart in Region 6, Judy Drabicki, became the APA board's DEC designee.