Adirondack Park Agency approves Fulton County lake subdivision

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ADIRONDACKS — The Adirondack Park Agency board on Friday approved plans for a developer to build 34 residential building lots around Woodward Lake in northern Fulton County.

The plan, which had drawn criticism from environmental groups for not clustering the proposed homes on smaller, closely-grouped lots, was approved  9-0 following two days of presentation and discussion. Board member John Ernst, who had been the member most critical of the plans during discussions, abstained.

“I have trouble swallowing this amount of development around the lake,” Ernst said during discussion by the board’s Regulatory Programs Committee on Thursday. Both Thursday and Friday meetings were held remotely due to pandemic restrictions.

The plans by New York Land and Lakes Development LLC of Oneonta call for building single-family homes around most of the perimeter of the 100-acre Woodard Lake, on a 1,169-acre tract located in the towns of Northampton and Mayfield. The lake lies in Northampton, west of the village of Northville and the northwestern tip of Great Sacandaga Lake.

The developer first applied for approval in 2018. It is the first major subdivision to come before the agency since it adopted cluster subdivision regulations in 2018, and went through a lengthy review by APA staff before the application was declared complete in December.

On Friday, agency staff said the project protects the lake shore and wetlands, since all houses will be 100 feet or more from the shore, with no significant vegetation cutting in that buffer.

“The board’s approval culminates an extensive and robust two-year review by agency staff under the new large-scale subdivision application process,” APA Executive Director Terry Martino said in a post-decision press release.  “The revised application process ensures proposed projects are designed in conformance with the APA’s review criteria, including protection of open space, wildlife, and habitat resources.  We commend the review team and the applicant for working together to achieve a result that prioritizes natural resource protection while meeting the marketability goals of the applicant.”

Environmental organizations criticized the approval, saying the project is too intense for the property, which they say is constrained from development by the lake, wetlands, stream corridors and steep slopes.

“Unfortunately this is an agency that sees its role in the park as supervising the chopping up of the back country,” said Protect the Adirondacks Executive Director Peter Bauer. “It is unfortunate that they’re not taking advantage of the best science in land use planning, and can’t say no, even to a project that is marginal, that really shouldn’t be developed.”

During the review process the developer submitted a “cluster” design as an alternative during the project review, but agency staff said it could actually have more of an environmental impact. Although the developer shifted some building lots away from the lake as part of that alternative, staff said it shifted development onto thinner upslope soils where septic systems would be more problematic, and included more road construction.

The subdivision as approved includes 18 houses “clustered” around the lake, and a new 2,000-foot road from Collins-Gifford Valley Road. All the lots would rely on private wells and septic systems. A 189-acre “common area” that includes lake frontage would be owned by a homeowner’s association, and only boats with no motors or small electric motors will be allowed on the lake.

In a Feb. 8 letter to the APA responding to criticisms, New York Land and Lakes Development project manager Alan M. Lord said that large private lots are what buyers are looking for and will add more value to town tax rolls, and property lines on a map won’t interfere with wildlife activity by fragmenting habitat.

“We believe the Woodward Lake proposal strikes a good balance between the interests of the developer while protecting to the maximum extent possible a huge portion of the property much the way we did with the Wood-worth Lake property several years ago,” Lord wrote.

APA staff recommended and the agency board approved 51 conditions, including no further subdivision or construction on each lot beyond a single-family residence and one auxiliary building. With the conditions, the agency concludes that the subdivision “will not have an undue adverse impact” on the environment, and not result in a loss of any of about 170 acres of wetlands on the site.

Given the finding that the application meets all legal requirements, the agency had little choice but to approve it, APA senior counsel Christopher Cooper said, even if members don’t like the subdivision design. “The board’s role is not to design projects, it’s to review projects that come before it,” he said. “If the project before you meets all the standards and criteria, it should be approved.”

David Gibson, managing partner of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, thinks that Cooper is wrong — be believes the APA has significant power to change the project, had it wanted to.

“The problem is that this is not a planning board. This is the Adirondack Park Agency charged by the state Legislature with broad powers to protect the park’s natural resources across six-million acres,” Gibson said. “The Adirondack Park Agency has a higher threshold to meet than a checklist of technical issues. However, today’s APA has unfortunately become a rubber stamp for applicants. APA is allowing applicants to set the parameters of what is approvable, making only polite requests for alternatives.”

Gibson and Bauer both said they expect the homes will be marketed as second homes for well-to-do people who live elsewhere, rather than being for year-round residents.

“The Adirondack Park deserves the best development possible,” Bauer said. “This is not going to go down as an example of good environmental development.”

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