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Mario Cuomo and the Adirondacks

Credited for compromise

January 5, 2015
By PETER CROWLEY (pcrowley@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

SARANAC LAKE - There's a chair in Adirondack Daily Enterprise/Lake Placid News Publisher Cathy Moore's office that is unremarkable except for one thing: If you flip it over, the underside of its cushion has three words written in white-out: "Gov. Cuomo's seat."

Next to that, in red marker on a manufacturer's safety notice, is written, "Cuomo sat here."

That wasn't Andrew Cuomo, New York's current governor, who sat in a different room when he popped into the Enterprise office for a surprise visit shortly after Christmas in 2012. It's Mario Cuomo, who in 1991 visited the newspaper's office for an interview. To preserve the memory, Enterprise photographer Bella Madden Doolittle wrote those words underneath the chair.

Article Photos

New York Gov. Mario Cuomo sits while Herman 'Woody' Cole speaks. Cole served as chairman of the Adirondack Park Agency Board from 1984 to 1992.

Mario Cuomo died Thursday, New Year's Day, at the age of 82. The three-term governor (1983 to 1994) from Queens visited the Adirondacks but didn't spend the night, and was more comfortable in dress shoes than boots. He's best remembered for his eloquent public speaking, but Adirondackers interviewed for this story also remember him as a good listener who, in a time of peak intensity for the Park, walked back environmental regulations because they were unpopular among locals.

John Penney, the Enterprise's managing editor in 1991 and now editorial page editor of the Poughkeepsie Journal, said no one on the Enterprise staff then could remember a sitting governor visiting the newspaper office for an editorial board interview. But the significance of that day turned out to be greater than that.

It was a time of great tension between Adirondack residents and New York's government, especially the state Adirondack Park Agency, which regulates development inside the Blue Line. Cuomo had stoked that fire in 1989 by initiating the Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st Century, led by Peter Berle, which developed a set of tighter land-use controls, especially for private backcountry and shorelines. Local government officials complained at being sidelined, and many Adirondackers feared environmentalists and downstate politicians wanted to take over and depopulate the Park.

"It was top down," Penney said. "It was basically Albany going to decide the future of the Park."

"That was obviously a very controversial time in the Park's history, probably the most controversial since the creation of the Park Agency itself," Joe Martens, then Cuomo's advisor on environmental issues, told the Enterprise Friday. Martens is now commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation under Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo had started distancing himself from the commission's recommendations as early as 1990 and eventually developed a compromise agenda that mostly was never passed into law. Some details of that were just coming out at the time of that Enterprise interview on Oct. 10, 1991.

One news scoop the paper gleaned was that the governor's office was considering Jim Frenette of Tupper Lake, then a Franklin County legislator, for a seat on the APA Board of Commissioners. That was a turning point and a "big departure," according to Martens, who had personally recruited Frenette for the position. The APA board's four seats for Park residents, all appointed by the governor, were generally held by atypical Adirondackers, Martens said.

"We were trying very hard to listen to the local government voice up here, which I think was underrepresented historically," Martens said. The in-Park APA commissioners at the time "didn't represent the average person in the Park," but "Jim Frenette was a bona fide resident, born and raised in the Park. He also had a great reputation as someone who was reasonable, that he was not going to be radical in any way, and he was going to be somebody who could bridge the gap between the environmental community and local governments or residents of the Park."

On one hand, Penney said, Frenette's nomination seemed like "trying to throw the local folks a bone," but he also thought it was a good choice.

"Some of the local voices were so visceral and, in my view, unproductive, but others were excellent, like Frenette ... and ultimately carried the day," Penney said.

"I was a little hesitant about going on the Park Agency," Frenette said. "I just didn't think I was ready, but Joe talked me into it."

The Berle commission's report "was presented as a package; it was all or nothing," Frenette said. In response to Adirondack local leaders' complaints that it was being rammed down their throats, "The governor, to his credit, called a meeting up in Plattsburgh. Each of the counties was represented. ... He sat down with the people of the counties, and over the course of a couple of hours, he sat there and listened." Later, he gave a committee of those leaders access to the top people in his administration.

To build trust and let participants talk without fear of political consequences, Cuomo closed this meeting to reporters.

"He got away with that somehow," Frenette said.

Frenette said Cuomo, at his annual address to the New York State Association of Counties, would do question-and-answer sessions and ask the county leaders how they thought he should handle problems.

"He was serious about saying, 'OK, what do you think we should do?'" said Frenette, a fellow Democrat. "He wasn't a stuffed shirt by any means."

The most influential North Country politician at the time was Sen. Ron Stafford, a Republican from Plattsburgh who eventually chaired the Senate Finance Committee.

"Even though they were of different parties, Senator Stafford and Governor Cuomo were very good friends, both privately and politically," said Paul Maroun of Tupper Lake, who was a legal counsel to Stafford during the Cuomo administration and is now mayor of Tupper Lake and a Franklin County legislator. The two met often and called each other regularly, Maroun said.

One thing they did together was build prisons upstate.

"Thousands of jobs were created because of the partnership between them," Maroun said.

Maroun recalled Cuomo as "a respected leader of the state" by people of all parties, but also as "a hard, progressive Democrat" and "the kind of governor who liked to stay around Albany.

"Sometimes I would go with (Stafford) to these meetings in Albany in these little rooms," Maroun said. Cuomo would sometimes wear dark sunglasses, which made him look intimidating and a little mean.

"He turned out to be very good for the North Country, and the relationship between him and Ron Stafford was good for the North Country," Maroun said.

Tony Hall, who also worked for Stafford and now owns the Lake George Mirror newspaper, said Cuomo's most lasting Adirondack legacy is the Environmental Protection Fund, which he signed into existence in 1993 after voters rejected a 1990 bond act to add to the state Forest Preserve. Fueled by a real estate transfer tax, the EPF is used by the state to buy land in the Adirondacks and to help pay for water-quality projects, among other things. That, Hall says, achieved one of the Berle commission's goals: protecting the backcountry.

"Cuomo once worried that his only legacy after three terms as governor would be the number of prisons built in the state during his tenure," Hall wrote in an essay published in today's Enterprise. "While those prisons and the jobs they provided continue to influence life in the Adirondacks, the Environmental Protection Fund has, arguably, done more than even the Adirondack Park Agency Act to define the character of the region for generations to come."

Bob Glennon of Ray Brook, executive director of the APA from 1987 to 1995, remembered Cuomo as a good leader who backed away from the bold Berle commission plan, which Glennon supported.

"I think it's inspiring in this day and age to have a man in public service with morals, with integrity, with intelligence, with eloquence and with compassion, and he had all of those," Glennon said. "I think that he did his very best to try to deal with the disparate interests in the Adirondacks. I think that the Berle commission was a good-faith effort to do so."

Glennon said it's unfortunate Cuomo abandoned the plan in the face of the "self-propelled" local reaction, although he felt some of the commission's recommendations were "a clumsy attempt at compromise," including a plan to combine transfers of development rights with zoning that would have made buildings on private backcountry land few and far between.

"The idea is probably viable," he said. "I think the execution was kind of crude."

Martens knows both Cuomo governors well. After working for the Assembly Ways and Means Committee and then the APA, he was called up to be Mario's assistant secretary for energy and the environment from 1990 to 1992, rising to deputy secretary from '92 to '94. He was part of a basketball league the governor organized and played in, passionately. Martens and his wife were spending the New Year's holiday at their home in Lake Placid when they heard the news of Mario's death.

"He was one of the most interesting, brilliant, articulate people that I have ever met," Martens said.

Cuomo "regarded protection of the environment as almost a religious belief, and he talked about it in spiritual terms all the time," Martens said. "Unlike his son (Andrew), who is very much hands on, who is an outdoor person himself, the governor was never comfortable as a hiker, as a canoeist. He was more comfortable in a suit or in sweat pants than he was in hiking clothes. That wasn't part of his experience as a kid growing up in a city, in Queens, but he spoke about it like it was a spiritual or religious responsibility to protect the place."

The Berle commission report was "the right thing to do at the time," Martens said.

"At the end of the '80s, there was a tremendous real estate boom, so the APA was getting record numbers of applications," Martens said.

On the other hand, he said, the 2,000-acre zoning was "pretty radical," and the governor understood local government leaders' desire to have more say in the process. The middle path he tried to walk in response is now prevalent throughout the Park, shared by environmental groups, municipal leaders and APA commissioners. Martens said Cuomo started talking about this balancing act between Adirondack economy and environment before environmentalists or town leaders did.

"I think in many ways he was ahead of his time because of that," Martens said.

 
 

 

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