ON THE SCENE: APA helps Adirondack communities plan for future

From left are Adirondack Park Agency Public Information Officer Keith McKeever, APA Executive Director Barbara Rice and APA Deputy Director for Regulatory Programs David Plante. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Urban planners are realizing that how our forebears developed communities was the best approach. That is, compact communities, largely walkable and buildings often had multiple purposes with housing above. Given the opportunity, they went up before out.

Have you ever flown into a city like Austin, Los Angeles or Tucson? One of the biggest features is the surrounding sprawl, which results in a need for a car to go anywhere. That sprawl results in a vast use of resources that helps explode global warming. While we in the Adirondacks are forced to a degree by a limit of private land in communities that are more compact than many, we are not immune. Ray Brook and Wilmington, for example, are mostly not walkable.

The two most compact communities in the Adirondack Park that also feature the widest diversity of ages are Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, according to presenters at the APA’s second Adirondack Planning Forum held at the Hotel Saranac on Thursday, April 25. Their session was titled “Highest & Best Use: Maximizing Developable Lands in the Park’s Hamlets.”

Another session related to this topic was “Floodplain Regulation for Local Boards,” which stressed the importance of not building in floodplains. This issue plays out especially along our national coastlines in light of rising sea levels and inland because of the increasing intensity and number of violent storms, such as Tropical Storm Irene, which severely damaged many businesses and homes along the AuSable River.

“My biggest hope is to connect people and foster networking and collaboration,” APA Executive Director Barbara Rice said. “We have a lot of new supervisors, heads of planning boards and others attending. They have a lot to take on. Connecting with others in the same situation can be very helpful; they can meet people they can call for advice and share ideas and concerns with. They are learning about new programs offered by the state and having the opportunity to meet with those agency representatives.”

From left are Keene town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson, Keene Planning Board member Keith Wadsworth and Keene Town Councilor Teresa Cheetham-Palen. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

The forum also brings in state agency officials who can discuss funding and technical assistance opportunities designed to enhance community sustainability. As getting to Albany is not easy for many local leaders across the Park, meeting with them in Saranac Lake was greatly appreciated by many.

Daniel Kelleher, APA special assistant for economic affairs, began the “Best Use” session by saying that since the beginning of time, good community planning has reflected the principles of activity, accessibility, mobility and mixed-use, including dining, housing and schools being within walking distance. Today, planners are trying to get away from the wasteful use of resources highlighted by segregated commercial big-box stores and urban-tract subdivisions and go back to those ancient principles that create a sense of place, as is still true in many communities throughout the Park.

Kelleher said that to achieve these goals, we need to abolish minimum parking standards for homes and businesses, allow multi-family residences in residential areas and encourage housing to be built above retail, noting that doing so means allowing three to six stories above the retail so the housing can reflect a mix of apartment sizes. He also encouraged hiring a walkability expert to help guide a community, as just putting down sidewalks doesn’t address the desired results.

Erin Tobin, executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage, shared how the original Adirondack communities provide excellent examples of smart growth.

“Adirondack hamlets had bustling community centers, with retail, schools and shopping within walking distance,” said Tobin. “They had housing density along with places for travelers. Back then, the main streets in AuSable Forks and Tupper Lake were busy and lined with multiple-story buildings. They had a lot of mixed-use and multiple family units.”

From left are Adirondack Architectural Heritage Executive Director Erin Tobin, Susan Barden, principal planner for the city of Saratoga Springs, and Adirondack Park Agency Special Assistant for Economic Affairs Daniel Kelleher. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Later, Kelleher stressed that the APA was in favor of going up, that they have not denied an application seeking to exceed 40 feet and acknowledged that one of the biggest challenges communities face is a lack of septic systems while indicating there are funding options and that, collectively, we need to advocate for even more.

“I found the presentation on best use helpful on certain levels, but the one on Saratoga not so much as it’s so different from Keene,” said Keene Town Councilor Teresa Cheetham-Palen. “I have had discussions on building up; it’s a matter of finding a property we can use.”

“I’ve been learning who to talk to about various things such as funding, developing communities, and aspects of the unit management plan,” said recently elected Keene Town Councilor Ann Hough. “Keene is so small it’s already very compact and liveable, but I think building up instead of out makes a lot of sense for some larger communities. We could make it even easier for people to bike to school. I have already seen an increase in walking and biking as we help make it possible for people to get off Route 73.”

“I came because I want to learn more about the communities, their needs and priorities,” said APA Board member Benita Law-Diao. “I am also glad that we have people attending who want to learn more about the APA, who we are, what we do and what services we provide. We are here not to hurt communities but to help them develop into stronger entities and help protect the Park. We care about the people in the communities, and we also care about the Park.”

“I’ve attended two classes so far, one of working with the APA on the permitting process and the other on implementing a comprehensive plan,” said Todd Goff, chair of town of Essex Planning Board. “I found both sessions very beneficial. I learned a lot, lessons that I can take back to our town to use as we embark on our comprehensive plan and requirements to address working with the APA and our zoning law.”

“One of the biggest things I learned is not to let the wants exceed the needs,” said Todd Rissberger, chair of the Lake Placid-North Elba joint Zoning Board of Appeals. “That was highlighted in the opening statements, and I think that’s the biggest thing I will take away today. People sometimes ask for too much when their needs are simple; less is often better.”

“We’ve got to look ahead,” said Rice. “We can’t focus on just today; we need to consider the growing impact of climate change. We are already seeing more pressure in terms of climate refugees and people who want to work from here, which technology has allowed, and its impact on the environment, the forests, lakes and wildlife. Our job is to protect the environment and the people living here. I don’t see this as competing interests but rather as an interplay. Our economy can’t flourish if we don’t protect the environment. We need dialogue with all the parties at the table. The forum provides a setting for that dialogue.”

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)

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