Fight brewing over future of Adirondack Park Commission

Originally published in North Country Public Radio

A fight is brewing over the future of the Adirondack Park Agency commission. The 11-member group makes key zoning decisions for the Park’s public and private lands.

Governor Cuomo nominated a new slate of candidate for the board embraced by local government leaders in the North Country, but the Park’s green groups say they want different candidates put forward who have more policy experience and who’ve shown more commitment to environmental conservation. 

A hollowing-out of the Park’s board

When the Adirondack Park Agency met this month, there was another new, temporary face at in the chairperson’s seat.

The Agency’s interim chair Karen Feldman had abruptly resigned. The APA hasn’t had a permanent chair for a year. Seven of the eight citizen seats on the board are either empty or filled by members serving expired terms.

Some local government leaders think having an APA board that’s sort of hollowed out is a big problem. “Our residents and our businesses depend on the actions of the APA,” said Shaun Gilliland town supervisor in Willsboro and chair of the Essex County board of supervisors.

“To leave it in a hobbled condition as it is, we think is a crime,” he said.

After years of delays, at the end of the last legislative session, Governor Cuomo did put forward four names for confirmation by the state Senate. 

They include: guide and outfitter Brian McDonnell, who’s also been a town councilman; Andrea Hogan, town supervisor in Johnsburg; Mark Hall, a former town supervisor from southern St. Lawrence County; and Ken Lynch who just retired as senior DEC official.

The slate was approved by local government officials including Ron Moore from North Hudson who chairs the Park’s local government review board. “I would like to think that these people are balanced,” Moore told NCPR. 

“If [green groups] want something that leans heavily to the left or whatever the environmental side is, that’s for them.”

Park green groups push back

Here’s the flashpoint. A coalition of the Park’s biggest environmental groups says the governor’s list doesn’t include strong environmentalists, scientists, and people with backgrounds in open space policy.

The Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club, Protect the Adirondacks and Adirondack Wild co-signed a letter raising concerns. 

“All five in-Park board seats should not be filled with local government officials and business leaders,” said Peter Bauer who heads a group called Protect the Adirondacks.

“That’s currently where the Governor is heading. That does not provide the professional experience and the diversity of experiences that the Park Agency needs. We need people with environmental law backgrounds, we need people with backgrounds in science and we need people with backgrounds in regional planning.”

The Park’s local government leaders have grown more diverse, more accepting of open space conservation in recent years. Most of them signed off on the Park’s recent expansion of the High Peaks Wilderness.

But Bauer says there’s still a need for Park commissioners who will provide a check on local government. 

“One of the areas that the Adirondack Park Agency was set up to regulate was local government and how local government regulates development in the Park. The agency has really been captured by the very interests it was supposed to regulate.”

Green groups are also concerned that a top DEC official, recently retired, is being named to the APA panel, despite the fact that the commission is meant to provide oversight over the Conservation Department’s activities inside the Park.

“It is somewhat problematic having a career DEC person when the ink isn’t yet dry on their retirement papers to basically become another DEC vote [on the APA board],” said Willy Janeway, who heads the Adirondack Council.

Backroom maneuvering will shape the future of the APA

The politics of this are complicated. Right now, local government leaders in the Park, many of them Republican, have much closer ties to Governor Cuomo, a Democrat, than local green groups do. 

But the Senate is now controlled by Democrats with strong relationships to the environmental community, including Senator Todd Kaminsky from Long Island who chairs the powerful Environmental Conservation Committee. 

Kaminsky declined to confirm Governor Cuomo’s slate before the legislative session wrapped up last week. A lot of local government leaders like Shaun Gilliland from Essex County think environmentalists are to blame for slowing the process.

“The county is very disappointed in the fact that a good slate of candidates vetted through local government organizations was just left on the table,” he said.

Senator Kaminsky’s office didn’t respond to inquiries in time for this report, but it’s unlikely now that these APA appointments will be taken up by the state Senate before next January. There will be a lot of backroom maneuvering and negotiating before then. 

Green groups have signaled that they will sign off on most of the Governor’s slate, if he adds names to the list that they approve of – it’s unclear whether Governor Cuomo or local government officials will sign off on that kind of deal.