by Susan Allen
Susan Allen is the publisher of the independent Adirondack Park Agency Reporter, Keene Valley, N.Y.
Just when you think you know all the players, some other impenetrable quasi-government organization rears its obnoxious head. Those of us who live in the Adirondacks should be used to these organizations and agencies regrouping and renaming themselves. This usually happens after they get some local and vocal opposition to their methods and ultimate goals, so they scurry and reconstitute themselves in a friendlier-sounding format.
A few of us hardy souls in the Adirondacks have been following the Scenic Byways program of the Federal Highway Administration and the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) since its inception in 1990, seeing it for what it really is another way to regulate and manage lands, using roadways as rationale. That program is intertwined with the "Lake Champlain Basin Program" (LCBP), which covers "the Sixth Great Lake" and its shores in northern New York, Vermont and the Canadian province of Quebec. It also came into being in approximately 1990, and is itself a metamorphosis into something more "friendly" than its original name of "Lake Champlain Management Conference" suggested.
We are not fooled the LCBP is still in the business of "management" of our lands, our homes, our businesses, our lives. These twin programs of Scenic Byways and LCBP, bolstered by assorted environmental preservation and historic preservation non-profits, are funded in the millions of dollars by assorted state and federal agencies. They have succeeded in fashioning a mindset among local residents and visitors that there are official boundaries into which we must fit ourselves. Unfortunately, local government officials have also bought into this idea, likely due to all the grants and matching funds suddenly available through these massive programs.
In the spring of 2004, when a couple of us spotted some large signs suddenly appearing along the roads that declared, "Entering the Lake Champlain Watershed" and "Entering the Hudson River Watershed," our ears immediately pricked up. Who is behind this? What are they up to now? It's not enough to be "scenic?" We're not just in a lake region that reaches into Vermont and Quebec? Now we're also living in a "watershed," a drainage basin? What does this mean for someone planning a business, a new house, a municipal water or sewage system, a farm expansion, even a trek into the woods with a dog or onto a frozen pond?
I promptly dispatched a request under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) to DOT, asking for the origins of these signs, the sponsoring organizations and the expense involved.
With all blessings due to the FOIL statutes, the bureaucratic response does not always contain the whole story. But the material provided suggests that, like Scenic Byways, the LCBP has spawned something called the "Champlain Watershed Improvement Coalition of New York" (CWICNY). This group is apparently made up of the Soil & Water Conservation Service (SWCS) agencies in the five northern New York counties inside the Lake Champlain "basin" or "watershed," which receive pass-through funding from various state and federal agencies. The CWICNY letterhead depicts a map of those five counties with the exact LCBP boundaries superimposed. Also, SWCS is a member organization of the "Steering Committee," which "leads the LCBP" according to the LCBP newsletter "Casin' the Basin."
The earliest communication in the FOIL packet is CWICNY's July 2002 letter to the DOT. In it, Stephen A. Mahoney describes himself as "chairman of a local, grass-roots governmental organization," and requests that DOT place signs along the roads that say "Entering the Lake Champlain Watershed." Mahoney contends that this would be "a cost-effective device to encourage people's curiosity about the lake, and consider why this would be the watershed boundary."
DOT's response, nearly nine months later in April 2003, contains its "revised policy regarding the fabrication, installation and maintenance of watershed signs," and it outlines the design details. Because of the big gap in time between those two letters, it is a conjecture which came first, the request for such signs or the policy establishing their use, and whose idea it was in the first place. All evidence suggests that it sprang from within the LCBP.
The DOT policy also states that it "should contact the affected county government where the sign will be installed" to "determine if the county or any other agency responsible has any concerns with placement of such a sign." It indicates there might be a concern with safety of the water supply in this era of heightened security, but does not mention any other possible concerns that a local government might raise.
The policy document includes a list and map of eleven "major watersheds" along whose roads these signs can be installed. Along with Lake Champlain, it predictably lists the Hudson, St. Lawrence and Delaware rivers, lakes Erie and Ontario, and both shores of Long Island. What comes as a shock is to also see included such far-flung "watersheds" as the Peconic, Chesapeake Bay and even the mighty Mississippi, fed by waters in the southwesternmost corner of New York State. Let this be a lesson to you wherever you may live the long arm of these "watersheds" can reach out from well beyond your state's borders.
Then a six-month gap until an October 2003 letter to DOT, which substantiates the interlocking connection between CWICNY and LCBP by listing both on its letterhead, along with the LCBP spin-off "Citizens Advisory Committee." The three signatories wrote that they "represent organizations which have primary oversight for this watershed," parroting the DOT's requirement for "responsible organizations" to sponsor the watershed signs. The letter goes on to offer assistance to DOT in the proper placement of such signs.
A December 2003 letter from the CWICNY to the Clinton County legislature bears out DOT's admonition to alert the local governments. In two brief paragraphs, DOT says the purpose of the signs is "to identify the boundaries of the watershed for public educational programs." It also states that this signage "is a new program and the Lake Champlain Watershed is the first group in New York State to participate in it," substantiating the suspicion that the LCBP was the brains behind the program. The FOIL response does not contain similar letters to the other four county governing bodies, and does not contain any written response from Clinton County. And town, village and city governments are apparently bypassed in the whole process of seeking approval.
There are, however, copies of March 2004 memos from DOT to three of the five counties, describing the locations of twelve proposed signs. The cost of each sign is set out in DOT's requisition forms, ranging from $140 to $250 apiece. The total for the twelve comes to $2,129.97, which presumably covers only the metal fabrication and not the surveying costs to site them, the physical labor for their installation, or their share of administrative expenses and overhead.
But that price isn't the end of it. In the spring of 2004, in rather sketchy and informal communications to local members of the state legislature, DOT estimated a total of 27 signs would be needed. So a conservative estimate for the whole project might run $4500 plus the labor costs.
In late spring of 2004, some signs went up. See accompanying photographs of various sites.
You might be asking, what's the problem with these "educational" signs? The counties seemed to have no objections to becoming part of a "watershed," and neither did the local Assembly and Senate members. But like all designation programs, the name "watershed" is a label that defines the land within that area as being in need of special regulation and control, with no regard for the political boundaries that define our civic identities. It creates what eco-preservationist groups like to call a "bio-region," in which we are governed by natural systems that supersede our very democracy.
These watersheds' long reach into multiple towns, counties and states creates an entity outside legislative boundaries that effectively strips residents of voting power. Unfortunately, local government officials seem to be oblivious to the fact that their decision-making authority has been taken away, in favor of unelected bureaucracies and in exchange for some potential grant funding.
The label makes a region ripe for a controlling and managing body. In the case of Lake Champlain, such a group is at the ready, whether under the direct rubric of the LCBP or its apparent spin-off, the CWICNY. If you live in an area happily bereft of such organizations or other labelling designations, be warned if these watershed signs appear, it means your area is packaged up and ready for some governmental, non-governmental or quasi-governmental organization, or most likely some combination of all of those, to step in and assume control.
Do not be taken in by the argument that there is no regulation involved in watershed designations. Like the Scenic Byway program, whoever administers it cannot control how other local, regional, state and federal agencies will invoke and exploit the "watershed" label. It is only a small step to creation of a "Watershed Management Plan," with the usual suspects sure to be put in charge.
As with all designation programs, the other question to ask is, "Why do we need it?" Local governments can take control of whatever "education" is needed to safeguard the local land and waters, while protecting their residents' homes, businesses, recreational opportunities, ways of life and voting rights. There is no reason to surrender their local autonomy, and it can be argued that they are derelict in their duty by doing so.
Now to the funny part of this Lake Champlain story. Almost immediately, the signs vanished! If we hadn't quickly taken photographs, we would be scratching our heads and wondering if we had imagined them. See accompanying photo of the hole in the ground where one sign was removed.
This mystery is explained in the FOIL response. The Adirondack Park Agency, the monstrous regional zoning and planning board that holds absolute sway over so much local decision-making, got the signs to come down.
In a July 2004 letter to DOT, APA Executive Director Daniel Fitts wrote that the APA "for the past few years has been in discussions with local and state elected officials regarding signage on the Adirondack Northway and other areas within the Adirondack Park." Fitts continued with bland statements about "working to formulate an approach" to signage that "properly harmonizes" the various laws governing signs inside the Park, which is subject to all sorts of special regulations. Fitts wrote that the watershed signage "raises many questions and concerns as it relates to the overall signage issues and discussions," and "recommends" the signs be removed while "the involved agencies continue to work toward finding a coherent and comprehensive approach to manage signage in the Adirondack Park."
Apparently DOT didn't tell the CWICNY that the signs had to come down, but issued a stop work order for signs that had already been constructed and ready to install. Wrote the perplexed Mr. Mahoney to DOT in July 2004, "I have received no official explanation for this highly unusual delay. CWICNY achieved unanimous consensus for this sign project from all concerned Lake Champlain parties and government officials. No concerns of any kind were expressed. Only sound educational benefits and tourism promotion of the region were perceived by all." He goes on to note the "considerable taxpayer expense" already put into the signs, and calls it "discriminatory to deny one watershed region while other regions have similar signs on display."
DOT's apologetic response to that letter notes the APA's objections, writing that "several issues were raised among the jurisdictions which initiated questions concerning the role of signs in advertising, tourism and an overall concern for sign proliferation in the Adirondack Park." It cites a recent DOT moratorium on watershed signs in the Park, which "will remain in effect until the Governor's office, the Legislature, APA and others can agree on a policy for signing in the Adirondack Park."
To have a hated agency come down hard on a hated program looks like some infighting we could gleefully enjoy for a change. But a major tenet of the Scenic Byways program is to strictly regulate signs, going so far as to prohibit them where they might disrupt a "viewshed" for the driver passing through. It disregards the hardship for local residents in need of signs for their small businesses, which are the mainstay of most of the Adirondacks' sparsely populated towns.
The APA is not about to develop any "coherent" policy on signs that is responsive to local concerns. It has been talking about that for years without doing a thing, and follows the Scenic Byways goal of heavily restricting signage along roads. So the internal fighting between APA and CWICNY/LCBP is not really much of a victory. The Lake Champlain watershed signs should have been taken down because they subvert local autonomy and control, not because of their visual impact on the scenery.
As to the fate of those signs, already built at "considerable taxpayer expense," DOT wrote that they "have been taken down and stored."