Property Rights Foundation of America®

"Worth Commenting," reprinted from New York Property Rights Clearinghouse (Vol. 11 No. 3, Summer 2007)

"Smart Growth" to the Rescue

By Carol W. LaGrasse
July 27, 2007

Eliot Spitzer announced his sympathetic shock for the moribund economy in some regions of upstate New York during his gubernatorial election campaign last year. In his State of the State Address on January 3, the new governor pointed to upstate issues. He facilely emphasized his intention to revitalize the upstate economy.

One of Spitzer's appointments, Commissioner Alexander ("Pete") Grannis of the Department of Environmental Conservation, or DEC, had established his indifference to the people of the huge, twelve-county Adirondack region sixteen years earlier when he introduced legislation framed by the executive director of the hated Adirondack Park regional zoning agency to implement recommendations of an environmental study chaired by Peter A. A. Berle, his predecessor as the Assemblyman from Manhattan's wealthy Upper East Side. The most memorable proposal within the radical legislation would have converted the minimum lot size for 87 percent of the private land already rigidly State-zoned at 42.7 and 8.5 acres per house to 2,000 acres per house as a new "back country" classification.

I remember the press conference where then-Assemblyman Grannis announced the legislation. He stood before a map of the Adirondack region, and at one point said that "none of the people" live in the region to be zoned "back country." Somehow, I found myself interrupting my note-taking, and blurted out, "That's where I—and my neighbors—live!" The people from the North Country who lined the walls of the packed room became loud and repeatedly interrupted Mr. Grannis's voice. Afterwards, I walked up to talk to him, entertaining a hope that he'd discuss the bill with me. He snapped at me, "Lady, you got a loud mouth," and turned away.

But here was Mr. Grannis, now DEC commissioner, with immense power over private property across the entire state, and a visible figure who could profoundly affect the future economy of the North Country, following after the lackluster appointees of former Governor Pataki, who had proudly announced at the end of December that he had protected one million acres of land in the Adirondacks, with fee simple purchases and conservation easements. This announcement was especially striking, considering that the State-owned land in the Adirondacks already totaled over 2-1/2 million acres about the time the Pataki land acquisition binge began.

So it was with intense interest that I read a report in the Plattsburgh Press Republican on June 12 of Mr. Grannis's speech to local government officials in Lake Placid. He seemed to address the loss of development potential resulting from the State's voracious acquisitions:

"As we move forward on land conservation projects in the park, we should and must look at how those acquisitions affect surrounding communities and how we can structure our future conservation agreements in ways that enhance community acceptance and provide realistic room for future growth of hamlets and settled communities," he said.

Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward (R, Willsboro), who was present, reportedly remarked, "There's very little left to develop." She said that the small areas zoned for development were built out, and that the communities needed development rights.

The article gave the impression that Mr. Grannis summarized his message with the words, "When I look back on my tenure at the DEC, I will judge my success not on how many acres we acquired, but on how the communities are doing."

Although he did not deny that the State would acquire still more land and was not specific about ideas for the improvement of the economy, except for the mention of someone's idea of encouraging colleges to establish satellite schools in the region, the tenor of his remarks was diametrically opposite from that at the press conference years ago.

But barely a month later, it was apparent that the spoken words were part of another shell game.

The Glens Falls Post-Star carried a headline, "State sets aside $1M for 'smart growth' in the Adirondacks." Administration officials held a press conference on Lake George on July 17, where Commissioner Grannis said the grants would bring together the historic dichotomy between economic development and conservation in the Adirondacks, the newspaper reported. The problem is that small towns in the Adirondacks do not have the money to conduct comprehensive planning to promote economic growth, Mr. Grannis reportedly said. The idea of smart growth, he said, was to use existing infrastructure and resources to protect against sprawling development.

However, State Senator Elizabeth O'C. Little (R, Queensbury) was reported to have observed at the press conference that, with the State still buying land in the park, leaving less land for development, communities will get smaller. Populations are already declining, with towns losing stores and churches because there are not enough people, she said.

Of course, the State-dictated 1973 land use plan for the Adirondacks was and still is a bold model of so-called "smart growth" zoning, with only thirteen percent of the land zoned as "hamlets" or with practical minimum lot sizes, largely surrounding existing built-up hamlets. The rest is radically controlled, with most of that zoned 42.7 acres per house. And, much of the thirteen percent that is zoned for limited development is stymied by harsh Adirondack wetland rules and other regulations and the fact that the environmental planners in 1973 sometimes chose impractical locations for development, such as land with unusually steep slopes.

The small towns can spend a lot of the New York State taxpayer's money and can plan ad infinitum, but, if the land is largely owned by the State, if the little remaining land is so high-priced as a result that only wealthier second home buyers can afford to buy it, and if the State's extreme Adirondack land use rules have the potential of tying up the use of the remaining land in knots, there is little possibility for economic development.

But here is a modest three-point proposal for a governor who might mean what he says about intending to improve the economy and future of the Adirondacks:

Submit bipartisan legislation to double the size of that thirteen percent of the little remaining private land that is zoned for hamlets and potentially affordable lot sizes, eliminate the 42.7-acre zoning, and guarantee that the State will purchase no more additional land. Why, it's just possible that, with a little burst of freedom, the local people and their communities will flourish.

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© 2007 Carol W. LaGrasse
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