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APA will try again on new boathouse rules

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The Adirondack Park Agency has been trying for months to nail down new rules for boathouse construction in the Adirondack Park. Commissioners will try again at their monthly meeting in Ray Brook this week. They'll consider redefining "boathouse," after deadlocking on a similar proposal last month. Chris Knight reports there are new commissioners in the mix this time, and observers hope a new focus on environmental issues.

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Chris Knight
Adirondack Correspondent

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For the third time in four months, state Adirondack Park Agency commissioners later this week will debate proposed regulations that would restrict the size and height of new boathouses in the Park.

A proposal that would amend the definition of term "boathouse" in the agency's regulations as a structure no greater than 1,200 square feet in size and 15 feet in height is on the agenda of Thursday's APA meeting in Ray Brook. Commissioners and designees were deadlocked, 5 to 5, on a nearly identical proposal last month.

As Chris Knight reports, some observers are hopeful that the agency will refocus the discussion on the environmental impacts boathouses can have on the Park's shorelines and water quality - impacts that others say are negligible.

Some APA commissioners say a 1,200 square foot limit is too restrictive, others think 1,200 square feet is too big for a boathouse. Questions have also been raised about the agency's legal authority to define a boathouse with a size or height limit.

Absent from this policy debate over the last four months has been any real discussion about the rationale behind the regulation - the environmental impacts associated with boathouses in the Park.

"It's been lost in the debate, and that's unfortunate," said Dan Plumley, director of conservation programs for Protect the Adirondacks! He said boathouse development can impact the shorelines of Adirondack lakes and ponds, which serve as the interface between aquatic and terrestrial habitats.

Plumley wants the agency's staff to do a better job of bringing the science behind the proposed regulations to the table, "They should be providing the board with the best assessment they can of what are the impacts of shoreline development with respect to boathouses, how are they regulated to control or reduce impacts in other parts of the country and what are the best options here? What does the science tell us?"

In presentations to the public and the APA board, agency staff  have said the revised boathouse regulations will help protect shorelines and water quality, but they haven't talked in detail about the science behind the proposal. The one piece of research the APA has cited to support its proposed regulations is a seven-year-old report that talks about the importance preserving vegetated buffers along shorelines.

APA spokesman Keith McKeever said most of the science behind the proposal is just common sense,  "When you start to see more and more impervious surfaces and large structures in close proximity to water bodies, the science of common sense is going to lead you to understand that you're going to have impacts over time to water quality over time."

But some people aren't convinced that the extent of the environmental impact caused by boathouses warrants more regulation. Arthur Lussi is a Park Agency commissioner who lives in Lake Placid. He believes local governments should have jurisdiction over boathouses, not the APA.

"I think the modern builders are pretty thoughtful about shoreline protection, and not digging into the land and building (boathouses) out over the water," Lussi said. "They haven't clear cut the shorelines for the most part to create them."

Bill Hurley, chairman of the Lake Placid-North Elba Joint Review Board, which reviews boathouse applications on Lake Placid, said he doesn't think boathouses have a significant environmental impact.  "Most boathouses sit on piers," Hurley said. "So when piers are driven there's some silt and dirty water, but that's not a long-term impact. As long as you are on piers and are not disturbing the shoreline, fish can swim underneath it and get to their spawning areas. I don't see a large impact."

McKeever argues that agency is trying to avoid the cumulative impact of more and more large boathouses. "If you're looking at one individual boathouse on a lake, it may not have significant environmental impact," he said. "But when you start to see more and more large structures, you're going to have a loss of habitat, a loss of the ability to control erosion, and a loss of habitat for wildlife."

It's unclear just how the latest proposal will be received when it comes before the APA's Legal Affairs Committee on Thursday. An agency commissioner who wasn't there for last month's debate and could have broken the tie, Lani Ulrich, is expected to attend. James Townsend, who voted in favor of the proposal, is no longer on the board. He's being replaced by William Valentino, a former president of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority who was confirmed to Townsend's seat last month by the state Senate.

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