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Arthur Lussi (Source:  APA website)
Arthur Lussi (Source: APA website)

Local town official accuses Park Agency, commissioner of unethical conduct

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A local government official in North Elba is accusing the Adirondack Park Agency and one of its commissioners, Arthur Lussi, of unethical conduct. Lussi is partnering with Verizon to build a new cell phone tower on top of the Crowne Plaza hotel in Lake Placid.

Now, a member of North Elba's planning and zoning board says Lussi and members of the APA staff tried to manipulate local review of the project.

As Brian Mann reports, the Park Agency says the case was handled properly, despite confusion and miscommunications between state and town officials.

Clarification: The proposed cell tower structure described in this story would be 56 feet high from the ground to peak elevation. The height above the existing roof line would be approximately 20 feet.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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In November of last year, the Adirondack Park Agency was scheduled to vote on a proposal by Verizon to replace an existing cell phone tower on the top of the Lake Placid hotel owned by the family of APA commissioner Arthur Lussi. 

The new design called for a larger tower that would be camouflaged by a 56-foot high structure, designed to look something like a tall, brick cupola. 

 At the Agency’s meeting on November 18, the chair of the Regulatory Affairs Committee, Lani Ulrich, announced that Lussi – who has served on the board since 2006 — had formally recused himself from the presentation, the discussion, and any votes.

"We will note that commisioner Lussi is leaving the room," Ulrich said. 

But the night before, at a public hearing on the project held by the Park Agency in Lake Placid, Lussi was not only present. 

He actually joined APA staff and a representative of Verizon at the front of the room, appearing at one point to give part of the presentation. 

 "I think where we’re coming from," Lussi said.  "What if we raise the peak of this thing to 12-14 feet above the existing roofline?

The session was recorded by town officials because it occurred immediately after a regularly scheduled meeting of the Lake Placid-North Elba Joint Review Board. 

That’s the body that makes the community’s local planning and zoning decisions.  Its members were asked to stay to hear about the cell tower project.

But Mike Orticelle, who has served on the review board for five years says as he watched the presentation he felt that the APA, Verizon and Arthur Lussi were working together to push the project.

 "They were all there for the same reason, I thought," Orticelle recalled.  "[Lussi] was standing up at the easel, pointing at the drawings, the renderings of his building, describing how things could be moved, taking an active role in presenting alternatives and options."

It turns out the APA had been reviewing this project for more than a year and Park Agency staff had already taken the step of recommending that a state permit be granted.

But Orticelle says that meeting on November 17th was the first time that North Elba’s Joint Review Board heard anything about the project. 

He was also concerned that no members of the public were present, other than the Joint Review Board.  Orticelle says he became convinced the session had a single purpose.

"[They were] trying to manipulate the public meeting and the local government board to make decisions that benefit one individual who happens to be a public official, which to me again is totally unethical," he said.  

 Orticelle says he thinks Lussi should have recused himself from the Lake Placid APA meeting, as well the one the next day in Ray Brook.

 He was so upset by the session that in emails sent the next day he threatened to resign from the Joint Review Board because of its involvement.

 “The only reason that the APA came before this board,” Orticelle wrote to other town officials, “was because a prominent business owner and APA commissioner was able to unduly influence the process.”

 In the email exchange that followed, other North Elba officials expressed similar concerns.

 Joint Review Board Member Kathryn Nardiello described the meeting as “strange” and “a can of worms,” writing, "Arthur Lussi knew exactly what he was doing...”

But speaking this week with North Country Public Radio, Lussi said he wasn’t attempting to use his role as an APA commissioner to influence local review of the project.

"I was appearing as a landowner, I wasn’t appearing as a commissioner," he said.

 Lussi – who is currently seeking another term on the APA board – says he had no role in scheduling the meeting.

 And he describes the hearing as a good-faith effort to give the local board a chance to look at the project and give input.

 "I felt it was a very productive, healthy meeting," Lussi recalled.  

"I’m sorry if they felt uncomfortable, or awkward that they didn’t know what my role was, whether it was the role of commissioner or my role as a landowner.  Looking back, I probably should have been more forward, saying, ‘Hey, I’m not hear as an APA commissioner.  I’m here as a landowner.'"

Other town officials say they were comfortable with Lussi’s involvement.  Tim Smith, an attorney who advises the Joint Review Board, told North Country Public Radio that he " didn't feel any ethical problems were presented."

 APA spokesman Keith McKeever, who was also at the Lake Placid meeting, says this kind of informational hearing is common in the Park, used frequently by the Agency to gather local input from residents and from project sponsors.

 "Art [Lussi] was not there as an APA board member," McKeever said.  "He was there as a representative of the Crowne Plaza, who was the project sponsor on this particular project.  It was totally appropriate for Art to participate in that meeting."

 Complicating this case was the fact that the APA only gave a week’s notice for the public hearing, scheduling it one day before the Agency’s vote.  

 "If they were so concerned about our opinion, why did they wait until the night before?" Orticelle asked.

Other Joint Review Board members also seemed surprised that the APA process had moved so close to a final vote without the town’s input.

"This board believes we have jurisdiction," said Chairman Bill Hurley, during the November 17th meeting.  "And secondly, we have major concerns over the size, shape, and location and view-shed impact of the current design.

Review Board member Horst Weber went a step further, insisting that plans for the cupola, designed with input from the APA, were an eyesore that needed to be redrawn. 

"Your design...this is absolutely terrible," he said.

The APA’s McKeever blames the last-minute confusion on miscommunication between local officials, Verizon and the APA. 

He points out that North Elba’s code enforcement officer signed a document in 2009 waiving jurisdiction.

But state officials also concede that local leaders weren’t fully briefed by Verizon or by the APA on the scope and potential impact of the cell tower project.   

Asked whether the process followed in this case could give the impression of undue influence by an APA commissioner, McKeever answered this way:

"If it did, it’s unfortunate.  Because our intentions were truly to solicit comment from local people on this project.  We did not have to have this hearing.  We held this hearing, not to push this project.  Our intention was to explain this project.  Explain how we felt that it was going to look and ask for input from local government and local citizens." 

The morning after the Lake Placid meeting, the Park Agency canceled its vote on the cell phone tower project, acknowledging local concerns. 

According to McKeever, Verizon and the Lussis are now working with North Elba planning officials to come up with a better design. 

It’s unclear when the project will come back before the Park Agency or the Joint Review Board.

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