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APA commissioner Richard Booth (shown during a tour of the Adirondack Club and Resort property) led key questioning during Thursday's hearing (NCPR file photo)
APA commissioner Richard Booth (shown during a tour of the Adirondack Club and Resort property) led key questioning during Thursday's hearing (NCPR file photo)

Unanswered questions about wildlife at Big Tupper hearing

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Yesterday was the first full day of public deliberations for the Adirondack Park Agency as commisioners consider a permit for the Big Tupper resort project.

The massive resort - with more than 700 homes, condos and mansions -- has developed into a flashpoint in debates over the Park's future and a final vote is expected in January.

On Thursday, commissioners heard testimony over a wide range of topics. But a key focus was the lack of comprehensive scientific data showing the resort's impact on wildlife.

As Brian Mann reports, specific concerns were raised about the construction of one new neighborhood that could displace amphibian species.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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When state officials first ruled that the Adirondack Club and Resort’s permit application was complete and ready for final review, they acknowledged that one big missing piece was a comprehensive wildlife survey.  Here’s Ed Snizek, an APA project analyst speaking at yesterday’s hearing in Ray Brook.

"APA hearing staff testified...that more could and should have been done by the project sponsor to identify wildlife species and assess habitat impacts," he reported.

This has been a bone of contention for environmental groups throughout this process. The biggest project ever reviewed by the Park Agency doesn’t have a detailed wildlife survey. Here’s John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council.

"The public has a right to know what's going on before anyone gives permission to start turning over dirt on the property. So we really think it's the Park Agency's obligation to determine what lives on the property and how it might be affected," Sheehan argued.

During the lengthy adjudicatory hearing, the developers argued that their field crews had kept notes about wildlife observed on the property, concluding that there are no threatened or endangered species or rare plant communities.  They provided lists of species observed during that field work.

But in yesterday’s testimony, the APA’s Ed Snizek said other biologists visiting the property quickly identified species that were never reported by the developers or their consultants.

"They reported eleven species of amphibians during the course of an eight and half hour day and night field work," Snizek said.  "In the application itself, no amphibian species were reported or reported by the project sponsor."

This issue of amphibians matters first because one particular neighborhood in the new resort, known as the West Face expansion, would be built in an area that some biologists describe as key upland habitat used by amphibians during their life cycle. 

Forty-six homes in total would be constructed, along with roads and other human structures.

During the adjudicatory hearings last summer, this became a key point of contention, with developers arguing that they had done enough to protect that wildlife.

"By designing the project to avoid footprinting directly in wetlands and maintaining 100 foot buffer zones around the wetlands, the project sponsor has done what APA hearing staff normally require to protect wetland wildlife habitat," Snizek reported, quoting from testimony provided by the developers.

But Snizek also reported concerns raised by other researchers recruited by environmental groups:

"The project design did not take into account the upland habitat for amphibians [or consider] a 750 foot buffer zone from the wetlands."

Snizek’s testimony yesterday prompted two questions from APA commissioner Richard Booth.  First, he asked whether the Park Agency has ever before required more elaborate buffer areas to protect amphibians.

"Have we ever used a 750 foot buffer in imposing conditions?" Booth asked.

"Not to my knowledge," Snizek replied.

Booth also asked why APA staff deemed the project application complete without first requiring that a more comprehensive wildlife survey be done.

"Are you guys going to talk to us at some point about as to why this was [ruled] a complete application?"

APA staff didn’t provide immediate answers to that question.

But the West Face neighborhood isn’t scheduled to be built until the thirteenth year of the resort’s build-out.  In the past APA staff have said that they will require more detailed wildlife studies before construction in that area begins. 

Snizek said yesterday that APA staff concluded that the issue wasn’t a big enough sticking point to delay the process or derail a permit.

"The staff...do not believe that it is necessary to deny the entire project or even to eliminate the West Face expansion neighborhood from the project in order to achieve substantial mitigation of potential impacts."

If this permit is granted by the Agency when they vote in January, this issue – the lack of more detailed wildlife impact studies – is likely to be one of the most controversial and could even spark legal challenges of the APA’s review process. 

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