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Green groups say resort developers Michael Foxman (L) and Tom Lawson held undisclosed talks with APA staff. Photo: Mark Kurtz
Green groups say resort developers Michael Foxman (L) and Tom Lawson held undisclosed talks with APA staff. Photo: Mark Kurtz

Green group suit: secret talks shaped APA's resort decision

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A coalition of environmental groups and local landowners filed suit this week, hoping to block construction of the Adirondack Club and Resort in Tupper Lake. The lawsuit claims that state officials ignored key environmental rules protecting open space and wildlife in the Park.

But the suit also alleges that members of the Adirondack Park Agency broke the law by meeting secretly with the resort's developers in the weeks before commissioners voted 10-to-1 to approve the project.

As Brian Mann reports, that claim is based in part on a story that first aired here on North Country Public Radio back in January.

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For months before the January decision that allowed the Adirondack Club and Resort project to move forward, state officials, environmentalists, local officials and developers were all constrained by strict rules limiting conversations about the project. 

Those so-called “ex parte” rules are designed to insure that the APA’s decision was based on the official hearing record – not on backroom discussions or political influence. 

But John Caffry, an attorney for the group Protect the Adirondacks, says he thinks APA staff and the resort’s developers broke the rules.

"We want to find out what was going on," McCaffry said.  "What were their backroom discussions between the applicant and the APA senior staff, which was then influencing the presentations that were made to the Agency [commissioners]."

Caffry is basing his allegation on an interview with Tupper Lake Mayor Paul Maroun that aired last January here on North Country Public Radio – in which Maroun said that talks were continuing in the final weeks before commissioners voted.

"I do know that there have been on-going talks between the developer and the staff, the senior staff," Maround said.  "And I think it's going to work out favorably for both the developer and the environmental interestests."

Those statements are cited in legal briefs filed in New York state Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Reached on Wednesday, Maroun – a staunch supporter of the resort — stood by his claim that talks continued between state officials and the developers even as commissioners were deliberating.

"The APA, some staff had asked to talk with counsel, and some of the developers," Maroun said.  "I don't know the length of time the discussions went on and I don't know the exact details of the discussion."

Maroun said he's not sure whether the talks violated ex parte rules shaping the APA process.

Keith McKeever, a spokesman for the Adirondack Park Agency, acknowledged Wednesday that some members of the APA staff continued talks with the resort developers.

But McKeever says there were clear firewalls between those staff members and the executive staff and the APA commissioners.

"There is absolutely no basis in fact for any allegation of ex parte violations. The Park Agency was extremely careful and abided by all ex parte rules," he said.

That account was echoed by Big Tupper developer Michael Foxman, who said that no inappropriate negotiations occurred.  "I can't even imagine anyone making such an allegation," he said.

State officials declined to say exactly what was discussed during those last-minute talks between APA staff and developers. 

Citing the on-going litigation, they also wouldn’t clarify how those talks shaped the permits that were approved in January.

Speaking with North Country Public Radio, attorney John Caffry with Protect the Adirondacks said he expects those details to come out as this case moves forward. "We will be seeking that as part of the lawsuit," he said.

This allegation – that inappropriate backroom talks might have significantly shaped the APA’s decision – reflects broader claims raised in the lawsuit that Park staff were biased in favor of the project as final deliberations unfolded late last year. 

"It was very one-sided," Caffrey said.  "It appears that the senior [Park Agency] staff at least was pushing this forward for approval.  Who put them up to that, I can't say."

Speaking Wednesday, developer Michael Foxman dismissed those claims and called the lawsuit regrettable.  "I think it's unfortunate that people like that put their own...mission and their own welfare ahead of the wishes of the community," he said.

APA spokesman Keith McKeever, meanwhile, defended the seven-year process that led to the 10-to-1 decision and said the Agency was confident the courts would uphold the permit.

"Park Agency is very confident in our review of this project.  It was a thorough and rigorous review process and we stand behind it," McKeever said.

By some estimates, this kind of lawsuit could take months to resolve.  The Adirondack Park Agency will be represented in court by the state Attorney Generals office.  Protect the Adirondacks is joined in its suit by the Sierra Club and by three local landowners in Tupper Lake. 

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