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APA chairwoman Lani Ulrich. Photo: Mark Kurtz
APA chairwoman Lani Ulrich. Photo: Mark Kurtz

Green group says APA documents show unfair review of Big Tupper resort

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Last week, an environmental group called Protect the Adirondacks released a new bundle of documents as part of its lawsuit attempting to block construction of a new resort in Tupper Lake. The group claims that the documents show new evidence of illegal communication between top Adirondack Park Agency officials and an attorney for the resort's developers.

The release comes as Protect the Adirondacks faces intense political pressure to drop its lawsuit. Adirondack Bureau Chief Brian Mann has been following this story closely and he joined Martha Foley to talk about the case.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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Some of the claims in this lawsuit from Protect the Adirondacks focus on actual environmental issues, which is the key of the dispute. However, these newly released documents concern process. They allege that the developers of the Adirondack Club and Resort had unfair access while the APA was working on permits for the resort.

“Right from the start, Protect the Adirondacks alleged that the state failed to follow its own strict rules. These are known as ex parte rules that were put in place to protect the independence of the process, to shelter it from undue influence,” said Brian Mann. These new documents are a series of emails and memos. They appear to show that one of the APA’s top attorneys, Paul Van Cott, negotiated specific changes to the permits with Thomas Ulasewicz, one of the attorneys that represents the developers.

In one of the emails, Van Cott wrote that he has “attempted to rework one of the conditions of the permit because one of the developers’ objections.” In another email, Van Cott asked the developers to submit proposed changes to the permit. He says that was so the park agency could “review and work them in.”

Since this lawsuit was filed, the APA has maintained that Paul Van Cott needed to maintain lines of communication with the developers to work out specific issues. They say that those exchanges did not violate strict ex parte rules. Mann said, “Protect the Adirondacks attorneys argue, though, that these emails show Van Cott going much further, allowing the developers really direct input into the drafting of the permits and direct input into what park agency commissioners were told before they cast their final vote in January. And they also say that all of this went on without any kind of public disclosure.

Ulasewicz also wrote a memo in which he told his clients two things. The first was that he has an agreement on certain issues in the permits with senior APA attorney John Banta. The second was that Van Cott had agreed to communicate the developers’ last minute concerns to Banta and to APA Chairwoman Lani Ulrich right before the final vote on the permits last January.

“Protect the Adirondacks says that if those two things happened, it would clearly violate the ex parte rules,” said Mann. “In his legal affidavit filed earlier this spring, John Banta, the APA attorney, who since retired, denied that any prohibited communication occurred. And then, speaking this week, APA spokesman Keith McKeever went a step further and said that the agency categorically denies that Banta had any kind of secret agreement with the developers and also denying that last-minute communications from the developers were passed on to Chairwoman Ulrich.”

These documents are part of a lawsuit filed in state supreme court, and state officials have asked the judge in this case to dismiss it outright. However, Protect the Adirondacks and the Sierra Club, who sued to overturn the permits, hope that the case will go on to the next phase. According to Mann, this is known as the discovery phase of the trial.

“If that happens, it might be possible for the green groups to ask for even more documents describing the internal process of the APA that shaped this permit decision. So we’ll have to wait to see what the judge says about the next steps here,” said Mann.

The permits for the Adirondack Club and resort were finally passed 11-1 last January. Mann said, “This is huge for everybody involved. This is the biggest permit ever approved by the park agency. It also is the first big action by the new chairwoman, Lani Ulrich, and so there’s a lot of the state credibility on the line here. So that’s one of the things that is really being tested in this lawsuit.”

Meanwhile, the Adirondack Club and Resort is seen as the future of their community by many residents of Tupper Lake. “The political pressure in Tupper Lake and in the Adirondacks around this is enormous. It’s really at a boil right now,” said Mann.

Local newspapers, including the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, The Tupper Lake Free Press, and the Glens Falls Post Star have described the lawsuit as frivolous and have urged Protect the Adirondacks to drop it. Mann said, “At a time when there’s a lot of easing of political tensions in the park, this is one hotspot where all the old passions are still raging.”

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