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Assemblyman Dan Stec says the Adirondack Park's dialogue has "evolved."  NCPR FILE Photo: Brian Mann
Assemblyman Dan Stec says the Adirondack Park's dialogue has "evolved." NCPR FILE Photo: Brian Mann

Stec says APA reform unlikely in Albany

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Last week, Adirondack Explorer magazine held a day-long conference at the Paul Smiths VIC, asking big questions about the future of the Adirondack Park and the APA.

A growing number of environmental activists and government officials say the regulations that shape the Park's environment are outdated. Most of those rules haven't been updated for more than forty years.

As part of the conference, Brian Mann interviewed Republican Assemblyman Dan Stec, who took office last year.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

I would guess that they're probably thinking, opening the APA act right now? Do we have the desire to open that can of worms?
Stec, a former town supervisor from Queensbury, says tackling major APA reform would be a tough sell in Albany. 

But Stec thinks some local governments in the Adirondacks — including Queensbury — are already moving forward on their own, adopting new ideas that could help protect shorelines and water quality.

Brian Mann: There is something of a consensus in this room that there is more regulation needed to protect water quality and other values in the park. That there is maybe a larger role for the Adirondack Park Agency to play, and maybe the DEC and other agencies as well.

Give us the view from outside this room. If you took that message tomorrow to the Warren County Board of Supervisors, or to local leaders across the park, and said, “This is what I’m hearing,” what would the response be, do you think?

Dan Stec: Certainly the reaction at the state level – right now, the very first thing that’s going to come to everyone’s mind is “resources, funding.” The funding the day to day budget – funding isn’t there for DEC to enforce – you know the current situation. And APA staff. So there’s a budgetary, a challenge here, that has to go with that. So, that’s the reality in Albany.

A local reaction: the elected officials in those towns are more concerned about the economy. They’re not sure that more regulation is what’s needed for their towns. So it’s a conversation that we need to keep having.

BM: There is this talk about reopening the Adirondack Park Agency Act. If that happened, it would have to go to Albany. You would be sort of on the front lines of that. Do you see an appetite in Albany, for the kind of conversation that could reform those state laws in a responsible way?

DS: Right now there’s a lot of focus on the land purchase and the classifications that need to happen. And I can see, just from that process, that there’s a lot of political concern coming from all directions on this process. So I would guess that they’re probably thinking, “Jeez, open, opening the APA Act right now, do we have the desire to open that larger can of worms?” If they’re looking at a big controversial situation, I think it’s a lot less likely that Albany want pick that up. 

BM: From your time in Queensbury, and now your time as assemblyman, do you see any place that the APA needs to be stronger to protect the environment? Are there parts of the ecology of the park that they don’t have the right tools, or they’re not doing the right things to protect right now? Anything that seems like a red flag for you there?

DS: Well I – my own personal opinion, I think that the biggest challenge I’ve seen in the park in recent years has been invasive species. Aquatic invasive species. Maybe that’s because, from a local government perspective, we’re looking at the dollar amounts involved in combating this, and if your water quality goes with the invasive species, so go the land values and the tax base. We’ve got an ecological and economic problem with that.

Certainly I think there’s a compelling argument that can be made about storm water. It’s always a balancing act, though. You go and try to do something for the lake, and there’s going to be a lot of lake property owners that recognize the value, and they want it done, and they’re going to have a next door neighbor that’s saying, “I pay a lot of taxes, and on top of that you’re going to make me do X, Y, and Z?” You’re setting yourself up at the local level for problems.

BM: You’ve said before that you think a lot of Adirondack communities are failing. So is there one big change the APA could make that you think would help that problem, would boost communities?

DS: I would say in the last three or four years, I’ve noticed, and I think that a lot of my former colleagues at the local level would agree, and they have agreed to me, that they think that DEC and APA have been better to work with. They like the pendulum swing that they’re perceiving.

Now, that may not be true for people in this room. They may say, “Hey, we kind of like the pendulum over here.” I think that people want to have a predictable, consistent process. They want to get through as quickly as possible, because time is money, they’re paying lawyers, and they’re paying engineers and, they don’t want to be nitpicked. They wanna just, “Tell me where the goal line is. Don’t move the goal line on me, and I’ll get there.”

And I think that the APA and DEC have gotten better at that. I think DEC’s got a lot of challenges with not having the budget that they could use. And I think that that would benefit both sides of the – you know the people that say, “Hey I want to do something with my property,” and the people who are interested in protecting that property. I think they would both benefit from an enhanced DEC budget.

BM: Let’s go back to your work locally. And again, as we heard people saying today, really your local efforts have gotten out in front of the state, in many ways, in terms of the regulatory scheme there, the way that the storm water runoff – but also, how farm waste and other things are regulated. How controversial was that?

DS: In Queensbury, our land use regulation, for those of you that are familiar with it… it’s great sport.  It’s serious business, but it’s also something that the community can get very passionate about, and the newspaper loves to write about. And as the Town Supervisor, it was one of my favorite things to get to deal with.

I was actually pleasantly surprised that our zoning code revision that incorporated buffers – Queensbury, along with Lake George and Bolton were the first communities that put in significant fertilizer restrictions. Tree cutting, we have a very robust planning and zoning board process that people go through. We put money into Asian clams. Warren County was the first county in the state to adopt the invasive species law, even ahead of New York State.

So we’ve been proactive, and I think – some people, there was some pushback. But not – we got more pushback with the septic maintenance district. Dave Decker and the Lake George Watershed Coalition, they were able to secure some grant funding and we were going to look at trying to head along the lines of some sort of maintenance, inspection programs. That’s where we saw the biggest pushback, was in the septic. So they drew a line there, and I said, “Alright, we’re not going to cross that line."

But the zoning code itself, we changed the minimum lot sizes on Lake George from one acre to two  acre. 

BM: A lot of the environmental issues that are important, whether it’s invasive species, whether it’s storm water runoff. A lot of those are going to be handled, mostly, by the hamlets. Right? That’s where most of the development is. And so Queensbury has gotten out in front of this, and you guys have these rules in place. If you go to local leaders, town supervisors, village mayors, and talk to them about what they’re doing, many of them still resist the idea of doing an APA approved plan. Do you think we’re at the point in history now, where those local government leaders should pivot and start developing the kind of plan that Queensbury did?

DS:  Who wouldn’t want to control their own destiny? So if you’re one of those non-believers that says, “Ah, I don’t like the APA and the imposition that” – We’re rule of law. And they’ve got the final say. So, if you say, “Well, we’re subject to those rules anyways, but we’re going to adopt our plan in accordance with those rules, and then manage ourselves,” my own personal experience is that that’s been a winner.

But I also have to recognize that the town of Queensbury is 28,000 people. $3 billion assessed value. I mean we have a planning staff that’s larger than most towns’ entire payrolls. It’s very easy for Queensbury to say, “Yeah, do what we did!” But the reality is that a lot of these small towns and hamlets, villages inside the park, just economically, they can’t do it. So how you get there, I don’t have the easy answer for that.

BM: Okay, Assemblyman Dan Stec, I’m really grateful, and I appreciate your time.

DS: Yeah thanks. Thanks everybody. 

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