Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Adirondacks, Part I: Land of Reckless Desire

by Brian Nearing
Albany Times-Union
December 2, 2007

A building boom echoes through Lake George's forested hills, beyond reach of a state board meant to protect a lake whose legendary gin-clear water is getting murkier.

This decade, nearly 2,400 acres -- equivalent to two dozen Empire State Plazas -- have sprouted 687 new single-family homes, according to a Times Union computer-assisted analysis of assessment records.

About 80 percent of the surge is at the lake's southwestern edge in Warren County, where local governments in Bolton, Lake George town and village, and Queensbury -- not the state-created Lake George Park Commission -- hold sway over development.

Every time it rains, each road, home and lawn can sweep a brew of silt, fertilizers or road salt into brooks, down steep hills and into the water.

Environmentalists claim the Queen of American Lakes is being nibbled to death. Researchers at a center run by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute agree increasing pollution is making water murkier, saltier and less hospitable to aquatic life.

One sign is more algae blooms, which cloud water and rob it of oxygen. Septic leaks and phosphorus-rich fertilizers that keep lawns green well into late fall also feed algae.

Most of the building surge is beyond reach of the park commission, created in 1961 to protect the lake.

Executive Director Michael White said the commission does not track building in the four burgeoning municipalities because each has commission-approved stormwater rules.

Commission Chairman Bruce Young said the four municipalities do a good job, with White adding: "We are a partner, not an overlord."

The town of Lake George took over rule enforcement from the commission in 1992. Bolton and Queensbury assumed responsibility in 1998, followed a year later by Lake George village. The commission controls the other five towns around the lake, where there is more state-owned land and less development.

However, the commission is eyeing its first-ever rules to limit building around streams and reduce cutting of trees, which help anchor natural ground filters that absorb contaminants.

Watching developers clear-cut land next to his Assembly Point home in Queensbury has been "a lesson in futility," said Stuart Rosenberg, an Albany doctor who has owned his Knox Road A-frame since 1985.

After a small camp was bulldozed and more than two dozen trees -- some more than 100 years old -- were cut, a 6,000-square-foot, five-bathroom mansion took its place. Rosenberg said he complained to the town but got little satisfaction.

"They replanted a handful of trees along the property line, and along the road, but only did that because they were told they had to," he said.

The commission's lack of oversight in the fastest-growing areas is a problem, said David Wick, manager of the Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District.

"The lack of a building history for the lake is a huge point of contention," he said. "It is a political hotbed. Who is going to say they need to stop development?"

The lake's mountainous surroundings make it vulnerable. Each acre of lake is fed by drainage from five acres. For many lakes, that ratio is higher. Lake Champlain has about 1,000 acres of drainage for each acre of lake.

Disagreements have sparked two recent lawsuits against residential projects, filed by the Lake George Waterkeeper, a not-for-profit group affiliated with the Waterkeeper Alliance headed by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

The commission's hands-off attitude toward local control surfaced during public hearings on stormwater rules in 2004. Residents urged the commission to review disputed local plans if opponents submitted petitions.

That was rejected, with the commission saying it would cost developers more money and discourage local officials who might feel second-guessed.

Such caution makes Chris Navitsky scoff. Navitsky is the Lake George waterkeeper, hired in 2002 by the Kennedy environmental group to head its Lake George operations.

A civil engineer, Navitsky once worked for developers putting up big-box stores in New Jersey. He has a name for local officials who review building plans of local developers: "The good ol' boy network."

Since May 2006, Navitsky, the Fund for Lake George and several homeowners have sued the park commission, Bolton, the town of Lake George, Adirondack Park Agency and prominent Bolton developer Rolf Ronning, owner of Bell Point Realty.

Targeted are two of Ronning's subdivisions -- Saddlebrook in Bolton and Forest Ridge in Lake George, which call for 60 homes on 370 acres. Navitsky claims the towns let Ronning off easy on rules, to the point that some Saddlebrook plans called for stormwater to flow uphill.

"My goal is to not sacrifice Lake George so a few people can go to the bank," Navitsky said.

Ronning, a lifelong resident of Bolton Landing, has his own word for Navitsky: "Waterboy." He said Navitsky's challenges cost a million dollars in engineering and legal fees.

Ronning admits lake water isn't as clear as it was when he was a kid, but he sees the problem as the state's irresponsible use of road salt and "sporadic and uneven enforcement" of rules.

While the park commission is responsible for water quality, that duty ends at the lake's edge. Control over building is "the job of the towns, not the commission,"' Ronning said.

"Stormwater issues can be quite expensive. I think that our planning board does an extremely good job," said Alexander "Sandy" Gabriels, Bolton town supervisor.

The town, where a two-acre hillside building lot goes for up to $350,000, is in a building boom. Of the town's 2,164 housing units identified in the 2000 Census, more than half were summer homes.

"The next rage of development is up the hillsides. People are going to build on higher and steeper slopes, because that is what's left," Gabriels said.

And there is plenty left. In 2003, a plan found room for as many as 2,600 additional residences.

However, the report by Saratoga Associates, a Saratoga Springs-based consulting firm, warned such a surge could increase pollution. Of the nine major creeks that drain into the lake, Bolton is home to three -- Huddle, Indian and Finkle brooks.

Ronning is currently pursuing a 15-lot luxury housing development on about 1,000 acres that he owns near Indian Brook.

Gabriels, like Ronning, takes a dim view of Navitsky. "Sometimes he takes a position that no development should occur," Gabriels said.

But some residents side with Navitsky. During a heated public hearing on Saddlebrook, several blasted the town.

"Town boards and planning boards take a very short view of their communities' fabrics and let short-term profit motives of developers drive their thinking," said Graham Cox. "We are not paying planning board members and staff to allow this landscape to be piecemealed to death."

The issue of development around the lake is not new. Recognizing a growing threat, the state in 1987 created the Lake George Watershed Conference, composed of 25 representatives from state, county and municipal governments, as well as lake associations, to come up with a plan.

A 2001 update, headed by state Secretary of State Christopher Jacobs, found problems with development and water quality remained. In 2004, another update contained recommendations such as an annual limit on algae-feeding nutrients and mapping to identify tainted stormwater.

While about two dozen local stormwater projects are done, the problem is far from fixed, said David Decker, executive director of the conference.

"There is no one entity taking a look at development trends around the lake. This is not an anti-growth mechanism. It is a smart growth mechanism," Decker said. "The lake has the ability to clean itself, but we are starting to invade the tipping point. When we get there, we can't reclaim the lake."

He said the park commission is hamstrung by a small budget and staff, and overwhelmed by other duties, like keeping track of permits for hundreds of docks and 10,000 boats that ply the lake.

Fixing stormwater mistakes is more expensive than preventing them. The conference's flagship project is the former Gaslight Village property in Lake George village, which is being converted into a man-made filter for pollution from West Brook.

It will cost $4.1 million to purchase the 12-acre parcel and another $5 million to build in bends to slow the brook, so settling beds catch sediment and plant beds absorb excess fertilizers.

"We only have four acres to fix this when you really need 50," said Decker.

He wants stricter rules to protect the lake, things like banning traditional lawn fertilizers and highway salt.

"There is no reason to have fertilizer in the watershed when it is absolutely accelerating the decline of the lake," Decker said.

Decker said past mistakes that hurt the lake stem from "a lack of knowledge and a misunderstanding of what it means to be a good steward of the lake. Whatever happens in the watershed in the morning gets into the lake in the afternoon. It's instant."

Copyright 2007 Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation

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