photograph by Yvonne Albinowski
How will the latest land rush affect the future of the Adirondack Park?
In early December, John Davis, a wilderness advocate, was riding his bike on a dirt road near his home—a cabin deep in the woods—a few miles outside of the town of Westport. Davis has lived here for nearly three decades and knows the area’s hills and valleys better than just about anyone, so the presence of a “For Sale” sign on 70 acres of forestland caught his eye. The parcel was one that he’d been hoping a land trust would acquire as part of an ongoing project to establish a wildlife corridor connecting the Adirondacks’ High Peaks with the gentle, low-lying hills of the Champlain Valley, an ecosystem known for its unusual mix of limestone soils and rare plant species. Over the last couple of decades a handful of conservation groups, often through easements with private landowners, has succeeded in protecting about half of the 15,000 acres that would be needed to complete the Split Rock Wildway. (Its name comes from nearby Split Rock Mountain Wild Forest, 3,700 acres of state-owned land.)
The land that Davis was interested in happened to be at the geographic heart of the corridor, directly across from the Coon Mountain Preserve. Aside from a small 120-year-old barn, there’s nothing else on it. Eager to make a move on the property, Davis stopped at the Coon Mountain trailhead, where he knew there was enough cell service to send an email, and dashed off a note to the Eddy Foundation, a nonprofit land trust on whose board Davis serves.
A couple of days later, when the foundation’s executive director inquired about the land, he learned that it was already under contract. It had been snatched up in just six days and went for the listed price of $140,000.
It’s a story that’s become common during the pandemic, as significant numbers of largely affluent urban residents have left cities seeking refuge elsewhere. The real-estate market in many suburban and some rural areas has been in overdrive ever since and, at least for now, doesn’t seem to be letting up. In the Adirondacks—which already had fairly limited housing stock—old camps, luxury lakefront property, single family homes, and vacant land are selling, sometimes sight unseen, and often well above the asking price. Inventories have been depleted across the region.
“Almost every piece of property has sold,” said George Hainer, the code enforcement officer for the Town of Westport. “Most of the land has sold. Everything has turned over.”
In April Susan Harral, a Realtor in Keene, said she had only one active residential listing in the entire town. There’s very little left, she told me, and when something does come on the market, “It’s kind of like a feeding frenzy.” James Bateman, the assessor in Long Lake in Hamilton County, the park’s largest and least populated county, says they are on track to surpass the previous high of 33 home sales recorded in 2004. “We’ll beat the 2004 record handily,” he said. Jim LaValley, a realtor in Tupper Lake for more than 30 years, said entry-level housing at or around $150,000 has become scarce. When we spoke he had recently listed a house in the village in that price range on a Tuesday night. There was a contract on it the following day. (It sold to somebody who lives and works in the area.)
It’s a park-wide trend. According to the Northern Adirondack Board of Realtors, which compiles monthly data from the majority of licensed real-estate brokers in the region, home sales have reached historic highs since last March, when pandemic-related restrictions were first imposed. The first few months of lockdown were uncharacteristically slow, but the market quickly picked up in the summer and fall. September 2020, for example, saw a 74 percent increase in home sales over the previous year. The average price for real estate has shot up by a staggering 58 percent, from about $200,000 to $320,000. Meanwhile, the sale of undeveloped land has doubled in most counties, and towns and villages are beginning to see a surge in applications for new building permits.
“We’re selling everything everywhere,” said Mike Coughlin, executive director of the Northern Adirondack Board of Realtors. “There’s no community that has not seen, I would say, steady activity.”
Though it’s difficult to make any firm predictions about the future of the housing market or larger demographic trends, there’s a sense that the long shadow of the pandemic could reshape the region, especially as remote work becomes more entrenched. An influx of residents to communities in the park would be welcome, but Realtors and other market observers interviewed for this story remain skeptical that new home buyers will settle in the region permanently. The post-9/11 period, which saw a similar surge in home sales, suggests that the trend could be short-lived and won’t lead to the kind of investment badly needed in many of the region’s small towns. In recent years the Adirondacks, like much of rural America, has been bedeviled by a persistent decline in population, especially among college-age adults. Schools have struggled to keep their doors open and enrollment has dropped in nearly every district.
In a town like Westport, with a population of just over 1,000 (down from 1,500 in 1990), even small changes in the housing market are notable. Hainer says a handful of people originally from the area, including a couple of young families, have moved back since the pandemic. They’ve had transplants from as far away as California, Colorado and Utah. There’s also been a cohort of Amish families who have settled in the valley the last several years, attracted by the relatively inexpensive farmland. “We’re in a very secluded, beautiful place,” Hainer said. “People want that.”
The grim toll of the past year seemed impossibly remote when I met Davis on a cold rainy morning in mid-April to climb Coon Mountain. At the trailhead Davis pointed out the 70-acre parcel of land just to the east on the other side of the dirt road and another piece next to it that he assumed would end up on the market soon. The woods were beginning to fill with spring wildflowers and the short, steep ascent was flush with water.
The view from the summit was mostly shut in as the rain turned to snow. Lake Champlain, just a few miles away, was completely obscured. But Davis noted the arc of the wildlife corridor, extending from the Jay Range and higher peaks to the west, across the narrow valley to his own plot of land, much of which is now set aside as a wildlife sanctuary, and the 7,500 or so acres of protected forest. In clearer weather you’d see a mix of farmland, private homes and summer camps dotting the lakeshore.
Davis says preserving the next 7,500 acres will be more challenging. If the price of land continues to go up as it has over the past year, it will become harder for nonprofits to compete. Meanwhile, development pressures are likely to increase as climate change hastens migration away from coastal regions along the eastern seaboard, including New York City and Boston. “Even without the pandemic,” Davis said, “many of us have been thinking that, sooner or later, this area would become very popular.”
The 70 acres that the Eddy Foundation was interested in was bought by Ken Waltz, who lives outside of New York City and has longstanding ties to the region; he already owns a home on 24 acres farther north toward the town of Essex. He says he might put a lean-to or treehouse on the new property, but has no intentions of developing or subdividing it. But that could change. Waltz has a large family—including two sons, one of whom studied at Paul Smith’s—and could see building on it someday.
If he ever decides to sell it, Waltz said, the Eddy Foundation would have first dibs. “I’m a good land steward and neighbor,” he told me. “That’s going to be part of my legacy.”
Covid would not be the first time that a global pandemic has fueled growth and development in the Adirondacks. Between the establishment of Doctor E. L. Trudeau’s sanatorium for the treatment of tuberculosis patients in 1884 and his death about 30 years later, Saranac Lake’s population increased nearly fivefold. What was a backwater settlement of about 15 families along the Saranac River quickly blossomed into a flourishing cosmopolitan village with a public water supply, sewer system and paved streets. The town became known for its rigid health code—spitting in public was prohibited—network of parks, and cure cottages with their distinctive glassed-in porches.
Many of the same features that made the region attractive then haven’t changed. People still flock to the Adirondacks for its clean mountain air and large protected landscapes. There are only some 130,000 people living in the park, which encompasses six million acres of public and private land, about 15 people per square mile.
Elaine Beery, a 68-year-old interior designer who until recently lived in lower Manhattan, has been visiting the Adirondacks for 30 years. She and her husband started coming up to hike and camp when their son was three; he’s now a 46er. She’d long fantasized about living in the area and, last summer, after looking at property in the Catskills and Stony Creek, bought an old house on six and a half acres in Essex; in August they left the city for good. The house needed work—the roof was leaking and there was limited plumbing in the kitchen—so for the first few months they pitched a tent in the backyard and washed their dishes in the bathtub.
They’ve since moved inside and can see Lake Champlain from almost every window. A stream runs through the backyard and the property, former farmland, connects to a network of trails maintained by a local nonprofit. It’s a short walk to town, where there’s a bakery, post office and soon-to-be opened pub. “It was so nice being able to walk outside and not have to worry about any of it,” she said, referring to the terrifying early months of the pandemic in New York City, which had become the epicenter of the crisis. “It feels really expansive.”
Beery was one of many New Yorkers who left the city last year. Between March and October 2020 at least 300,000 residents of the city moved, according to an analysis of US Postal Service change of address forms. But the raw numbers can be misleading in that they don’t always reveal where people have ended up or if their move is permanent. A more recent Bloomberg story found that most New Yorkers who left the city didn’t venture far beyond the metro area: Long Island and the Hamptons have also seen a surge in construction and real-estate sales.
Perhaps more important, the early numbers may not give us an accurate snapshot of what’s happening in rural areas like the Adirondacks: Postal Service figures, generally regarded as one of the most comprehensive and reliable sources, are limited to zip codes for which more than 10 change of address forms have been requested. Four or five families moving from the same neighborhood to a small town in upstate New York would be a big deal, but it wouldn’t necessarily show up in the data.
Laura McGowan, for example, moved from L.A. at the onset of the pandemic in early March to live with her parents in Tupper Lake. A 33-year-old animation editor at Warner Brothers, she left as soon as the company allowed its employees to work remotely. McGowan stayed with her parents for about eight months, but once it became clear that she would not have to return to work, she bought a house on Coreys Road just outside of town. McGowan, who grew up in Tupper and studied animation at the Rochester Institute of Technology, was never that attached to L.A. and says she’s been more efficient working from afar. She got a promotion in the middle of the pandemic and ended up editing her first feature film. She’s thrilled to be close to her parents and to have easy access to the outdoors. When I talked to her, she was walking her dog—an Alaskan Malamute who prefers the cooler weather—in the woods behind her house, which connects to state forestland.
“If I wasn’t able to work remotely, I definitely wouldn’t be here,” she said. “I will stay here as long as my job allows me to.”
The pandemic has restructured many aspects of daily life, but the shift to remote work may be one of the most enduring changes. A Gallup Poll released earlier this year found that more than half of all Americans were working from home and a large percentage would be happy to continue doing so. Peter Nelson, a geographer at Middlebury College, in Vermont, studies rural population dynamics and says the big question now is whether the ability to work from home will spur young professionals and families to relocate. Nelson said there’s clearly been a “movement down the urban hierarchy,” but it remains to be seen if the events of the past year will reshape larger trends in any meaningful way.
“Northern New England has suffered net population loss through migration since the late 1990s,” Nelson said. “This might conceivably turn that around a little bit.”
A continued surge in real-estate sales will also further squeeze the market for affordable housing. Even before the pandemic, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find housing or rentals for low- to middle-income residents. Bruce Misarski, executive director of the Housing Assistance Program of Essex County, said there’s little inventory left in that price range. Misarski’s program, established in 1989, has a small housing trust that sells homes without title to the land, which allows them to cap prices. But they’ve struggled to expand their portfolio as property values continue to go up. The trust now has about 25 houses, nearly all of which are occupied.
Misarski is also concerned about what will happen when the state lifts the moratorium on foreclosures and evictions put in place last May and set to expire at the end of August. During the pandemic the number of homeowners unable to pay their mortgages across New York State has risen to historic highs—three to four times what it was in 2009 when the market collapsed, according to the Empire Justice Center. Low-income tenants across the state are also struggling to keep up and may soon be forced out of their homes and apartments. “There’s going to be a lot of pain and suffering,” said Misarski. “We’re preparing for that.”
But protections for homeowners in New York have improved in the wake of the recession of 2008–2009, according to Empire Justice senior staff attorney Kirsten Keefe. The network of direct services and programs has grown. The state has also received $540 million from the federal government for direct financial assistance to homeowners.
“The bottom line is there’s a lot more on the table now to help homeowners than there was in 2009,” Keefe said.
Still, the chronic shortage of new housing in the region combined with the steady increase in real-estate prices will leave many homeowners and tenants with few options. This could accelerate what one historian has called the process of “wilderness gentrification” in the Adirondacks, where the economy and, increasingly, the identity of the place is defined by second homeowners and seasonal residents.
But there are other paths forward. At the turn of the 20th century, when Trudeau established his sanatorium, there was a push to accommodate all patients regardless of their ability to pay. The first two patients to occupy Little Red, the town’s first cure cottage, were factory workers, and Trudeau set up a scholarship fund for those who could not afford weekly rent payments. Many of those who made the long journey to receive treatment stayed, including my great-grandparents, who arrived from Latvia in 1908. They eventually opened a general store on Lake Flower and raised their seven daughters in Saranac Lake.
The treatment of respiratory illnesses has evolved since the days of the “open-air cure,” but the psychology of living with a highly transmissible airborne disease will be with us for years to come. It’s too soon to know what this will mean for the Adirondacks. What does seem clear, though, is that the same factors that drew people to the region a century ago—clean air and open space—will continue to attract newcomers. The question is whether the park will be able to accommodate them.
A few miles north of Split Rock Wild Forest, in the town of Essex, is an old limestone quarry. The land was once part of a shallow coastal reef that extended from New York to Tennessee—New England was a separate continent at the time—and marine fossils dating back millions of years can still be seen in the rock.
In December 2019, Champlain Area Trails (CATS) purchased the 35-acre property and has turned it into a nature preserve. When I visited in May the kiosk at the trailhead was still under construction, but Chris Maron, CATS executive director, said they were in the process of developing interpretive materials with information about the region’s geology and rare forest type (the park officially opened in June). The trail hugs the perimeter of the old quarry, where rectangular slabs of stone are still stacked in piles—some have been turned into benches—surrounding a small pond, the result of years of digging and excavation.
Maron, who grew up in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, has a keen sense of how quickly landscapes can change. After he finished college he remembers coming across a book of historic photos of the Valley from the early 1900s showing sparsely populated farmland. It was radically different from the L.A. of his childhood—in about 50 years the area had been completely transformed.
In the last decade demographers have turned their attention to the ways in which a rapidly warming planet will force large numbers of people to relocate due to widespread drought, sea-level rise, and extreme weather events. A 2018 World Bank report focusing on just three regions—Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America—projected that more than 140 million people could be uprooted by 2050 if little is done to prepare and adapt. In recent years the United States has seen climate refugees forced to flee wildfires in California and rising sea levels in Louisiana, Alaska and New York City. Parts of some of the largest metro areas in the country—New York, Boston and Miami—face an increasingly uncertain future. Meanwhile the Adirondacks as well as much of the Northeast and Upper Midwest occupy a narrow swath of land that is expected to remain relatively stable and agriculturally productive even under the most extreme temperature scenarios.
Davis and others see the Adirondacks as being in a climate “sweet spot,” not immune to change, but largely protected from the very worst outcomes. There’s an ample amount of fresh water, lots of land and close proximity to airports in Albany, Burlington and Montreal. “People are going to be pushed into smaller areas that are less hammered by climate chaos and I think this will be one of them,” Davis said.
Just as the shock of the pandemic was, to some, unimaginable a year and a half ago, the large-scale disruptions of climate change can seem remote, even implausible. But we’re already living with them.
As we made our way through the quarry Maron pointed out a delicate looking spiral-shaped fossil—a kind of snail—embedded in one of the rocks; it was some 460 million years old and had once been part of the world’s oldest coral reef.
It may sound far-fetched, Maron acknowledged, but in another 50 to 100 years, as much of Long Island and the East Coast are inundated with water, there’s a good chance the town of Essex will look more like a small city. The old quarry will be its “central park,” Maron said, where people will walk their dogs in summer and cross-country ski in winter.
“In a way that’s why our work is so important right now,” he said. “We’re doing work now that’s going to protect wildlife and ecological systems years and years in the future. So if we can act now … we can be successful. But if we aren’t, we’re going to have fragmentation and this area and much of our world is going to be transformed.”
Adam Federman is a reporting fellow with Type Investigations and the author of Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray.