Ralph Macchio Sr., whose son starred in The Karate Kid, shares a mountain in Lake George, N.Y., with David King, the longtime owner of an RV park. For the last three years, the two men have been locked in a battle over a proposed zip line: One sees the mountaintop diversion as an opportunity to energize the summer resort town; the other believes it would deface an Adirondack peak.
Macchio owns 650 acres, including the summit, on French Mountain, and he wants to build a 3,450-foot zip line just below its rocky outcropping. Four cables — each supporting a rider — would span two 34-foot towers. People would ride up in ATVs, strap into harnesses and descend at 55 miles per hour, taking in the view.
"What makes this special is you're like an eagle soaring over the mountain," said Macchio.
Although the dispute has garnered national attention, in Lake George the effort to stop the zip line has been largely a one-man-affair. On his "day off" last week, King, 49, was in his office, unfurling maps and photos of French Mountain — a modest peak that is not even 1,400 feet high. Sitting under a chandelier made of antlers, he spoke animatedly about the perils of putting a "high-speed thrill ride" on top of an Adirondack mountain.
"I think there are better places for amusement rides than on the top of the one historic mountain ... at the gateway to the Adirondack Park," he said. According to King, the mountain played a role during the French and Indian War.
Some trees would have to be removed at the base of each tower to make room for Macchio's zip line. Others, below the first 900 feet of cable, might have to be topped for better clearance. That would scar the mountain and spoil the view for his campers, King argued. He said he's also worried about the noise of screaming riders and ATVs. The plan's approval could set a precedent, he reasoned, that paves the way for mountaintop roller coasters.
In 1988, King took over the Lake George RV Park from his father, who opened it in 1967. He also inherited 230 acres on French Mountain and a hiking trail that connects the campground to the peak. King said his father originally planned to mine the mountain plot but later realized it made more sense to preserve it.
"He envisioned these vistas were what would bring visitors to the Adirondacks forever."
For years, King's campers have walked that trail, crossing briefly onto Macchio's property at the top to get a view of the lake. The zip line proposal puts their outdoor experience — and his father's vision —"under attack," King said.
Lake George straddles what's known as the Blue Line — the Adirondack Park boundary — at the southern end of the protected area. But it's not the boondocks. Flush with motels, Lake George is also poised to get a five-story Marriott. The House of Frankenstein Wax Museum, psychic reader shops and the pirate-themed water park make the main drag feel more like a midway than a town. Many of the shops have alliterative names: the Mohican Motel, Gooney Golf, Leo's Lobster.
But on an 80-degree day in early July, some attractions appear quiet. A single person rides the Ferris wheel at Magic Forest amusement park; the Tilt-a-Whirl and merry-go-round aren't even running. That doesn't bode well for the winter, when many businesses are shuttered. "A ghost town is putting it mildly," is how one town employee describes the resort town during the off-season. Only about 4,000 people live in Lake George year-round.
Stopping short of criticizing the town, Macchio observed, "It could be more classy. It should be more than what it is."
King's Lake George RV Park is just outside the Blue Line. With its pools, arcades and fitness center, guests aren't asked to rough it. King is proud of the amenities — campers can even get a cable hookup right in their RV — and he makes a point of mentioning the three miles of paved roads.
The main attraction, he maintains, remains the nearby mountains and lake that for centuries have lured urban dwellers north.
It worked for Macchio and his wife, Rosalie, who honeymooned in Lake George in 1959. They were still living on Long Island when they bought their first parcels of land on French Mountain 10 years later. His empire includes Wild West Ranch, at the base of French Mountain, which looks to have followed the boom-and-bust trajectory of the frontier towns it mimics. Macchio bought it in 2005, but business was slow, so he closed it in 2010.
"I'm a business guy," Macchio said of his career. When pressed, the 76-year-old, whose accent betrays his city roots, said he started in Laundromats. He still owns some, but he later segued to the wastewater industry, starting a septic company and then expanding to hazardous waste treatment.
Macchio was searching for a way to breath life back into his shuttered ranch when he came up with the zip line concept. He would have nixed the idea if it had required clear-cutting because he's committed to keeping the mountain intact, he said. When it comes to development in Lake George, "I've never built anything bigger than a doghouse."
That's not entirely true: In 2006, Macchio constructed a logging road up French Mountain that ran afoul of zoning regulations. The town of Queensbury took him to court, and he had to make remedial changes as part of a settlement. According to King and Lake George water keeper Chris Navitsky, the road remains illegal and the town should require Macchio to come up with a stormwater-runoff plan as a condition of hosting regular ATV traffic.
King is also skeptical of Macchio's plan to run the zip line year-round. "Macchio says ... he's going to have between 60 and 100 riders a day on a Wednesday in February. It goes to show how naive he is," said King. "I wouldn't invest a dime."
The Lake George Chamber of Commerce is more optimistic but hasn't taken an official position. "We would welcome it and we would promote it," executive director Michael Consuelo said.
The zip line would span two towns, starting in Queensbury and ending in Lake George, and it requires approval from both, as well as from the Adirondack Park Agency. Lake George, which would reap most of the economic benefits, and the APA have both signed off on it. Macchio had to tweak his proposal, minimizing the vegetation removal in order to secure the latter's support. The Queensbury Planning Board is reviewing the plan and could vote on it as soon as this week.
King's not totally alone in his fight. The Adirondack Council, an environmental protection organization, has also objected. According to its communications director, John Sheehan, the group is concerned that the sight of the zip line will "alter the wild character of one of the park's busiest entrances."
Macchio's response: "We will do everything we can to hide as much as we can," he said of the zip line, which is estimated to cost roughly $1.5 million. "Can we make it invisible? No."
The RV park owner remains the only one taking legal action — even though "I'm not the kind of person who sues people," King insisted. He said he believes the project skirted Queensbury's zoning regulations, but the town denied his appeal. In May, he appealed the APA's decision, arguing, among other things, that it improperly prioritized the project's economic potential over its environmental risks.
If Macchio gets his way, and his zip line turns out to be a hit, King said he won't hold a grudge. His RV park attracts as many as 43,000 visitors a year, according to King, and outside his office, the 400-plus campsites scattered across 130 acres of woodland are mostly occupied. "If it's economically successful that will be a silver lining for me."
Like his son Ralph's character in The Karate Kid, Macchio has taken a coolheaded approach to his fight. "I learn to take things one step at a time. Otherwise, you go a little bit crazy."