Earlier this month, New York state abruptly dropped its appeal of a 2011 court ruling that required the Adirondack Park Agency and the Department of Environmental Conservation to classify the water and lake bed of Lows Lake — a popular paddling destination near Tupper Lake — as “wilderness.”
APA spokesman Keith McKeever issued a statement arguing that the legal victory for environmental groups was a narrow one and doesn’t set a precedent for other parts of the Park.
“The decision is narrowly defined to Lows Lake and is not applicable or precedent setting for the rest of the Adirondacks,” he said in an email to NCPR.
There are pretty clear signals that the state dropped the case in order to avoid seeing it move to a higher court, where a clear, Park-wide legal precedent would have been set.
Fred Monroe, head of the Adirondack Local Government Review Board, says he was told by top state officials that this was the legal strategy.
“They said their reasoning was that this was a lower court [decision] and it doesn’t have binding affect throughout [the Park] but if they appealed it and got an adverse ruling there, then it would be binding,” Monroe recounted.
He says state officials urged his group not to complain about the decision to drop the appeal, because state officials were working to avoid a Park-wide legal determination that might have expanded restrictions on motorized recreation and other activities.
Green groups think their victory in this case has already establish a precedent for lakes and rivers across the Park. I don’t know who is right here.
But a clear precedent in this case might resolve a long-running dispute over interpretations of the State Land Master Plan, settling arguments over the management of lakes and rivers that have plagued communities, state officials and environmental groups for decades.
If state officials disliked the final ruling, and any precedents it set, they would have a clear recourse of going to Albany and asking the legislature to rewrite the law.
Same goes for local government leaders or environmental groups. That process would mean a healthy public debate, and a clear democratic solution.
Instead — if the state is deliberately avoiding clear legal precedents — we’re left with more legal muddles, more gray zones, more reading of tea leaves by state officials and interpretations that can change from one administration to the next.
(Management of Lows Lake has been a political football for years, with the DE and the Park Agency wrangling, sometimes publicly, over what kinds of recreation should be allowed.)
Indeed, some observers have suggested the this kind of deliberate ambiguity is already making it difficult for environmental officials to manage the Adirondacks.
In an essay for the Adirondack Almanack, the journalist Phil Brown documented questions that emerged as stumbling blocks during the Adirondack Club and Resort decision earlier this year.
“Its unclear whether there is a meaningful distinction between primary and secondary uses [of resource management lands],” Brown wrote, referring to zoning classifications for private land in the Park.
“It’s unclear whether the language allowing residential development ‘on substantial acreages or in small clusters’ is a mandate. It’s unclear what ‘substantial acreages’ and “small clusters” mean.”
Brown went on to write, “The Adirondack Club and Resort is the largest development approved by the APA. It’s a shame we didn’t have answers to all these questions before the decision was made.”
The lawsuit filed over the Tupper Lake resort case might settle some of those ambiguities, adding definition and clarity to Park rules.
But the state has asked a judge to dismiss that suit, as well, in a fashion that would avoid any conclusive interpretations.
We have seen this go the other way in recent years, with clear legal precedents being set in cases involving navigation rights on Adirondack rivers and APA oversight over farms.
The Lows Lake case, if pursued to the higher court, might have accomplished the same, giving everyone in the Park a clearer understanding of the rules shaping management of the Park’s waters.