Is New York dodging important legal precedents in the Adirondacks?

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.

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19 Comments on “Is New York dodging important legal precedents in the Adirondacks?”

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  1. dave says:

    Healthy public debates…

    Do these still exist?

    Healthy is a hard adjective to apply to public debates these days. Contentious, entrenched, uninformed, short-sighted, divisive…. those seem like more appropriate descriptions.

    Avoiding that seems like a prudent course to me right now until all of us children can learn to be reasonable again.

    But I’m having trouble figuring out what the state and the APA’s interests are here. Why does the APA want to avoid a precedent that would clarify the management of lakes? Clarity of policy would seemingly make their job a lot easier.

    Is it really possible that the APA doesn’t want to limit motorized use? I thought the APA was just a bunch of enviros!

    There must be a larger strategy here I am missing.

    Maybe it is that these agencies feel they have more flexibility when policy is loose and open to (their) interpretation?

  2. Walker says:

    “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.”

    Well it clearly provides a precedent, it’s just not a very solid precedent. What appears to need further reporting here is why the state wants to avoid having this precedent set. Is this about what happens to the Raquette River if Follansbee is acquired by the state?

  3. Paul says:

    This decision is one that makes sense. The problem here is that the classification remains “wilderness”? Given the character of the lake and its uses (some private shoreline and legal private motorized use of the waterway) that makes no sense. It seems like the correct classification is “wild forest”. Why didn’t they just drop the case and then re-classify the waterway? Sorry guys you win the lake isn’t Wilderness. You can’t have it both ways.

  4. Paul says:

    On the ACR project I think that the reality is that it was “flexibility” in the law that allowed the agency to craft permit requirements that were more environmentally sound than they could have been otherwise.

    The Agency could have forced the developer to sprawl the “great camp” lots (all of them) into 42 acre lots as outlined under RM lands. Under those circumstances the developer would NOT have to have deeded much of the land as ‘open space’ as they are now required to do. Contrary to what many green groups want, development is going to occur on these private lands. Why not let the agency at least try and keep the impacts lower by allowing to have some flexibility.

  5. Bob S says:

    I seem to recall a similar situation arising when Sandy Lewis sued the APA to recover his legal fees. The Atty. Gens. lawyers approached Lewis with a settlement offer that was acceptable to Lewis UNTIL Lewis found out that in return the APA wanted the decision awarding Lewis his fees vacated thus avoiding a precedent the state didn’t like. Lewis not only balked at that but went public with the information. At that point the state dropped its threatened appeal of the decision and paid Lewis.

  6. Pete Klein says:

    What needs to be thrown out is the whole “Wilderness” classification. If we must have a wilderness classification, then we need a law that says no one will be rescued or even searched for in a wilderness.
    Lost? Tough luck.

  7. @tourpro says:

    Isn’t Lows Lake manmade?

  8. Pete Klein says:

    Lows Lake is manmade. So too are the Great Sacandaga, Indian Lake and many others too numerous to mention.

  9. Paul says:

    Lake Flower in Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake in Tupper Lake…..

  10. Walker says:

    Man-made lakes that aren’t in wilderness areas aren’t at issue. The question is, how many wilderness area lakes are man-made. And the answers aren’t necessarily all that clear-cut. St. Regis Pond in the St. Regis Canoe Area has a dam, but it looks like it only enlarged the lake, it didn’t create it. I think the same is true of the Marcy dam and Duck Hole– there are still ponds left now that the dams are breached. Does anyone know if there was a lake (or lakes) where Low’s Lake is now before the dam was built?

  11. Walker says:

    According to “an article in the Adirondack Almanack “The upper dam was built in 1907 and created Lows Lake from Bog River Flow, Mud Lake, Grass Pond and Tomar Pond.” So Lows is another case of waterbodies being enlarged, not created, by dams.

  12. Paul says:

    Walker, I know they are not an “issue” I was just mentioning a few dams. No water-body is created by a dam, they are not really enlarged either. The water is just held back in one spot longer that it would have been. Tupper Lake was the Raquette river before the dam, Lake Flower was the Saranac River before the dam. Whatever. But I guess it is a fair question about was it Lows Lake before the dam?

    Why are we even talking about this? Like you say it is irrelevant to the issue. The ASLMP allows dams in Wilderness areas. This is one of many provisions in the law aimed at paddling interests (I doubt they are aimed at logging interests?). Same goes for the allowance for bridges and shelters for hikers. Wilderness areas may be defined as places that man is a brief visitor but he is allowed to stay long enough to build and or fix a dam in an Adirondack wilderness area if it makes for better paddling.

  13. Paul says:

    From that Almanack it looks like Lows lake was probably part of the bog river flow before the dam. I don’t have a problem with these dams. I think they have altered some beautiful landscape into some even better landscape.

  14. Paul says:

    “Man-made lakes that aren’t in wilderness areas aren’t at issue.”

    Walker, in the Adirondacks, many (all actually) man-made lakes that are now in Wilderness areas were at one time not in Wilderness areas. The last time I checked Wilderness areas are expanding in the Adirondacks. This is one of many examples. At some point in the future any man-made lake now in a non-wilderness area could be in a Wilderness area if the trend continues. Right?

  15. Pete Klein says:

    Speaking of what is and isn’t a lake, Long Lake is actually not a lake but is the widening of the Raquette River.
    Indian Lake was a series of small ponds connected by streams before the dam made it a lake.

  16. Walker says:

    “At some point in the future any man-made lake now in a non-wilderness area could be in a Wilderness area if the trend continues.”

    True. It is also the case that present-day man-made lakes in wilderness areas may become non-man-made water bodies at any time: witness Duck Hole and the pond at Marcy Dam. For that matter, beaver activity frequently creates semi-permanent water bodies here and there without seeking legislative or administrative approval.

  17. adirondack joe says:

    It sounds as though the APA is dropping the appeal of the case because they wanted the wilderness classification in the first place. The APA has historically been controlled by the radical environmentalist and the law suits are often a deceptive practise to create the illusion of conflict to apease the public. All the while the APA & the radical enviromentalist are in bed together to reduce public access to public land. It’s smoke and mirrors and business as usual in the Adirondacks.

  18. Jim Frenette says:

    Tupper Lake,refering to the water body existed as such before the 1st dam was built in1870 to send the logs down to the mills in Potsdam. This dam was removed by locals in 1885. The present dam was built at the same site in 1933-34. The first dam resulted in flooding the Racquette river about 30 miles upstream and flooded Racquette Pond Tupper Lake was and is a natural body of water…

  19. Paul says:

    Jim, Thanks for the correction.

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