After months of delay, lawyers for the state and the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society squared off in court Monday over the future of a 34-mile stretch of tracks between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake.
At the end of the 45-minute hearing in Malone, acting State Supreme Court Justice Robert G. Main Jr. reserved decision on whether to block the state from tearing up the tracks and converting the corridor into a multi-use recreational trail.
The judge also asked the state to provide more information on the ownership of the railroad corridor.
When state officials drafted the proposal to remove the tracks, they said the state owned the whole corridor outright. However, the state later learned that it did not in fact own a parcel in Saranac Lake and one in Lake Placid. As a result, the hearing, originally scheduled for last summer, was delayed several times.
The parcel in Saranac Lake is jointly owned by North Country Community College, Franklin County, and Essex County. The parcel in Lake Placid, at the end of the line, is owned by the Lake Placid Historical Society.
Assistant State Attorney General Marie Chery-Seckhobo told Justice Main the landowners have agreed to let the state use their pieces of the corridor for the recreational trail and signed letters of intent to that effect.
Nevertheless, Main expressed concern that the state’s existing right of way on the parcels may not allow for uses other than a railroad. If the right of way does not allow a recreational trail, he asked, “isn’t the proposal doomed to failure?”
When the hearing ended, the judge asked lawyers from both sides to discuss the issue further in his chambers.
“We just need to provide more information regarding the state ownership,” Chery-Seckhobo said after emerging from the closed-door meeting.
Other state attorneys who attended the court hearing said they do not see the ownership issue as a major obstacle.
The right-of-way question did not come up until the end of the hearing. Earlier, Chery-Seckhobo and Jonathan Fellows, representing the railway society, summarized their arguments in the case, reiterating points from legal papers filed with the court.
The railway society is suing the Adirondack Park Agency, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and the state Department of Transportation over the plan to remove the tracks.
After numerous public meetings, DEC and DOT developed a controversial plan to divide the 120-mile corridor into a rail segment and a trail segment. Last year, the APA board ruled that the plan was authorized under the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan.
Under the agencies’ plan, the state would rehabilitate 45 miles of largely unused tracks between Big Moose and Tupper Lake and remove the 34 miles of tracks east of Tupper. This would enable the railway society to run tourist trains from Utica to Tupper Lake, but it would be forced to shut down a seasonal train that runs between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid.
In its lawsuit, the railway society contends that removing the tracks would violate the APA Act, the State Land Master Plan, and the state’s Historic Preservation Law. The suit makes three main legal arguments:
Travel Corridor. The rail corridor is designated as a Travel Corridor in the State Land Master Plan. The APA contends it will remain a Travel Corridor even if the tracks are removed, but Fellows argued that a Travel Corridor is meant for transportation, not recreation. “It’s about moving people from place to place,” he told Justice Main. “It’s not about enhancing recreational opportunities.”
Chery-Seckhobo countered that the definition of the Travel Corridor says nothing about tracks. Rather, it refers only to the “Remsen to Lake Placid railroad right-of-way” and state lands “immediately adjacent” to the corridor. In any event, she said the recreational trail will enable snowmobilers, bicyclists, and others to travel from one part of the Park to another. The state also says that the corridor will remain under the jurisdiction of DOT and that tracks could be restored if needed.
Rationale for decision. Fellows argued that the agencies relied on a biased study in concluding that dividing the corridor into two would provide a greater economic benefit than restoring rail service throughout the entire corridor. The study was done by Camoin Associates, which had prepared a similar study for Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates. Chery-Seckhobo, however, said the agencies reviewed other studies as well. In court papers, the state says it also interviewed experts and took into account 2,000 public comments.
Historic preservation. The corridor – including the tracks and buildings – is on both the state and national Register of Historic Places. The state concedes that removing tracks will have an adverse impact on the historic resources, but it says this can be mitigated by rehabilitating railroad buildings, erecting educational signs, and other actions. Fellows told the judge that the state should have prepared a mitigation plan before approving the track removal. Chery-Seckhobo then produced a document that she received last week and that outlines mitigation measures. After looking at it, Fellows remained unimpressed. “It’s not a mitigation plan,” he said. “They didn’t have a mitigation plan in place.”
The state hopes to begin removing the tracks this year.
Photo by Phil Brown: the railroad crossing over the Bog River south of Tupper Lake, a part of the rail corridor that the state plans to rehabilitate.