In a lawsuit filed in State Supreme Court, the nonprofit organization contends that the plan to divide a state-owned railroad corridor into a rail segment and trail segment violates the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan and the state Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation Law.
It names as defendants the Adirondack Park Agency, APA Chairwoman Lani Ulrich, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and Basil Seggos, the DEC acting commissioner.
The lawsuit was filed in April, but ARPS did not publicize it until Tuesday, hours after Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the final approval of the state’s plan.
Drafted by DEC and the Department of Transportation, the plan calls for tearing up the tracks between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid to create a recreational trail for bicycling, hiking, snowmobiling, and other uses and repairing 45 miles of tracks between Big Moose and Tupper Lake that have fallen into disuse.
ARPS operates seasonal tourist trains, under the name Adirondack Scenic Railroad, at both ends of the 119-mile corridor. If the state’s plan is implemented, it will have to shut down a train that operates on ten miles of track between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid. However, it could extend its excursions on the other end of the line, running trains from Utica to Tupper Lake. ARPS, though, wants the state to fix up the entire line so it can run trains from Utica to Lake Placid.
The lawsuit lists three causes of action:
Travel Corridor. The rail line is classified as a Travel Corridor in the State Land Master Plan. Except for the rail line, all the Travel Corridors in the Park are highways. ARPS contends that if the tracks are replaced with a recreational trail, the rail line will no long be a Travel Corridor in the sense intended by the State Land Master Plan. “A Travel Corridor is not defined as a trail allowing for a range of recreational activities. It is defined in terms of highways and railroads,” the plaintiff’s lawyers assert in court papers. ARPS argues that the Adirondack Park Agency erred when it ruled in February that removing the tracks would not violate the State Land Master Plan.
DEC approval. Seggos signed off on the plan in March, according to the lawsuit. ARPS lawyers contend that his approval of the plan was based on “flawed and biased economic impact data.” They say he ignored contradictory data. Furthermore, ARPS says Seggos and other DEC officials refused to consider information that the society tried to present at a meeting in December (after the public comment period had ended). The lawsuit contends Seggos’s approval of the plan was “arbitrary and capricious” and should be nullified.
Historic preservation. The corridor and the rails are on both the federal and state registers of historic places. Under the state Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation Law, state agencies must avoid damaging historical resources or take steps to mitigate such damage. DEC has said it intends to install historical signs and repair old railroad buildings along the corridor. But the lawyers for ARPS assert that “the notion that destruction of this historic railroad can be ‘mitigated’ by a sign that [says] ‘once there was a railroad here’ is cynical and irrational.”
The railroad wants the judge to halt implementation of the state’s plan and force the state to draft a new management plan for the corridor.
APA spokesman Keith McKeever would not comment on the lawsuit except to say the state has yet to file a reply. State officials rarely comment on pending litigation.
In the past, DEC officials have asserted that the corridor will remain a Travel Corridor as long as it stays under the jurisdiction of DOT. The plan calls for DOT to continue to oversee the entire corridor, though DEC will manage the trail. DEC officials say tracks could be laid down again if there is a need in the future.
DEC also has said that the State Office of Historic Preservation has no objections to removing tracks as long as steps are taken to mitigate the adverse impact to the historic resource. The department intends to consult with the preservation office on how to do that, but the plan talks about installing signs explaining the history of the railroad and fixing up depots and other structures along the corridor for public use.
Joe Mercurio, the president of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, which supports removing the tracks, said he is disappointed that the railroad is going to court.
“Compromise clearly is not part of ASR’s vocabulary,” he said. “They want it all. It’s very selfish. I do not believe there is any rational basis for a lawsuit, and the lawsuit itself — which will be responded to by the state — will be at the expense of taxpayers. The only thing this will accomplish is more delays and, in my view, could come back to haunt ASR. As one of ARTA’s board members, Carl Knoch, points out, ‘You would have to be crazy to bring a lawsuit against the state agency that provides you with the privilege of running on their corridor. They are going to be their own undoing.’”
The state Department of Transportation, which manages the corridor, is not part of the suit even though it helped draft and approved the plan. The lawsuit seems to imply that DEC was behind the plan to remove the tracks. “The DEC, apparently at the behest of a wealthy few, is planning to destroy a historic and valuable transportation infrastructure,” the suit contends.
Photo by Susan Bibeau of ASR train outside Saranac Lake.