In a February 7 order, acting State Supreme Court Justice Robert G. Main Jr. requested more information on the ownership of the rail corridor and on the state’s plans to comply with historic-preservation law.
Until the judge issues a ruling, the state is barred from removing the tracks. The state hopes to begin the work this year.
The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society is suing the state over its plan to convert the thirty-four-mile corridor into a recreational path for biking, snowmobiling, hiking, and other activities.
The society runs the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which operates a seasonal tourist train between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid. This operation will cease if the tracks are removed.
In a hearing on January 30, the railroad’s lawyer, Jonathan Fellows, argued that the decision to remove the tracks violates the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan and the state historic-preservation law. He also contended that the state relied on faulty economic data.
Assistant State Attorney General Marie Chery-Seckhobo rebutted these arguments, but at the end of the forty-five-minute hearing, the judge zeroed in on another issue: ownership of the corridor.
When they developed the plan, state officials thought New York State owned the entire 120-mile corridor, which extends from Remsen to Lake Placid. Last year, they learned that two parcels—one in Saranac Lake, the other in Lake Placid—are not in state ownership. This discovery led to delays in the court proceedings.
At the hearing, Chery-Seckhobo said the owners of the two parcels do not object to the state’s plan and have signed letters to that effect. The Saranac Lake parcel is owned by Essex County, Franklin County, and North Country Community College. The one in Lake Placid is owned by the Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society.
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?” After oral arguments ended, he asked lawyers from both sides to discuss the issue further in his chambers.
In his February 7 order, Main described the unanswered property-rights questions as “significant.” He told the state to provide “a full and complete report to this Court respecting the title and/or interest possessed by the State of New York” along the corridor. He gave the state until March 8 to submit the report and the railroad until March 22 to respond.
The judge also ordered the state to provide a report by March 8 explaining how it plans to comply with historic-preservation law. The railroad will again have until March 22 to reply.
The entire 120-mile corridor, including tracks and buildings, is on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. The state concedes that removing the tracks will diminish historical resources, but it says the loss can be mitigated by rehabilitating railroad buildings, erecting educational signs, and other actions.
At the hearing, Fellows argued that the state should have prepared a mitigation plan before approving the track removal. Chery-Seckhobo then produced a document that she received the previous 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 railway society, which is based in Utica, is suing the Adirondack Park Agency, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and the state Department of Transportation. 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 complied with the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan.
Under the agencies’ plan, the state would rehabilitate forty-five miles of largely unused tracks between Big Moose and Tupper Lake and remove the thirty-four miles of tracks east of Tupper.
The plan is often described as a compromise. Adirondack Scenic Railroad also runs tourist trains in the Old Forge area. Although it would have to give up its Lake Placid operation, it would be able to expand its operation on the southern end of the corridor, running trains all the way from Utica to Tupper Lake. Once the tracks are fixed up, however, the state will solicit bids from potential operators. There is no guarantee Adirondack Scenic Railroad will win the bidding.
One of the main legal issues is whether removing the tracks will violate the State Land Master Plan. The master plan designates the rail corridor as a Travel Corridor. Last year, the APA concluded that it would remain a Travel Corridor even if the tracks were removed, but at the court hearing, Fellows argued that a Travel Corridor is meant for transportation, not recreation.
It’s about moving people from place to place,” he said. “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.
Fellows also 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, a supporter of the rail trail. 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 two thousand public comments.
It’s uncertain when Justice Main will issue a ruling. His office said that will depend, in part, on the responses he gets from the parties.
Click the link below to read the judge’s order.
Note: The above article will appear in the March/April issue of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine. Dick Beamish, the founder of the Explorer, is one of the founders of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.
Photo by Susan Bibeau: Adirondack Scenic Railroad train outside Saranac Lake.