Headlined at this month’s meeting of the Adirondack Park Agency was a vote by the APA members to amend the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (SLMP) to allow Rail Trails to be added to the definition of a Travel Corridor, and to support a rail trail in the SLMP’s Travel Corridor management guidance.
Prior to the APA decision, which like all Master Plan amendments must be ratified by the Governor, rail trails were not defined or authorized under the SLMP’s Travel Corridor overlay classification. Travel Corridors applied only to the strip of land constituting the roadbed and right of way of state and interstate highways and the Remsen to Lake Placid railroad right of way, as well those state lands immediately adjacent to these facilities. Such facilities had to be transportation related- not just recreational.
Now, rail trails, with or without the rails, will be added as a potential recreational use within Travel Corridors. In practical effect, once the Governor signs the amendment the State Land Master Plan will present no further legal obstacle to the State’s desire to remove the rails between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake in favor of the construction of an all-recreational trail on this segment, known as Segment 2. A revised unit management plan for the travel corridor must be drafted, commented upon, revised accordingly and approved before that happens.
In the APA press release this past week, agency leaders were quick to pat themselves on the back. For example, this comment from DEC Commissioner Seggos: “Governor Cuomo understands the power of the Adirondack Park to draw millions of outdoor enthusiasts from around the world to New York to experience its unrivaled natural beauty. The proposed revisions to the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan will allow DEC to improve and enhance these critical travel corridors to accommodate and support increased recreational use that will boost regional economies in a manner that is protective of this precious natural resource. DEC was proud to partner with the Adirondack Park Agency and involved stakeholders on these improvements that strike the delicate balance to responsibly and sustainably promote and protect New York’s magnificent North Country.”
The commissioner’s quote, and that of the APA read as if the DEC and APA struck the “delicate balance” from the outset of this lengthy, controversial process to convert the rails to a trail. APA staff, however, reminded their members that a lawsuit had intervened, brought by Adirondack Railway Preservation Society. That suit resulted, in part, in a Supreme Court decision of September, 2017. Judge Robert Main rejected the DEC’s and DOT’s revised unit management plan and the APA’s SLMP conformance decision which purported to authorize the removal of the rails to create an all-recreational trail from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake. Judge Main’s decision forced the APA to go back and amend the Master Plan, or SLMP, which APA just did this week.
At its core, Judge Main’s decision to reject the State’s actions of 2016 upheld what the Master Plan unequivocally says – that a unit management plan, or UMP, must comply with and cannot amend the Master Plan itself. NYS DEC, DOT and APA had attempted to use the Remsen to Lake Placid Travel Corridor UMP amendment of 2016 to alter the SLMP itself. The judge ruled that attempt improper, arbitrary and capricious.
Here are some relevant excerpts from Judge Main’s 2017 ruling:
“Approval and implementation of the 2016 UMP is an impermissible circumvention of the APA Act. It does not conform with the SLMP or either of the interagency memoranda quoted above. Segment 2, as intended by respondents, is not a conforming use of the land. The rationalization by respondents that a multi-recreational use trail is qualified for continuation as a travel corridor is not based in reason. It defies common sense. The Court rejects this contention as irrational and, hence, arbitrary and capricious.”
“ Converting Segment 2 to a “recreational trail suitable for … walking, running, biking, cross-country skiing,snowmobiling, and use by … Olympic … athletes constitutes a reclassification beyond the authority of the 2016 UMP. It is an impermissible amendment to the SLMP. It also ignores the express classification concerns raised in the 1996 UMP.
“The 2016 UMP cannot amend the SLMP to create a new classification or to reclassify all or part of units of land. The Court need not, and does not, determine into which of the other classifications such a newly created Segment 2 multi-recreational use trail would fall. The Court simply finds that the change from a railroad to a multi-use recreational trail in Segment 2 removes it from the definition of travel corridor.”
Judge Main’s decision has legal consequences that go beyond the Remsen-Lake Placid Railway. The judge’s ruling confirms that the State Land Master Plan has legal teeth. He opined that the SLMP is not just legal “guidance,” as some in authority have claimed, but rather has the force and effect of law, as every Governor should realize because the SLMP is part of the Executive Law and was placed there by the APA Act enacted by our State Legislature. A Unit Management Plan, whether for this transportation corridor, or for the High Peaks Wilderness area, or for the Essex Chain of Lakes Primitive area, or for any other unit of State Land cannot amend the Master Plan itself.
If our state agencies had embraced the SLMP as law they are required to follow in this case rather than “guidance” they are free to overlook when expedient, the SLMP could have been amended to allow rail trails on Travel Corridors two years ago, and a lawsuit and all the costs associated with going to court (on all sides) potentially avoided. One way to avoid future conflicts like this is for the APA to finally draft and enact regulations for the SLMP.
The final sentence of Appendix I of the State Land Master Plan reads the same today as it read when the SLMP was first signed by Governor Rockefeller in 1972: “The agency and department are hereby authorized to develop rules and regulations necessary, convenient or desirable to effectuate the purposes of this section.” SLMP rules have proven necessary for years. Apparently, they have not proven convenient or desirable by our state agency leaders because they have never been shown the light of day.
In Adirondack Park at a Crossroad – A Road Map for Action (2015), Adirondack Wild wrote: “As we have demonstrated, both the APA and DEC are not adhering to key sections of the SLMP despite the fact that it is has the force and effect of law. Enforceable regulations should be immediately undertaken by the APA, in consultation with DEC.”
Photo of railroad spur near Newcomb that could become a future travel corridor and rail trail.