FacebookTwitterInstagram Youtube
Adirondack Explorer

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Court: Old Mountain Road not legally abandoned

Old Mountain Road

Jim McCulley walks his dog on Old Mountain Road a few years ago. Photo by Susan Bibeau

 

A state court handed down another decision Thursday in the fifteen-year battle over the status of the Old Mountain Road section of the Jackrabbit Ski Trail, declaring that the road was not legally abandoned.

In its 5-0 decision, the Appellate Division overturned an administrative decision issued in 2015 by state Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joseph Martens.

In his decision, Martens had vacated a 2009 ruling by an earlier commissioner, Pete Grannis, who found the popular ski trail was still a town road under the law. Grannis, in turn, was upholding a decision by an administrative law judge in the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

After Grannis’s ruling, DEC lawyers asked the commissioner to reopen the matter to clarify some legal issues.

Eventually, Martens ruled that, contrary to the decisions of the law judge and Grannis, the three-and-a-half-mile stretch of road had in fact been legally abandoned.

The Appellate Division judges said Martens exceeded his authority in vacating the Grannis decision, saying a motion to clarify an issue cannot be used to “substantively amend” a law judge’s decision.

In reversing Grannis, Martens relied heavily on the 1987 Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, which stated that Old Mountain Road “has been closed.” The Appellate Division judges, however, said the determination as to whether a road has been abandoned or not hinges on actual use—by vehicles and pedestrians.

“The Master Plan’s bare statement that Old Mountain Road had been ‘closed’ as of 1987 was simply another morsel of proof bearing on the factual question of whether the road had been legally abandoned through nonuse,” Justice Robert C. Mulvey wrote.

Old Mountain Road Lake Placid

A view of Old Mountain Road from Mountain Lane in Lake Placid. Photo by Mike Lynch

The Old Mountain Road traverses the Sentinel Range Wilderness, where motorized use is prohibited. As a result of Thursday’s decision, the towns of North Elba and Keene could open the road to snowmobiles or other motorized use. In the past, however, the towns have not done so, apart from allowing limited ATV use in hunting season.

The town of North Elba, which includes Lake Placid, filed suit in the Appellate Division after Martens ruled the road had been abandoned.

The Adirondack Council had filed a legal brief siding with DEC. The council issued a statement saying it was disappointed with the decision and was weighing its options. DEC also said it is reviewing the decision.

One option would be to seek permission to appeal to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest tribunal. However, the Appellate Division suggested another option in a footnote to its opinion.

“Our holding does not necessarily leave DEC without recourse,” Mulvey wrote. “In their briefs, both DEC and the Adirondack Council maintain that closure of Old Mountain Road is necessary to protect certain state objectives relevant to the Adirondack Park. Without taking any position on that issue, we note that Highway Law Section 212 vests DEC with the authority to order the abandonment or discontinuance of a road passing over or through lands within the Forest Preserve whenever a state purpose is endangered by such road.”

The Old Mountain Road saga began in 2003 when James McCulley, president of the Lake Placid Snowmobile Club, took his snowmobile on the road. He was ticketed by DEC and found guilty in town court in Keene, but the conviction was overturned by a county court judge who said the road had not been legally abandoned.

Two months after the county judge’s ruling, McCulley was cited for driving his pickup truck on Old Mountain Road. After a hearing, a DEC judge recommended that the charge be dismissed. Given the road’s heavy recreational use, the judge concluded that the road had not been abandoned. Grannis later adopted those findings and dismissed the charge.

Keep up with news of the Park. Subscribe to the Adirondack Explorer today: https://www.adirondackexplorer.org/subscription-center

Phil Brown

Contributor Phil Brown was editor of the Adirondack Explorer from 1999-2018. When he isn't at his desk, he's usually out hiking, paddling, skiing, or doing something else important.

4 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Big implications for sure.

  2. David Dales says:

    Hi Phil. So in plain English, I am deducing that the town won and we lost. The road will now be open to motorized vehicles, but in a limited fashion.

    Is this correct? Thanks as always for your information.

    Dave

    • Phil Brown says:

      The town won, and the state lost. The state could take other steps to legally close the road. If it doesn’t, the towns will maintain control of the road. In theory, they could refurbish the road and open it to motor vehicles, but they have shown little interest in doing that. As I recall, Keene allowed local residents to use ATVs during hunting season, but I don’t believe many took advantage of the opportunity.

  3. Lulu says:

    So in any case, the Town HAS to legally abandon the road. I am dealing with a case very close to this. the tarmac ends and the gravel road continued. The gravel roads leads to abutting property owners, where there is vehicle access, before turning into atv, hikers snowmobiles etc, due to lack of maintainence. My question is, all roads must go through the legal procedure, with official filed resolution in order to be deemed abandoned ?

Leave a Reply