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.
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.
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