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Adirondack Explorer

Monday, March 27, 2017

State: Rail Trail Doable Despite Deed Questions

The rail corridor outside Saranac Lake. Photo by Mike Lynch.

Uncertainty about deeds held up for months the lawsuit filed against the state over its plan to remove tracks and create a 34-mile rail trail between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake.

The state thought it owned the entire rail corridor but discovered it does not have title to two parcels: a half-mile stretch near North Country Community College in Saranac Lake and a shorter stretch at the end of the line in Lake Placid.

Although the state now holds an easement allowing public access to both parcels, the easement will terminate if the tracks are removed.

In court papers, state officials say they have three options: buy the properties, acquire new easements, or appropriate the parcels. They say the landowners have agreed to work with the state to reach an agreement that will allow the rail trail to move forward.

However, the state also says it could create the rail trail even without the landowners’ cooperation.

Losing public access to the NCCC parcel, which is jointly owned by Franklin County and Essex County, would present the tougher challenge as it would create a gap in the trail. If that happens, the state says it can create trailheads at either end of the NCCC parcel.

“The State can also seek the cooperation from Saranac Lake to allow the trail to continue through the village and use existing sidewalks and public streets in order to connect the two ends of the trail,” according to an affidavit filed in the case.

The Tupper Lake-to-Saranac Lake segment would be about 25 miles long. The segment between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid would be about nine miles.

The Lake Placid parcel is owned by the Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society, which runs a museum in the depot. Presumably, if the state could not use this parcel, it could end the trail just before the parcel. However, this is not discussed in the court papers.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Transportation came up with the plan to split the 119-mile Adirondack Rail Corridor into a rail segment and a trail segment. The plan also calls for rehabilitating 45 miles of little-used track between Big Moose and Tupper Lake.

The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which is based in Utica, filed suit last year against DEC, DOT, and the Adirondack Park Agency, which ruled that the departments’ proposal complied with the Park’s State Land Master Plan.

If the rail-trail plan is implemented, the railway society will have to shut down a seasonal tourist train that runs between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. However, it could continue to run tourist trains in the Old Forge area.

In court papers filed this week, the railway society says a rail trail without the NCCC parcel, resulting in a gap in Saranac Lake, differs from the proposal initially put forth by the state. “The State has taken no steps to explore whether this patchwork approach is a feasible option,” the society’s lawyers wrote. “Nothing in the State’s affidavits indicate that anyone from the State has reached out to municipal officials in Saranac Lake to even discuss this option.”

The lawyers conclude: “The State cannot construct the recreational trail … without owning sufficient property rights to do so, and the removal of rail infrastructure to make way for a recreational trail that the State lacks the rights to construct would be irrational.”

Acting Supreme Court Justice Robert G. Main Jr. heard arguments in the case in January. Parties filed additional papers this month. Also, Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates filed a friend-of-the-court brief last week, taking the side of the state agencies.

The state had hoped to begin work on the rail trail this spring. However, the judge has prohibited the state from removing tracks until he issues a decision.

In court papers filed in early March, Assistant Attorney General Marie Chery-Sekhobo questioned the injunction, though she said the state is not contesting it. “The petitioner did not seek an injunction beyond that imposed [last fall] during the 60-day stay and the State did not have the opportunity to be heard on the restraining order,” she wrote. She cited an appellate court ruling, which declared that “orders enjoining, compelling or staying action by State officials should be granted only upon notice.”

 

Phil Brown

Phil Brown has been editing the Adirondack Explorer since 1999. When he isn't at his desk, he's usually out hiking, paddling, skiing, or doing something else important. You can follow his adventures and his musings on the Adirondacks in the Explorer and on this blog.

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