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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Trail Advocates Join Adirondack Rail-Trail Lawsuit

The Adirondack Scenic Railroad’s train on its way to Saranac Lake. Photo by Susan Bibeau.

Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates filed a friend-of-the-court brief this week in the lawsuit over the state’s plan to remove 34 miles of railroad tracks between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake and create a trail for bicycling, hiking, snowmobiling, and other pursuits.

ARTA joined the suit on the side of three state agencies being sued: the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Department of Transportation, and the Adirondack Park Agency.

The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, based in Utica, contends the plan to divide the state-owned Adirondack Rail Corridor into an 85-mile rail segment and a 34-mile trail segment is illegal. DEC and DOT developed the plan, and the APA approved it.

The society is the parent company of Adirondack Scenic Railroad. If the state’s plan is implemented, ASR will have to shut down a seasonal tourist train that runs 10 miles between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. However, it could continue running trains out of Utica and Old Forge. In fact, the state’s plan also calls for fixing up 45 miles of largely unused track between Big Moose and Tupper Lake, so the tourist trains will be able to travel farther than they can now.

The nonprofit ARTA formed in 2010 to push for removing the tracks and establishing a recreational trail all the way from Lake Placid to Big Moose or Old Forge—up to 90 miles. In the legal brief, ARTA’s lawyer, former Congressman Bill Owens, says ARTA didn’t get all it wanted in the state’s plan but nevertheless accepts the result.

Owens noted that the state held numerous public meetings, reviewed thousands of comments, and examined many studies and other documents before deciding that dividing the rail corridor into two segments would be the most beneficial use of the corridor.

“The result of this fundamentally rational and fair process by the Agencies was a plan that gave the Petitioner [the railway society] some of what it wanted and ARTA some of what it wanted,” Owens wrote. “Petitioner should not get a second bite at the apple through this lawsuit.” He accused the railroad of trying to “make an end run around the will of the public.”

ARTA Chairman Joseph Mercurio said in an affidavit filed with the brief that thousands of people, hundreds of businesses, and most municipalities along the corridor supported removing the tracks between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake or at least studying the idea.

“Unlike the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, Inc., ARTA chose to accept the result of New York State’s process,” said Mercurio, a Saranac Lake resident.

Both the legal brief and the affidavit were filed on Tuesday in New York State Supreme Court.

The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society contends, among other things, that the state has failed to comply with state Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation Law.

The rail corridor is on both the state and national Registers of Historic Places. The state acknowledges that tearing up tracks will result in an adverse impact on the historical resource, but it says it can mitigate the impact by fixing up depots and other structures, installing interpretive signs, and taking other actions.

In his affidavit, Mercurio said ARTA has suggested a number of other ways that the state and municipalities could repurpose the rail corridor. These include turning depots into visitor centers and cafes, displaying old steam engines on railroad sidings, and converting dining cars into snack bars.

“The history of the Corridor can be better protected, enhanced, and presented to the public by an invigorated multi-use recreational trail than by neglected and infrequently used scenic railroad,” Mercurio said.

State officials say they will decide on specific actions down the road, but Jonathan Fellows and Suzanne Messer, the attorneys for the railroad society, contend that isn’t good enough. They say the law requires the state to come up with a detailed mitigation plan long before undertaking any work.

“The removal of the rail infrastructure will destroy a unique historic resource in the name of erecting more trails in the Adirondacks, of which there are already many, and no true measures have been considered to mitigate that destruction,” they said in a memorandum of law filed with the court last week.

Owens noted that the rail corridor is used only for tourist trains, not moving freight or passengers in and out of the Adirondacks. “This means that even as a tourist railroad it does not maintain its full historic nature,” he said. “Instead, the Agencies have reasonably determined that the removal of the tracks and ties will leave in place the character of rail infrastructure. Therefore, minimal mitigation, if any, is required because the Corridor is not being destroyed, merely repurposed.”

The railroad society also contends that the track removal violates the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, which designates the rail line as a Travel Corridor. Owens, however, said the recreational trail will also be used for travel—by cyclists, walkers, snowmobilers, and others.

“If bicycle tourism and snowmobile tourism are not transportation, then Petitioner’s usage as a scenic railroad … would similarly not be transportation … because the purpose of a scenic railroad is not to move freight or even people,” he said. “The purpose of a scenic railroad is to enjoy the scenery.”

Acting State Supreme Court Justice Robert G. Main Jr. heard arguments in the case on January 30. He has prohibited the state from removing tracks until he issues a decision.

NOTE: Dick Beamish, the founder and former publisher of the Explorer, is active in ARTA. He has retired as publisher, but he remains on the Explorer board of directors. He had no input into this story. In fact, no one at ARTA knew I was writing this story.

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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