By Gwendolyn Craig
Saranac Lake Marina’s expansion project is temporarily on hold again, after an Essex County judge signed a restraining order on Jan. 6 preventing any work. The project could be on hold indefinitely, depending on the outcome of a new lawsuit.
After approximately seven years of working on applications and responding to other litigation, LS Marina received final Adirondack Park Agency approvals from the board during a September meeting. The marina was moving ahead on its plans to increase boat storage capacity from 219 to 292 boats, add covered dock slips, provide additional rentals and tour opportunities and expand marina services.
Thomas Jorling, former commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, sued marina owners LS Marina, the Adirondack Park Agency and the DEC for “many legal errors” in the approval of the expansion. Barbara Rottier, former legal counsel for the APA, provided testimony in favor of Jorling’s suit.
The two former state officials argued that the APA failed to consider adverse impacts to the Adirondack Park; failed to consider required criteria for issuing a shoreline setback variance; failed to conduct a boat carrying capacity study of Lower Saranac Lake as required in a management plan; failed to consider wetlands impacts; and approved an illegal project on the state forest preserve. Jorling also owns property on Lower Saranac Lake.
Matthew Norfolk, attorney for the marina owners, called the proceeding “frivolous” and “egregious.”
“I’m confident they’re going to stand up and defend DEC’s and APA’s determination,” Norfolk said about the attorney general’s office. “They spent a lot of resources reviewing this,” he added of APA and DEC.
Spokespeople for both state agencies said Thursday they do not comment on pending litigation.
“I was excited to find a way to bring a historic Saranac Lake landmark into the modern age creating a cleaner, greener and user-friendly access for the people to fully enjoy a beautiful chain of lakes,” Mike Damp, principal of LS Marina, said in a news release. “It’s sad that someone looking to improve commercial property or create a business in the Tri-Lakes area sees such opposition.”
Judge Richard Meyer signed the temporary restraining order on Jan. 6, with a court date on the preliminary injunction slated for Feb. 10.
Claudia Braymer, attorney for Jorling, said they hope the court will award a preliminary injunction. This would forbid the marina owners from any construction while the case moves forward.
“The expansion of the marina threatens the ‘forever wild’ protection given to Lower Saranac Lake, much of which is owned by the State and is part of the Forest Preserve, and the project should not have been approved by APA,” Braymer said in an email.
Jorling’s lawsuit reflects similar sentiments he made during a public comment process on the expansion project. While the majority of public comments made about the project were in its favor, environmental nonprofits and some retired state officials spoke against the approval process. Some called for a special hearing so remaining questions could be answered.
For example, Jorling’s suit is also looking for the court to declare that the bed and waters of Lower Saranac Lake are classified as wild forest under the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. That could impact many development projects on water bodies in the Adirondacks.
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Jorling and others, too, had said APA’s approval of the marina expansion would set a precedent and “impact private shoreline property on waterways throughout the Adirondack Park.”
The precedent concerns led APA counsel to conduct a presentation about how it did not have jurisdiction over marinas, though based on affidavits from Jorling and Rottier, they still don’t agree.
Jorling submitted comments about the project to the APA, and provided them to the Adirondack Almanack, a public forum owned by the Adirondack Explorer that publishes commentary. Jorling’s comments, at times, referenced figures from outdated LS Marina application documents.
LS Marina sued Jorling at the end of September for defamation, seeking no less than $5 million in damages. Court records show the marina owners believed Jorling’s comments misled the public and encouraged people to submit comments against the proposed expansion.
Jorling countersued in December, denying the charges and arguing the defamation suit was meant to harass and intimidate him. Norfolk declined to comment on that lawsuit.
Jorling isn’t the only one LS Marina is suing for speaking out against the project. Records show LS Marina is suing William and Patricia Curran, Judith Landes, Frederick Roedel, Charles Wilson and Acme of Saranac. Those individuals were part of a separate lawsuit regarding who owned land at the bottom of the lake, and LS Marina is arguing that a settlement prevents them from commenting against the marina expansion.
Norfolk said the temporary restraining order Braymer and Jorling have secured does hurt his client and the project, but he’s hopeful the court will rule in LS Marina’s favor.
“If there is some sort of injunction, we are going to demand that Mr. Jorling issue a bond or an undertaking with the court so when we win this Article 78, the damages we sustain for this delay will be recovered,” Norfolk said. “It’s going to be substantial numbers.”
Article 78 refers to a court proceeding where a state body or officer’s decision is reviewed.
Jorling is optimistic, too. He hopes the court will “send the matter back to APA for more meaningful consideration of the project’s impacts and how to minimize those impacts.”
The lawsuit comes just weeks after APA Board member Chad Dawson resigned over what he viewed as the agency’s lack of discussion over development projects and their long-term impacts on the environment.