By Ry Rivard
An attorney for the state argued Friday that New York environmental regulators didn’t have to do a major study of Lower Saranac Lake’s health before approving a marina expansion there.
The argument came during a hearing for a lawsuit that pits former Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Thomas Jorling against his old department and the Adirondack Park Agency.
Jorling is suing to stop the expansion of two marinas on the lake until the state does a study of its water quality and ability to withstand human development.
Jorling, who left his post in Gov. Mario Cuomo’s administration in 1994 to work for the paper industry, has a vacation house on the lake that he claims will be affected by the addition of 73 boat spaces at the marinas. He alleges the state had a duty to study the lake and other lakes among 94,000 acres of land and water in the heart of the park before approving the marina expansion.
Attorneys for the state and the marinas’ owner, LS Marina, argued Jorling’s complaints are overblown. They cited figures that suggest only about a dozen more boats will be on the lake at any one time and argued that improving dilapidated marina facilities could improve conditions on the lake.
Joshua Tallent, an attorney for the state, said it makes no sense to decide the entire lake’s fate based on a single permit from a single developer.
“It would be, I submit, highly irrational for the APA to try to control the amount of boat traffic on the entire Saranac Chain of Lakes through the vehicle of one private permit,” he said during the hearing Friday. “It’s not fair and it’s not rational.”
Lower Saranac connects to other popular waterways in the Adirondack Park, a series of lakes known as the Saranac Chain.
Jorling’s attorney, Claudia Braymer, said the state’s argument amounted to saying the situation isn’t good now so it’s OK to make it a little worse.
“To say this is already a bad situation and, judge, let it be a little bit worse — I find that objectionable,” she said.
Friday’s hearing, held virtually in front of Essex County Judge Richard Meyer, comes in a closely watched case. Part of that has to do with Jorling’s involvement, as well as the broader issues Jorling is trying to raise in the case.
Jorling argues the Adirondack Park Agency and the Department of Environmental Conservation have repeatedly and illegally failed to study how much development and tourism the park can handle.
A ruling in Jorling’s favor could cause significant changes to regulations inside the park. Critics of the state’s approach say questions about “overuse” by hikers in the popular High Peaks stem from a similar failure by the state to grapple with issues of how much human activity the Adirondacks can handle.
The APA has argued that the marina expansion could improve the lake because new marina facilities would replace aging ones.
Show the study that proves that, Meyer told state attorney Tallent, in a series of questions where the judge questioned whether the Adirondack Park Agency had actually done its homework.
“I don’t think there is a study that is responsive to your question,” Tallent said, though he said some of the improvements are clear, like new plans to treat and control runoff and improve boat navigation.
Matthew Norfolk, an attorney for LS Marina, also tried to touch on broader issues in his argument to the judge. Tapping into arguments that the Adirondack Park’s environmental regulations are impeding development and hurting the economy, he said if his client lost, he fears for any other project that would boost the economy in the park.
“I fear all is going to be lost in the park,” he said. “I mean, what else can you do here?”
The judge also took an interest in questions about who owns the land beneath the marina. The confusion over ownership involves the land’s transfer back and forth after colonists pushed Native American tribes off vast swaths of their ancestral land. Then the state of New York sold much of that land to business partners of the land speculator Alexander Macomb in the late 1700s. In the years since, the state began buying back land in the area to preserve the Adirondack forest. For the past century, at least, the state has listed the underwater land where the marina is as its own, but recent research for this case revealed that the state does not appear to own the land under the water.
“What the state can say is we don’t own it,” Tallent told the judge
It’s not clear how the ownership issue could affect the outcome of the case. The state approved the expansion when it thought it owned the land. LS Marina argues if the state doesn’t own the land, then it does.
The judge gave no indication of when he intends to rule.
Jorling and the marina developer are also squaring off in a separate case. LS Marina sued Jorling for defaming the project in public remarks, including some published in the Adirondack Explorer-owned Adirondack Almanack. That is being dealt with separately in Franklin County’s court system.