By Gwendolyn Craig
Access to Great Camp Santanoni in the town of Newcomb has been a “big disappointment” to some people with disabilities, but the state Department of Environmental Conservation is working to rectify that.
In a request for information released Thursday, the department is seeking potential horse-and-driver teams for a new wheelchair-accessible wagon. The DEC also wants feedback on the area’s conditions and services.
Great Camp Santanoni, the only publicly owned retreat of its kind in the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park, is required to be accessible for people with disabilities from May through October. The requirement is part of a 2001 settlement between the state and a Warrensburg resident, Ted Galusha, who, with two others, sued the state under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Getting to the historic camp involves a 5-mile trip through forest preserve by non-motorized methods such as hiking, biking, skiing and horseback riding or horse and wagon.
Although the camp’s website advertises an ADA-accessible horse-drawn wagon, Brant Lake resident Scott Remington said the operator DEC contracted with has refused to haul it. Remington, who is a member of the DEC and Adirondack Park Agency’s Accessibility Advisory Committee and has a mobility disability after a logging accident, said the committee had planned a field trip to the great camp but was unable to go because no one could operate the new wagon.
The wagon the operator was hitching, which non-disabled people may ride for $40 per person, is not wheelchair accessible. Remington called it “a big disappointment” and wondered how the state could buy a wagon and not have anyone to operate it.
“That’s discrimination in my eyes,” he said.
The state has also made wheelchair ramps at the great camp, but without the accessible wagon, wheelchair users cannot get to them, Remington said.
Whitehall farmer Larry Newcombe, 71, the bidder who won the transportation contract, said it proved too difficult. The new, heavy wagon poses too much of a risk for his horses and riders on the sloping terrain, he said. He said he has tried to make the contract work, even purchasing Newcomb property and putting a cabin on it to have a base near the Santanoni camp. He used his own wagon and connected a trailer for people with disabilities, which the state deemed inappropriate.
Remington would rather see the state allow people with disabilities ride a golf cart to get to the site. He also wants the state to allow for special permits to drive to the great camp, something he said the Galusha settlement allows for until the horse and wagon is up and running.
“It’s not fair,” Remington said. “They spent all kinds of money on this stuff, and it just doesn’t work out. The horse and wagon, it’s a nice idea, but how many people haul a wagon around with a horse nowadays?” He’s mulling suing if access isn’t available this upcoming spring.
Jason Thurston, chair of the advisory committee, could also not be reached Thursday.
The 3,500-pound wagon, which Remington said DEC purchased for $37,000, can accommodate “13 people in forward-facing seats, five wheelchairs or a combination thereof,” according to the DEC. “Wheelchairs will be secured to specially designed tracks in the wagon floor like those found in many buses, to provide a safe, secure and enjoyable ride.” The DEC did not respond to verify the cost of the wagon.
Joe Zalewski, DEC’s director of Region 5, said the new request for information “will allow DEC to explore all of our options regarding this service, including learning about potential vendors, the needs and interests of the disabled community, and how we can continue to offer this accessible option in a reliable way in keeping with the character of the area.”
Depending on the responses from this solicitation of feedback, the DEC may release a request for quotations or bids at a later date, according to its proposal.
To view the RFI go to https://dec.ny.gov/sites/default/files/2024-01/RFI_Camp%20Santanoni%202024.pdf. Comments should be sent to the DEC by Feb. 23 to Comment.WagonRFI@dec.ny.gov or to NYSDEC, C/O Robert Ripp, Forester Re: Santanoni RFI, 1115 State Route 86, PO Box 296 Ray Brook, NY 12977-0296.
Top photo: In 2023, DEC purchased a new wagon with seats of two different sizes, supported by posts, and which can be reconfigured in the bed of the wagon. The maximum seating will accommodate 13 people in forward facing seats, five wheelchairs, or a combination thereof. Photo courtesy of the NYSDEC’s request for information document
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include information from the wagon operator.