The controversial case involves a section of the route which is now used as part of the Jackrabbit ski trail.
Green groups say the outcome of the dispute will set a precedent for how road-closures are handled throughout the Adirondack Park.
But as Chris Morris reports, snowmobile activists and town leaders say the case has already been settled.
In 2009, former DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis dismissed a fine levied against Jim McCulley of Lake Placid.
Environmental conservation officers had accused McCulley of illegally driving his snowmobile and later his pickup truck on the Old Mountain Road, which they argued was part of the Sentinel Range Wilderness and off limits to motorized access.
But Commissioner Grannis disagreed, saying the road was never officially incorporated into the Forest Preserve. He ruled that decisions about the road and its use should be made by town officials from Keene and North Elba.
McCulley has since been reimbursed by the state to the tune of $50,000.
But following Grannis’s ruling, attorneys from DEC and the state Adirondack Park Agency filed motions challenging the notion that Old Mountain Road was, in fact, a town road. Environmental groups, like the Adirondack Council, also took action to challenge the ruling.
Grannis never responded to those filings, but just days before his term expired, acting commissioner Peter Iwanowicz issued a 12-page decision that allowed DEC, APA, and the Adirondack Council to seek further clarification of the Grannis ruling.
Iwanowicz said the three parties could seek out more information on a number of points, including motorized access and town maintenance of Old Mountain Road.
Matt Norfolk represented Jim McCulley during previous legal proceedings. He says the issues that APA, DEC and others are seeking clarification on are matters of law that have already been decided.
Norfolk adds that Grannis’s decision was based on administrative proceedings lasting upwards of four years.
“All of these issues that they seek to now have clarified were thoroughly argued, litigated, and explored in the administrative proceedings,” he said. “In addition, they were addressed and decided upon in the criminal action. And finally, these vary issues were fully argued and litigated in a two-day hearing in front of Magistrate Judge David Holmer in the Northern District of New York.”
But environmental groups say Grannis applied the wrong law when he made his decision on the Old Mountain Road case.
Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan contends that Grannis didn’t consider the implications of his decision for other, similarly-situated roads along the Forest Preserve.
“This is not a case where we wanted the state to take control of anything that wasn’t in its possession already,” he said. “We simply wanted the state to be able to determine whether motorized traffic would be allowed on certain sections of the Forest Preserve or not. That’s a decision that we believe should be made by those who own the Forest Preserve, which includes everybody in New York – not just the towns that happen to have the Forest Preserve located within their political boundaries.”
But town officials, like North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi, say they don’t need further clarification. He adds that town work crews put down new gravel on Old Mountain Road last year.
“We’ve maintained the road to where we have it presently blocked off, because we made an agreement with the town of Keene,” he said. “So nothing has changed as far as we’re concerned.”
Sheehan says he appreciates Politi’s position, but he doesn’t believe the council’s request for further clarification will affect the portion of the road North Elba has invested in.
“We’re talking about, essentially, the Jackrabbit Trail, which has been maintained mostly by the Ski Touring Council,” Sheehan said. “We believe that section of the former road was lawfully closed by the state and that it should remain that way.”
Politi says it’s unfortunate that Iwanowicz failed to contact the towns and make them party to the new proceedings.
“I never heard from him,” he said. “This is nonsense.”
But he expects that to change with Joe Martens now at the helm as acting DEC commissioner.
For his part, Jim McCulley says the requests for further clarification don’t change the fact that he won his case against the DEC. McCulley notes that one state judge, two federal judges, and the DEC’s administrative law judge – as well as former Commissioner Grannis – wrote opinions stating that the road was open.
“Mr. Iwanowicz, in just 35 days at the DEC, went through that entire record and found a problem and he wants to change it?” he said. “He was nothing more than a shill for the Adirondack Council to get their way. And now they’re going to seek clarification on something they already told themselves at DEC?”
Matt Norfolk, McCulley’s attorney, had asked for a sworn affidavit from Peter Iwanowicz. Norfolk says he wanted proof that Iwanowicz signed the clarification document before he stepped down as acting DEC commissioner. Administrative Law Judge James T. McClymonds has since confirmed that Iwanowicz made his ruling while still in office.
The various parties seeking clarification on the Grannis ruling were required to submit their paperwork to Judge McClymonds last week.