Attorneys for the town, the Grimditch family and a pair of neighboring property owners appeared in Albany last week before a panel of five judges. Chris Morris reports.
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The Grimditch family began building two boathouses on Lake Placid in 2010, without town permits. Town officials want to penalize the property owners and have the buildings removed. State Supreme Court Judge Richard Meyer ruled in favor of the Grimditch family last year, stating that because Lake Placid is a navigable waterway, the state holds jurisdiction over zoning, not the town. That ruling, if upheld, could eliminate municipal zoning control over boathouses statewide, shifting authority to the state.
Mark Wilson is president of the Lake Placid Shore Owners Association. He says if Meyer’s ruling is upheld, it would mean chaos for shoreline development across the state.
“The argument, the nub of their argument, is that the only people responsible or accountable, the only authority overseeing this shoreline development, would be the DEC’s (Department of Environmental Conservation) navigation code, which because it’s navigation code has nothing to say about building,” Wilson said.
Wilson was at last week’s hearing. He says Justice Robert Rose referenced two prior court decisions: Higgins v. Douglas in 2003 and Beneke v. the Town of Santa Clara in 2006.
In Higgins v. Douglas, the Appellate Division ruled that North Elba did not have jurisdiction over the construction of a dock on Lake Placid. The court ruled the other way on Beneke v. the Town of Santa Clara, stating the town did have jurisdiction over a boathouse on Upper Saranac Lake.
“Judge Rose brought up the fact that this has to be settled (in a way) that really puts to rest these earlier, conflicting cases,” Wilson said. “It suggested to me that whatever comes from this process will kind of put to rest all of the legalities of who has control, authority over shoreline development.”
North Elba town Attorney Ron Briggs says he was pleased with how last week’s hearing played out.
Briggs says the case actually boils down to whether Lake Placid is considered public or private.
“Our position is that in 1793 the state of New York in the Macomb patent conveyed out about 100,000 acres of land in the Adirondacks, including Upper Saranac Lake and Lake Placid lake. And the state has not reacquired the lake bottoms to the area in question,” he said.
Briggs says two lawyers from the state Office of General Services, which maps state lands and lakes, were at the hearing and that both took the legal position that Lake Placid is private.
“The significance of that is, if it’s a public body – and that means the lake bottom – then the land-use code does not apply,” Briggs said. “That’s the legal issue. So this judge asked a lot of very pertinent questions about that issue, and at the end he said, ‘Given the fact that we’re all here today means that we made a mistake in our prior case law,’ which shows an intention by the court to, once and for all, clarify this legal issue.”
If Judge Meyer’s decision is upheld, it’s unclear how the state Department of Environmental Conservation would be able to enforce shoreline regulations, especially given recent cuts to the department.
Jim brooks, attorney for the Grimditch family, didn't return phone calls for this story.
(Mark Wilson, who was quoted in that story, is a political cartoonist whose work appears frequently on North Country Public Radio’s website.)