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Helms flying service. (Photo: Used by permission from Tom Helms)
Helms flying service. (Photo: Used by permission from Tom Helms)

Judge limits disabled access suit

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There's been an ongoing fight in the Adirondacks over the use of motorized vehicles and float planes in remote areas. Supporters say four-wheelers, float planes and power boats are an appropriate tool to help people with disabilities reach recreation areas. But environmentalists say there are plenty of handicap-accessible lakes and trails, and they see the lawsuit as part of an effort to weaken bans on motorized recreation in the back country.

The long-running battle culminated in a federal lawsuit filed against the state two years ago by a group of disabled men who say they've been denied access to more than three dozen remote ponds and lakes in the Adirondacks. Now, a judge has gutted much of the lawsuit, but has still allowed it to move forward. Chris Knight has the latest.

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Chris Knight
Adirondack Correspondent

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The lawsuit was filed against the Adirondack Park Agency and the Department of Environmental Conservation in 2010 by six disabled men. They claim the state's ban on the use of floatplanes and other motorized vehicles  to access a group of 38 lakes and ponds in wilderness areas in the Park violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Maynard Baker, the former Warrensburg town supervisor, is the lead plaintiff in the case. “The able-bodied can still walk in,” he told NCPR last year. “For the disabled, the disabled American veterans, the only way they have in there is by seaplane. They took that right away from our veterans and left it open for the able-bodied. That’s discrimination, and that’s my reason for suing the state.”

The two main arguments in the lawsuit were that the state failed to provide the men with a “reasonable accommodation” to access the lakes, and that the state’s rules and regulations have had a “disparate impact” on people with disabilities.

In a June 22 decision, U.S. Northern District Chief Judge Gary Sharpe granted the state's motion to dismiss the "reasonable accommodation" claims filed by all the plaintiffs except Baker. Baker had contacted DEC to try and access the lakes by floatplane in 2009 but was turned down. But the judge said the five other men "never sought an accommodation from DEC."

Sharpe also found the plaintiffs,  “failed to raise even an inference of discriminatory impact” in trying to prove that the state’s rules on motorized access in the Park have a "disparate impact" on the disabled. The judge also agreed that the DEC and the APA are immune from this type of suit, dismissing them as defendants, but keeping the heads of those agencies in the litigation. The net result is the case will go forward but only under the lead plaintiff, Maynard Baker.

The attorney for Baker and the other men, Matthew Norfolk of Lake Placid, said in a statement that he was “happy and relieved” that the lawsuit can continue. He also said he expects the men who were dismissed as defendants will file a formal request with the DEC to access certain wilderness lakes via floatplane. If the agency fails to provide them with a “reasonable accommodation,” Norfolk said they can re-file their lawsuit against the state. “The only thing to be lost is time,” Norfolk said.

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