Judge orders more info from state on railroad title issues

An Adirondack Scenic Railroad train travels on Oct. 22 through Saranac Lake’s North Country Community College campus, where the land ownership has been in dispute. (Enterprise photo — Morgan Ryan)

A judge has ordered the state to provide more information on title issues and historic preservation of 34 miles of a travel corridor that the state plans to turn into a multi-use trail.

Acting state Supreme Court Justice Robert Main is dealing with a lawsuit the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society filed last April against the state departments of Transportation and Environmental Conservation, as well as the state Adirondack Park Agency. On Feb. 7 in Malone, Main ordered “that respondents shall provide a full and complete report to this court respecting the title and/or interest possessed by the State of New York along Segment 2 of the Remsen to Lake Placid Travel Corridor” by March 8.

The order also prevents the state or local governments from removing any rail structures from the corridor until these issues are resolved. The state had previously said rail and tie removal could begin as early as last fall or this spring.

In addition to the title issues, Judge Main also charged the state with providing, by the same date, a written update on how it plans to comply with the Parks, Recreation and Historical Preservation Law.

Once the state submits those two items, the railroad will need to respond by March 22.

Suzanne Messer, a lawyer for the railroad, declined to comment on the judge’s order.

The lawsuit seeks to dismiss the state’s plan to turn 34 miles of train tracks into a recreational trail between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake. ARPS currently operates seasonal tourist trains between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid under the Adirondack Scenic Railroad name.

The state’s plan would also rehabilitate 45 miles of train tracks south of Tupper Lake to Big Moose. ARPS also operates a seasonal tourist train between Big Moose and Utica.

The judge’s order stems from a hearing last month at the Franklin County Courthouse in Malone. It was the first hearing on the lawsuit after several delays, most of which stemmed from the discovery process regarding title issues.

During the early phases of the lawsuit, the state found it did not own fee title to several parcels of land: one at the Lake Placid train station, which is owned by the Lake Placid/North Elba Historical Society, and three centered around the North Country Community College campus in Saranac Lake. Judge Main raised questions about the title issue despite the state having letters of intent to transfer the property from the Saranac Lake parcel owners: NCCC, Franklin County and Essex County.

Lawyers for the railroad argued at the hearing that the state plan violates the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, that it raises historical preservation issues, that the state ignored economic data and that the decision to construct the trail was arbitrary and capricious.

Legal counsel from New York’s attorney general’s office, representing the state, countered that the plan follows the basic guidelines for a travel corridor and that state officials did review the economic data the railroad submitted, but is not required to adopt plans based on that data. Counsel also presented a letter of resolution pledging to create a mitigation plan for historic preservation.

According to the judge’s order, “it became clear that the issues affecting New York State’s title and interest to the property along Segment 2 of the Remsen to Lake Placid Travel Corridor remained unclear and had not been finally resolved.”

Lawyers for the state have said the owners of the parcels have all agreed to allow construction of the trail to go forward, but Judge Main found those assurances lacking.

The letter regarding historical preservation was submitted during the hearing, but the order says that “it also became clear that a plan to avoid or mitigate adverse impacts in compliance with the Parks, Recreation and Historical Preservation Law has not been developed or considered.”