On the wrong side of the law, the facts and history

Without maintenance by the Adirondack Railway Presevation Society, the rail corridor is already starting to flood and wash away between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, as seen Oct. 7.
(Photo provided — Doug Vensel)

Without maintenance by the Adirondack Railway Presevation Society, the rail corridor is already starting to flood and wash away between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, as seen Oct. 7. (Photo provided — Doug Vensel)

That headline is a capsule description of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates and the state following Justice Main’s ruling on the rail trail plan. Let’s start with two items: the corridor classification and the title issue. ARTA claims these are minor and easily fixed. They’re wrong — and to appreciate just how wrong, go back to when the 1996 unit management plan was coming up for review.

ARTA developed the rail trail plan with the review in mind. They paid for studies that claimed turning the corridor into a rail trail down to Old Forge was the “best use” and lobbied Albany. The governor’s office bought it, and the Alternative 7 “compromise” emerged. It was used to justify breaking off the Tri-Lakes into a rail trail under Department of Environmental Conservation control, with the rest given to the Department of Transportation for the railroad.

Politically, this looks like a no-brainer. Rail trails are trendy and come with an aggressive national lobby. It’d be cheaper than the 1996 UMP rails-with-trails plan. Everyone would get some of what they wanted, DOT and DEC would stop butting heads, and the governor would get credit for it while pleasing powerful political interests — all at the same time.

The review process started with the desired conclusion and cut the facts to fit. (Why else was the impact of the Rail Explorers discounted by the review process?) The playing field was tilted in ARTA’s favor. Hearings were originally centered where they were loudest; objections to the plan from outside the Tri-Lakes were discounted. Rail supporters were told their track record on the southern end of the line had no bearing on the north end, and so on.

Meanwhile ARTA trash-talked the railroad and promised miracles from the trail that can’t be kept. All of the cost-benefit projections and plans for the rail trail are garbage. They are based on assumptions that are wrong.

ARTA assumed all the activities in the corridor (except trains) could continue if the tracks were pulled. The law says they can’t — without the rails, the corridor must be reclassified. ARTA also assumed the state had full ownership of the corridor, so no land acquisition costs. The state does not, and has admitted so in court.

In effect, ARTA has been selling luxury condos it doesn’t own in a house of cards built on a foundation of sand. ARTA and the state were warned repeatedly about the corridor, the title issues and other problems. (Some were raised as far back as the 1996 UMP.) ARTA, DOT, DEC and the Adirondack Park Agency chose to ignore them. They should have no credibility at this point.

ARTA now claims the classification can be “tweaked” with a few word changes and/or amending it. If that becomes the new standard, there’ll be no end to land-use battles in the Park. Everyone serious about protecting the Adirondacks should join in defending Justice Main’s ruling.

The corridor ownership question can’t be tweaked away. Two parcels were identified in court where the state only has an easement for the rails. Remove them, and the land reverts to the owners. State claims of no other title problems still need to be confirmed. It is impossible to know how much it will cost to build the trail if the rails are removed and the state loses control of the corridor. It also means the rails can’t be put back later if the state changes its mind.

Without the court challenge, ARTA’s plan would have succeeded — and everyone would have to deal with the consequences. Indeed, ARTA itself might make things fall apart. ARTA includes factions united only to get rid of the rails. Snowmobilers want the rails gone — they don’t need a multi-user trail. Wilderness people want the rails gone — and snowmobilers shut out. Not-in-my-back-yard people want the rails gone — and they’re not crazy about the trail once they get that done. A whole new round of fighting over the corridor would follow.

And the historic preservation issues still remain — the judge found ARTA and the state had done exactly nothing to follow preservation laws. Three counts and you’re out!

Keep the rails, no problems — and it’s still possible to have a trail system in the corridor. The chief excuse for not doing so has always been cost. All the benefits ARTA claims a trail will produce more than justify the cost of building trails around the rails (assuming ARTA actually believes its own claims).

People who truly want a trail should turn away from ARTA and its failed leadership. There are other groups with corridor trail plans. The rail community has been waiting to partner on trail development for over 20 years now.

Rail supporters have been vindicated, but at a cost. The Tri-Lakes lost all the visitors who would have come for the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and the Rail Explorers this year. The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society has had to spend money for the court case that could have been used for the railroad. Under DEC control, the rail corridor is already starting to flood and wash away. ARPS will have to clean up their mess. Under other circumstances, a lawsuit to recover damages would not be out of order. ARPS just wants to move on. There’s work to do.

ARTA supporters warn Gov. Cuomo is backing them and they will prevail. Perhaps ARTA’s Lee Keet should listen to his own words instead. One day before the court’s ruling on the rail trail, Mr. Keet commented on an article on the Adirondack Almanack by Pete Nelson, criticizing DEC and the APA for caving in to the governor’s plans for Boreas Ponds. Here’s what Mr. Keet had to say — it fits here as well.

“September 25, 2017 at 8:42 am — Well said Pete. We need a lot more pressure on the commissioners to do their job as defined in the law. The Governor’s opinion should have some weight, but this is a democracy that conducts its business under the rule of law.”

Well said, Mr. Keet.

Larry Roth lives in Ravena.

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