ELIZABETHTOWN - The case of Adirondack Park Agency vs. Lewis Family Farm is now one for the books.
The lengthy legal battle over farmworker housing, which ended in an embarrassing loss for the state agency, officially concluded Thursday when Salim "Sandy" Lewis signed a settlement agreement and accepted a $71,690 check from state Assistant Solicitor General Julie Sheridan to cover the attorney fees he incurred in the case.
"This does bring closure, it is the end, and thank heavens for that," Lewis said. "This settlement represents a watershed for this region. What we've shown is that the APA is abusive and that when it is abusive, the courts will recognize this and make them pay for it."
Standing in the Essex County clerk’s office in Elizabethtown Thursday, Salim “Sandy” Lewis, left, holds up a check for $71,690 he received from the state to cover his attorney fees in his legal battle with the Adirondack Park Agency over farmworker housing. Also pictured are state Sen. Betty Little and Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
Thursday's signing of settlement papers, which took place in the Essex County clerk's office, came nearly two years after the legal merits of the case were decided by a ruling from the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court. That decision, which the APA declined to appeal, upheld a ruling from Acting Essex County State Supreme Court Judge Richard Meyer, who found that three cottages Lewis and his wife Barbara built to house farm workers on their 1,200-acre organic farm in the town of Essex do not require APA permits.
The Park Agency had claimed it had jurisdiction because the buildings were single-family dwellings built on land zoned for resource management. But the appeals justices agreed with Meyer's finding that the housing is exempt from the APA Act because it's for agricultural use.
Lewis then sued the state to recover more than $200,000 in legal fees and expenses he incurred. Last fall, Meyer ordered the state to pay $71,690. Lawyers for both the APA and Lewis Family Farm then appealed and cross-appealed various aspects of Meyer's ruling until they agreed to settle on the dollar figure set by Meyer.
State Sen. Betty Little, R-Glens Falls, who helped to facilitate the settlement, attended Wednesday's gathering along with Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, R-Willsboro. Little said the case set an important precedent by proving agricultural activities are exempt from APA jurisdiction.
"Agriculture is important for New York state and for Essex County," Little said. "It's important for all of us to know our food can be grown locally and that we can have agriculture within the Park. I think it was an important decision."
"It was a win for the people of the Adirondacks," Sayward added. "We are not saying the Park Agency is not right to enforce their law. They need to do that. But when they start doing things that clearly they know from the beginning are not correct, someone needs to stand up to them, and Mr. Lewis did."
Lewis said his objective wasn't to hurt the APA but to help it, and that he was fighting the agency's current administration, not its overall mission.
"The fact is that we have a great concept here and the wrong people running it," he said. "So I can understand the anger, the frustration and the despair, but maybe now is the time for hope."
Lewis said he is hopeful that Gov. Andrew Cuomo will change the direction of the agency through his appointments to the APA board. He said he's been asked by an official in the governor's office to provide names of people he'd recommend. There are several current and pending vacancies on the agency board, including the seat held by APA Chairman Curt Stiles, which expires this month.
Stiles was invited to Thursday's signing of settlement papers but didn't attend.
"With the signing of the settlement, the agency is happy to see this matter closed," APA spokesman Keith McKeever said earlier Thursday.
Lewis brought a group of five interns who are working on his farm to Thursday's gathering, along with Lewis Family Farm legal counsel Martina Baillie. John Privitera and Jacob Lamme, the attorneys who handled the litigation for Lewis, didn't make the trip up from Albany.