LAKE PLACID - A state appeals panel ruled Thursday that the town of North Elba does have jurisdiction over boathouses on Lake Placid, a decision seen as precedent-setting for municipalities statewide.
The state Supreme Court Appellate Division's Third Judicial Department also said it had ruled incorrectly on similar cases in the past, cases to which Essex County Supreme Court Judge Richard Meyer referred in 2011 when he ruled that North Elba's land-use code didn't apply to two boathouses built by the Grimditch family.
Meyer had ruled that because Lake Placid is a navigable waterway, the state holds jurisdiction over zoning, not the town.
Ron Briggs, attorney for North Elba, said town officials and adjacent property owners are pleased with the ruling, which reinstates a suit the town brought against William Grimditch Jr. and his family.
"It's what we thought it should be all along, and the Appellate Division agreed with us," he said. "What's interesting is that it dealt with a very, very complex area of law in a way that neither the town nor the Grimditches thought it would."
"It's a landmark decision that defines the rights of landowners on private lakes and protects them against illegal structures," said attorney John Privitera, who represented the adjacent property owners in the matter.
Lake Placid attorney Jim Brooks, who represents the Grimditch family, said Thursday he was reviewing the decision and planned to discuss it with his clients today.
"We're surprised that they reversed two long-standing decisions, the Higgins case and the Mohawk Valley case, which of course we were relying on and Judge Meyer was relying on," Brooks said. "And they announced (the cases) are no longer the law of the state of New York. That's my first reaction. That's what precedent is for.
"If they had decided not to reverse the decisions, we would have won," he added. "It's a significant decision for my clients."
Briggs said the court, in making its decision, performed a state "law review analysis" relative to lakes, rivers and riparian rights. He said the decision was thoughtful, thorough and well-done, and brought clarity to past court decisions.
The Grimditch family began building two boathouses on Lake Placid in 2010, without town permits. Town officials sought to penalize the property owners and have the buildings removed.
The town land-use code states that a boathouse must be an ancillary structure, meaning it must accompany a primary structure. Neither boathouse on the Grimditch property meets that requirement. The smaller of the two structures also violates town setback rules because it's too close to neighboring properties owned by the McMillin and Moccia families, represented by Privitera.
The Grimditch family argued that because Lake Placid is a navigable waterway that falls under state Navigation Law, the town's land-use code wasn't applicable. Brooks referenced a previous court case, Higgins v. Douglas, in which the Appellate Division ruled North Elba did not have jurisdiction over the construction of a dock on Lake Placid.
Judge Meyer rejected the town's argument that the state gave up ownership of Lake Placid in the 1793 Macomb Patent, and he ruled that because the state operates a boat launch on the lake, the waters couldn't be considered privately owned.
Meyer also ruled that the boathouses fell under the jurisdiction of the State Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code. He ordered a hearing on sanctions against the town for pursuing action against the Grimditch family, and that's when the town and the neighboring property owners filed an appeal.
"We agree with (Meyer) that Lake Placid was not part of the Macomb Patent and that the Navigation Law is applicable to the lake," Thursday's ruling states. "We also agree that defendants' boathouses are structures subject to the SBC (State Building Code).
"Nevertheless, we cannot agree that the Navigation Law preempts the power of local municipalities to administer and enforce local land use laws by conferring upon the State exclusive jurisdiction over structures in the navigable waters of the state."
The court also ruled that Lake Placid is not owned by the state "in its sovereign capacity," and the state's jurisdiction doesn't pre-empt local land-use laws. The court said because most of Lake Placid falls within the town's boundaries, the land-use code is applicable.
As part of its ruling, the Appellate Division said previous decisions which suggest "Navigation Law displaces local land use laws on navigable waters that are not owned by the State in its sovereign capacity" should no longer be followed.
Briggs said the appeals panel overturned itself.
"So now that the land-use code is applicable and they built without permits and that was improper, we have to go back now and take a look at the complaint that we filed in which we asked the court to force the removal of the boathouses as well as impose fines and sanctions for the improper construction of them," he added.
The Grimditch family belongs to the Lake Placid Shore Owners Association, but that group sided with the town, providing a friend-of-the-court brief in support of North Elba. SOA President Mark Wilson said his group depends on the land-use code to protect Lake Placid's shoreline.
"Without it, the shoreline would be trashed," Wilson said.
The Grimditch family had filed for the necessary permits by the time the town took action against them, but the Appellate Division said the town's complaint referenced a specific time frame prior to the permit applications.
The Appellate Division also reversed Meyer's decision to deny a request to intervene, filed by the McMillin and Moccia families who sought to be co-plaintiffs with the town.
The appeals panel began considering the case in January, and took nearly five months to reach its decision. The panel includes justices Robert S. Rose, Bernard J. Malone Jr., Leslie E. Stein, William E. McCarthy and John C. Egan Jr.