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Grimditches hope to bring case to Court of Appeals

August 8, 2012
By CHRIS MORRIS - Staff Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

LAKE PLACID - A groundbreaking legal case about which government can regulate boathouses isn't over yet.

The Grimditch family hopes the state's highest court will review a June 28 appellate court decision that ruled the town of North Elba does have jurisdiction over boathouses on Lake Placid. Previously, an Essex County judge had sided with the Grimditches, saying only the state can regulate boathouses because they're on navigable waterways, not on land.

Lawyers for the family filed a motion to appeal the case to the New York State Court of Appeals on Aug. 1. In the motion, attorney Mandy McFarland of Albany said because the state Supreme Court Appellate Division's Third Department stated it had ruled incorrectly on prior cases and used what she called a "novel" interpretation of sovereign land ownership, the case should be reviewed.

Article Photos

The larger of the Grimditch family’s two Lake Placid boathouses, which are at the center of an ongoing court case, is seen in July.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)

"The issue of whether the State holds title to the land under Lake Placid in its sovereign capacity is unique, has 'precedential' impact, reverses prior case law issued by this Court, and should be certified for review," McFarland said.

Ron Briggs, attorney for the town of North Elba, said the family will need permission from the Third Department to bring its case to the Court of Appeals. It can also get permission from the Court of Appeals itself, he said.

Briggs said it's unlikely the appeal will be granted for two reasons.

"One, the Third Department's ruling was unanimous," Briggs said, noting the panel of judges took an unprecedented seven months to reach its decision. "Two, it wasn't final, because it was sent back to Supreme Court for further proceedings. But you ever know."

The Grimditches started building two boathouses on Lake Placid in 2010, without town permits. The town sought to penalize them and have the buildings torn down. North Elba's land-use code says a boathouse must accompany a primary structure; neither of the Grimditch boathouses meets that requirement.

The smaller boathouse also violates town setback rules because it's too close to neighboring properties.

In his 2011 Supreme Court ruling, Judge Richard Meyer cited two previous court cases - Higgins v. Douglas and Mohawk Valley Ski Club v. Town of Duanesburg - in which higher courts ruled that a local land use code "is preempted where the dock, building or structure is located in a navigable water, because in that instance, the state has exclusive jurisdiction."

The Appellate Division felt differently, overturning Meyer's decision. It added that Lake Placid isn't owned by the state in its "sovereign capacity," and that most of Lake Placid falls within the town's boundaries, meaning the land-use code is applicable.

In regard to the overturning of prior case law, McFarland cited a 1991 opinion by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who stated that overruling or reconsidering a case is a "very serious matter." Thomas said just believing that a court was incorrect in a previous decision isn't adequate grounds for overturning it.

Meanwhile, Briggs said settlement negotiations continue between the town and the Grimditches. He said he couldn't discuss specifics of those negotiations because it is a matter of ongoing litigation.



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