Judge to hear resort lawsuit
SARANAC LAKE – A Saratoga Springs-based judge will handle the lawsuit Roedel Companies has filed against the village Planning Board over its approval of the Lake Flower Resort and Spa.
Meanwhile, the village Board of Trustees is expected to vote Monday to hire an outside law firm it has used before to defend the village in this case.
Roedel Companies, which owns and is restoring the Hotel Saranac, is challenging the village Planning Board’s July 7 approval of Saranac Lake Resort LLC’s proposed 93-room, four-story hotel, spa and conference center on the site of three existing Lake Flower Avenue motels.
After it was filed Aug. 9 in Essex County State Supreme Court in Elizabethtown, the suit was assigned to Judge Martin D. Auffredou of Lake George.
In an Aug. 11 letter to Judge Vito Caruso, the chief administrative judge for the 4th Judicial District, Auffredou wrote that “it will be necessary I recuse myself” from the matter. He didn’t elaborate in the letter, and his law clerk and secretary didn’t respond to email messages Friday.
The case has now been assigned to Judge Glen T. Bruening of Saratoga Springs, but that doesn’t mean that’s where the proceedings will take place, according to Terry Mitchell, chief clerk of Essex County State Supreme Court.
“Even though his chambers is in Saratoga, he normally holds everything up here unless the parties agree to meet down there,” Mitchell said Friday.
Village’s defense team
The village board is slated to meet in executive session at 5:15 p.m. Monday to discuss pending litigation.
During the board’s regular meeting, scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m., it’s expected to vote on a resolution to hire Miller, Mannix Schachner and Hafner LLC of Glens Falls to represent the village in the Roedel Companies lawsuit.
The law firm has already been involved in the village’s dealings with the Lake Flower resort project. It was hired in February 2015 to review the Lake Flower Planned Unit Development District, the controversial zoning change the board enacted for the project. The Lake Flower PUDD is part of the backbone of Roedel Companies’ lawsuit.
“We searched for the best person in this particular field of legal expertise,” Mayor Clyde Rabideau said at the time, “and Mark Schachner’s name was the pre-eminent name mentioned by anybody we consulted with as far as knowledge and presentation of municipal zoning.”
The village hired Miller, Mannix Schachner and Hafner again in September of last year to provide legal advice on “planning, zoning and code enforcement issues.” It was in that capacity that the firm provided the village with a confidential memo that’s also at issue in this case.
The resolution on Monday’s agenda says the board “recognizes the importance of retaining specialized legal counsel to protect the interests of the village” and that Miller, Mannix Schachner and Hafner “has provided competent legal counsel to the village in matters related to planning and zoning.”
Roedel Companies’ lawyer
When the lawsuit was first announced earlier this month, Saranac Lake attorney John Muldowney spoke for Roedel Companies, but he’s not the attorney handling the case for the Hotel Saranac owners.
“We brought on Tom Ulasewicz of the FitzGerald Morris Baker Firth firm of Glens Falls because of his expertise in land use, zoning and those types of matters,” Muldowney said. “He and his firm will be the ones actually litigating the issues.”
Ulasewicz, a former state Adirondack Park Agency lawyer and executive director, has been involved in a number of high-profile Adirondack land use cases over the years. He represented Walmart in its unsuccessful plan to build a store in Lake Placid in the 1990s. He was Art Spiegel’s lawyer in a six-year legal battle with the APA over Spiegel’s house in Lake Placid’s Fawn Ridge subdivision. More recently, Ulasewicz represented the Adirondack Club and Resort in Tupper Lake in an adjudicatory hearing and subsequent lawsuit. He’s also been the lawyer for the Saranac Lake Marina in its proposed expansion.
“We thought it was important to get somebody with that kind of expertise on board,” Muldowney said.
The lawsuit is technically a petition brought under Article 78 of the state’s Civil Practice Law and Rules, a legal proceeding that allows a plaintiff to challenge a determination by a municipal body.
Roedel Companies isn’t officially the plaintiff in the case. It’s Malone Real Estate LLC, a company Roedel Companies created to purchase 203 River St., a property that was included in the Lake Flower PUDD for potential off-site parking for the resort. Saranac Lake Resort representatives have since said they no longer need it. Roedel Companies claims that’s because they never had legal control of it.
The 23-page petition says Malone Real Estate LLC is asking for judicial review of the Planning Board’s decision to grant the project site plan review, claiming the decision was in violation of New York State Village Law, the village land-use code, a 2014 village law that allowed for the creation of PUDDs and the Lake Flower PUDD law of 2015.
The company also wants the court to rule on the Planning Board’s decision not to refer it back to the village board “for legislative action as a new application given the numerous modifications to that proposal during the site plan review process in direct violation of” the 2014 law.
Causes of action
More specifically, the petition notes that the 2014 law requires PUDDs to be a minimum of three contiguous acres, but that the project site was reduced from 3.18 acres to 2.97 acres when 203 River St. was removed. Malone Real Estate says that was a violation of the 2014 law that requires the Planning Board’s approval to be annulled and the project returned to the village board.
Matt Norfolk of Lake Placid, a lawyer for the resort investors, has said the 3-acre-minimum question is a non-issue because the motel parcels’ boundaries extend into the water, totaling 4.17 acres, although that wasn’t the acreage the Planning Board listed for the site in its approval. Rabideau has backed up Norfolk’s claim and said that was the legal opinion the village got from its staff attorney and Miller, Mannix, Schachner and Hafner.
Among other claims, Malone Real Estate says the Planning Board’s approval contained a “glaring contradiction of findings” by asserting that the project complies with the Lake Flower PUDD while also imposing 14 conditions “requiring submission of new or revised plans for a plethora of project components.”
“Respondent Planning Board’s blatant refusal to recognize the overwhelming number of inadequacies in Respondent Saranac Lake Resort LLC’s site plan application is in violation of law,” the petition reads.
The lawsuit contains another 200 pages of exhibits including copies of Saranac Lake Resort’s site plan application, the various laws in question and two Enterprise articles.
The village has yet to respond to the suit, but it’s still early in the process. A “Notice of Petition” that was also filed Aug. 9 says Ulasewicz will ask the court for a judgment granting the relief his clients are seeking on Sept. 14 at the Essex County Courthouse. The Enterprise wasn’t able to determine Friday if that date is still pending.