Judge halts DEC’s construction of Cedar River bridge

LAKE GEORGE — A state Supreme Court judge granted a temporary restraining order Friday to keep the state from building a bridge over the Cedar River in the Essex Chain Lakes, at least until mid-July.

Judge Robert Muller granted the order in Warren County Supreme Court, the latest step in an effort by two Adirondack environmental groups to prevent the bridge’s construction.

The lawsuit was brought at the beginning of the year against the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve and Protect the Adirondacks sued the agency for its plan to construct a 12-foot-wide bridge, which would be used for many recreational activities, including snowmobiling, over the Cedar River in Minerva.

The environmental groups have argued the river is “scenic” under the state’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System Act, and as such, is protected from development. There is an existing bridge over the Cedar River, but the state has argued the route is too circuitous.

Muller heard opening arguments in May for this “first impression” case, meaning it involves matters not yet heard before the Supreme Court. Nick Buttino and Susan Taylor, assistant attorneys general for the state, represented the DEC, and Chris Amato represented the environmental organizations.

At that hearing, Muller said he was reserving his decision to analyze the documents and oral arguments.

In recent days, the DEC notified Adirondack Wild and Protect the Adirondacks that construction would begin in a week.

David Gibson, partner for Adirondack Wild, had said previously that if the state began construction, his lawyer would seek an injunction.

Also in court Friday was lawyer Mark Schachner, representing the towns of Indian Lake, Minerva, Newcomb, Long Lake and Hudson, all of which want the bridge built. Schachner said he was in court to observe.

Amato said the state is under no statutory duty to build a bridge over the Cedar River, and it has been aware since Jan. 23 that his clients would seek an injunction if they were to continue with construction.

Contractors were also notified that the bridge was part of pending litigation since April 5, Amato said.

“It’s entirely self-inflicted,” Amato said, of the state’s concern about loss of building time and money. “They decided to roll the dice and move forward.”

Muller asked Buttino, “What is the urgency here?”

Buttino said the urgency is that the state will lose another construction season, which will affect public access to the area.

Muller questioned Buttino, too, about litigation regarding a snowmobile trail in the vicinity, a matter that is still in the New York State Court of Appeals.

“Did you not concede what is pending in the court of appeals could impact the bridge?” Muller asked.

Buttino said it was possible.

Muller asked, “Wouldn’t that seem foolhardy for the state to undertake this?” when two court decisions were pending.

Buttino said the DEC intends to move forward and would begin this construction season with a concrete abutment on one side of the river, adding in a retaining wall and some other measures. The bridge itself would not be built until next year.

DEC has the authority to build both the trail and bridge, Buttino added. He said DEC has already spent “quite a bit of money on this project,” which is part of the Essex Chain Lakes Unit Management Plan and pointed to taxpayers also paying for this litigation.

Muller granted a temporary restraining order, halting any construction on the bridge, until July 19. On that day, Muller will hear arguments for and against an injunction, which if granted, would stop the DEC from building the bridge until Muller makes a decision on whether the bridge is legal.

The matter will be heard again at 10:45 a.m. Friday, July 19 in Warren County Supreme Court.