SL Marina expansion docked in court
SARANAC LAKE — The Saranac Lake Marina’s two-site dock expansion project on Lower Saranac Lake is again stalled after a lakeside resident on Ampersand Bay sued the marina and two state agencies.
The suit stops construction until at least Feb. 10 and possibly until a court can determine if the state Adirondack Park Agency’s approval of the project was legal.
On New Year’s Eve, Thomas Jorling, represented by Glens Falls lawyer and 2020 Assembly candidate Claudia Braymer, filed a lawsuit against the APA, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and LS Marina, LLC — led by developer and owner Mike Damp and represented by Lake Placid lawyer Matthew Norfolk. This lawsuit included a restraining order halting construction.
Jorling owns a home on Pinehurst Road, directly across Ampersand Bay from the annex portion of the project. He is also a former commissioner of the DEC, who resigned in 1994 to work for International Paper.
He believes the “scope and scale” of the expansion are too big for the lake and is seeking to overturn the APA’s permit approval. The lawsuit alleges the agency did not study everything it should have before making a decision.
Damp and Norfolk said the lawsuit is “frivolous” and believe the APA will be found to have properly issued the permit.
The restraining order was approved by Essex County Judge Richard Meyer on Jan. 6. The suit will be taken up in court on Feb. 10. On that day, Meyer will determine if the restraining order will be extended or if Damp can resume construction.
The state attorney general’s office will defend the APA’s decision in court.
Jorling and Braymer want the halt order extended. Braymer said this restraining order is meant to “maintain the status quo” until the court ruling on the APA permit. She said they don’t want construction to start if the court ends up annulling the approval.
While the restraining order may only last a month and a half, Damp said the impact on the project will last much longer. The way the temporary restraining order is written prohibits him from ordering materials, he said.
“It is hurting my client,” Norfolk said. “To not be able to move forward and order supplies and make plans … I think the timing of that is designed that way to cause delay.”
Normally, someone looking to appeal an agency decision has 60 days to file, which would have been on Nov. 10, 2020. Norfolk said he believes deadline extensions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic were used to delay the project further.
Damp said he had a team ready to start work this May. Their ability to work over the summer is up in the air now. Damp said he believes he will win this lawsuit and that the restraining order will just “waste more time and money.”
The eventual ruling will still not be the end of the line for this case. Either party could appeal this decision, depending on how it goes.
This marina expansion has been in the works for around seven years, and though it has received approval from the APA, DEC and Harrietstown Planning Board, it has faced opposition from some lakeside residents and environmentalists.
Opponents — mostly neighbors on Lower Saranac Lake — say the expansion will bring more motorboat traffic to the lake, disrupt fish breeding grounds and lower the quality of life and wildlife on the lake.
Supporters of the marina — mostly boaters — say the expansion will restore dilapidated existing structures, improve the shoreline environment and allow more people to enjoy the lake, not just shoreowners.
“To have one person try to stop this project which I believe many of the people in the community favor, it’s just a shame,” Norfolk said.
“You can feel my frustration,” Damp said. “But I just really feel for the community.”
Braymer said though Jorling is the only petitioner legally seeking this annulment, he represents others who are interested in preserving the lake as it is and who did not approve of the APA’s approval process.
Damp said this delay impacts families looking to spend time on the lake, as well as businesses he believes will benefit from an expanded recreation economy.
The project takes place at two sites on Lower Saranac Lake, at Crescent Bay and an “annex” property at Ampersand Bay. The project would remove old docks at Ampersand Bay and increase the combined two properties’ ability to store boats by around one-third, from 219 boats to 292.
The marina developers could have built docks on these locations without APA approval, since the land they are on is classified as a hamlet — the most lenient APA category — but since the developers wanted some docks to have roof coverings, the project needed the APA’s go-ahead.
In September the APA board approved the project’s wetland permit and shoreline variance with an eight-to-one vote. Chad Dawson, who resigned from the board in December after saying the DEC was not sufficiently studying the natural impact of adding recreational amenities, was the one dissenting vote. He had many questions about the project he wanted researched and did not want to “rush” approval.
The APA’s approval came with conditions. The developers need to work with the APA to improve the water and shoreline quality.
The environmental improvements developers agreed to include removing 27,218 square feet of preexisting buildings from along the shoreline, removing barriers to wildlife movement on the shoreline, stabilizing the shoreline and preventing erosion and sedimentation into the lake in a wetland vegetation area of 16,131 square feet which has grown in recent years, and adding a boat washing station.
The lawsuit argues that the marina owners did not meet the burden of proof in their application process on several key issues, including studying the carrying capacity of Lower Saranac Lake, as required by the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest Unit Management Plan, and considering wetland impacts.
“APA’s decision to issue the order was arbitrary and capricious,” the lawsuit states. “APA failed to consider whether the project would have an undue adverse impact upon the resources of the Adirondack Park.”
The lawsuit argues that the construction of new and extended covered boat docks will “irreparably alter the character of Ampersand Bay.”
Norfolk said this is “laughable.” He said the existing docks on that site are dilapidated and falling into the lake. He also said the bay has other commercial docks at the Ampersand Bay Resort.
The lawsuit also argues that the APA cannot permit a project that allows private use or commercial use of the Forest Preserve. Jorling is also seeking a declaration that the bed and waters of Lower Saranac Lake are classified as wild forest. Damp and marina supporters say that would outlaw every other dock as well.
“I’m sad that it’s necessary to sue the agency in order for it to perform its duty under the Adirondack Park Agency Act, which is to protect the natural resources and the character of the park,” Jorling said. “These interior lakes … are precious resources.”
Jorling says his issue is with the length of the marina’s docks. He said there are not a set of rules governing marinas, and he believes the APA board should have used this project to established criteria. He is concerned by the precedent this APA decision sets for other marinas.
Norfolk said he expects the lawsuit to be thrown out. He said Damp and the APA spent a lot of time and money making sure it was done right. They studied wetlands, sun penetration and milfoil removal. Though he believes they will win in court, he said the halt order is a “setback.”
The DEC has issued permits for evacuating and placing fill along the shoreline, construction of a dock and placement of buoys, as well as a Temporary Revocable Permit.
LS Marina LLC, the company that owns the marina, has sued Jorling for defamation over what he has said about the marina’s project. Jorling has in turn counter-sued the marina, saying its lawsuit is a SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) case meant to “bully” him out of challenging the APA approval.
Judges have been set for this case, but no court dates have been decided on yet.