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Big win for Tupper, giant loss for Saranac Lake

It would appear the people and businesses of Saranac Lake will be the biggest losers in New York state’s most recent plan to destroy the northern end of the Adirondack railroad. The merchants and politicians of Lake Placid are probably correct in believing they need not be connected to the nation’s rail network and that replacing a lumbering tourist excursion train running back and forth to Saranac Lake with a bike and snowmobile path is a very good idea. A 20-mile round trip over relatively level terrain (unlike the territory between Saranac Lake and Lake Clear) will, most likely, be an attractive draw for those in search of a “soft adventure.”

For the village of Tupper Lake, the concept of being the “Gateway to the Northern Adirondacks” holds great potential. Besides the obvious benefit of being connected to Amtrak in Utica, one would assume that the Adirondack Scenic Railroad also plans to run tourist trains, dinner and theme trains, and other excursions out of the Tupper Lake depot. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has hinted at developing a taxpayer-subsidized bus service between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid for families who find the 64-mile round-trip bike ride more than they bargained for. Tupper Lake is poised to become the “Capital of the Adirondacks” over the next decade.

No surprise that the DEC scheduled no public hearings on this matter in Saranac Lake. Only a few years ago, about 350 people (my wife counted them) showed up on short notice for a Save the Rails rally. That’s roughly 100 more than attended a well-publicized protest in Utica not long after that. In 2015-16, around 50,000 people rode on the rails in and out of Union Depot in Saranac Lake, between Rail Explorers and the Scenic Railroad.

When the Saranac Lake village board endorsed the state appealing the Supreme Court of New York’s ruling that the DEC’s plan to sever Saranac Lake from any potential connection to the nation’s rail network was “arbitrary and capricious,” a large contingent of residents and merchants came to the board and pleaded to rescind its endorsement of the appeal. It did, only to reverse itself later when a room full of voices from other towns demanded that our elected officials betray the wishes of the local population.

A few minor obstacles remain in the way of ripping up the rails, and the DEC must be aware of them. First and foremost, there is the issue of ownership of the underlying land in the railroad’s right of way. When 53 people, representing all manner of interests, spent two years studying and developing the 1996 unit management plan, calling for restored rail service and a side-by-side (where possible) recreational trail, they recognized the revisionary rights of the underlying landowners. They recognized that if the rails were removed, the right of way would be lost, and that to build a recreational trail, new easements must be acquired. The cost of this is astronomical, particularly where waterfront properties are involved. Under the 1996 UMP, the DEC was charged with developing alternative routings of trails in environmentally sensitive areas.

I’ve examined five property deeds of landowners along the right of way. All say, in various wordings, that “an easement is given to New York Central Railroad for railroad and associated purposes.” The DEC first claimed to have purchased the land “in fee” from the railroad company. This was on their website prior to the last go-round on this issue. Subsequently, after being challenged on this assertion, they altered their position to say that they had “taken the land via Eminent Domain.” It’s true that the state did send letters to various municipalities stating that it was seizing the land; however, eminent domain seizures of private land must follow prescribed procedures. The land must be “condemned,” and then “just compensation” be made for the public taking of private property. The deeds must then be perfected and filed with the county. As far as I can find, there’s no record of this occurring.

If the rails remain, the easements are in place, but if they are removed, the easement is extinguished, and the underlying landowners regain the rights to their own land. The Supreme Court of the United States has resoundingly upheld these revisionary rights, most recently in Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust vs United States, May 10, 2014 (“U.S. Supreme Court Sides with Property Owners in Dispute Over Abandoned Railroad Right of Way” — Remy, Moose, Manley).

If my understanding of this is correct, New York taxpayers will be liable for many millions of dollars in compensation if the rails are replaced with a trail.

Another great expense, yet to be determined or factored into this project, is the redesign of causeways and other wetland areas. Currently, the rails and ties act as a webbing, holding the causeways together. If removed without considerable reinforcement, sections passing through sensitive wetlands will quickly disintegrate. The DEC is aware of this issue, as it was recognized by those who put together the 1996 UMP.

A comprehensive plan for safe highway crossings in and around Saranac Lake hasn’t been developed. Mitigating the constant traffic disruption on some of the busiest roads in the Adirondacks hasn’t been addressed, so the cost of this remains to be determined. It seems to me that it will be significant.

It’s hard to imagine a contractor embarking on a major project without a clear idea of the scope and cost of that project. It seems impossible to make sound decisions or an effective evaluation of options minus that. Perhaps when taxpayers will bear the cost, elected officials’ thinking changes.

My considered opinion is that if the DEC proceeds with removal of the rails and builds the “world-class trail” it has promised, the real price tag to taxpayers will approach $40 million for the section between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake.

I believe the existing 1996 UMP, calling for restored rail service and accompanying trail, remains the best option for all New Yorkers, but particularly for Saranac Lake.

Keith Gorgas lives in Saranac Lake.