ELIZABETHTOWN - The Adirondack Park Agency will be required to pay at least some of the legal fees incurred by an Essex farmer who prevailed against them in court last summer, a judge ruled Feb. 3.
Acting Essex County State Supreme Court Judge Richard Meyer said the Lewis Family Farm, owned by Salim "Sandy" and Barbara Lewis, is entitled to counsel fees an other expenses arising from a legal battle with the agency regarding farmworker housing.
Meyer ordered a hearing, scheduled for Feb. 26, to determine just how much of the $208,000 sought by the farm is entitled for recovery under the Equal Access to Justice Act, which requires government agencies to pay legal fees of a prevailing party unless they can show they were "substantially justified" in their position.
According to Meyer, the APA was not "substantially justified" in its decision to assert jurisdiction over three modular homes built to house farmworkers on the 1,200-acre organic farm on the outskirts of Whallonsburg.
"In arriving at its administrative determination, now annulled, the APA went beyond the statutory language of its own definitions," Meyer stated, echoing his November 2008 decision in favor of the farm, which was later unanimously affirmed by a mid-level appeals court.
Meyer also said the APA went beyond their authority in an effort to "assert jurisdiction, impose a $50,000 civil penalty, and, incredibly, require Lewis Family Farm to waive 'the right to challenge Agency jurisdiction and the review clocks otherwise applicable.'"
Much of the APA's argument for justification hinged on the August 2007 decision of Acting Essex County Supreme Court Justice Kevin K. Ryan, who was first to hear the dispute between the APA and Lewis Family Farm and affirmed the APA's authority to issue a determination.
Meyer said Ryan's decision did not grant the APA jurisdiction over the houses themselves, but simply said the matter was "not ripe for judicial review" and allowed the agency to first determine for itself the extent of its jurisdiction.
Assistant Attorney General Loretta Simon, representing the APA, had also argued that the farm was ineligible for an award because its owners had the ability to pay the legal fees themselves. Meyer, however, called that assertion "irrelevant" because the applicable law makes no mention of the prevailing party's financial well-being.
Meyer denied awarding the full amount sought by Lewis Family Farm, and ordered a Feb. 26 hearing to determine which of its expenses are eligible for reimbursement. The state has challenged more than $87,000 of the $208,000 requested.
"We're pleased with the decision," said Lewis, "It's been a long time coming, but it's just another step in the phase of this thing."
Lewis called Meyer's decision "very strong and exceedingly well-written," but noted how the state will have the opportunity to appeal both the Feb. 3 decision and whatever determination is made regarding the amount of the award.
John. J. Privitera, council for Lewis Family Farm, called the decision "a victory for the Lewis Farm, farmers in the Champlain Valley and all small businesses in New York."
"It's good for the community because it sends a clear message," Lewis added.