LAKE PLACID - A lengthy court case involving a Lake Placid snowmobiler is finally over, and the decision could have major implications throughout the Adirondack Park.
State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Pete Grannis last week dismissed a ticket issued to Jim McCulley for operating his pick-up truck on Old Mountain Road, which runs between North Elba and Keene and is part of the Sentinel Range Wilderness.
"Old Mountain Road is a town road that has not been abandoned, and is accordingly under the jurisdiction of a town highway department," Grannis wrote in a court document.
McCulley, Lake Placid Snowmobile Club president, said the decision sets a precedent for hundreds of similar roads throughout the Adirondack Park that have been classified as forest preserve.
"What it means is that the state's 30 years of illegal road closure is over," he said. "They've known what they've been doing is wrong for many years. They didn't want to admit it. And a big part of this is they didn't want Adirondackers to know they could actually beat them."
In 2003, McCulley was ticketed for operating his snowmobile on the road - part of the Jackrabbit Cross Country Ski Trail - and in 2005 he was ticketed for driving his truck there. McCulley has long lobbied for a way to connect Lake Placid to an extensive state-approved snowmobile trail network to the south.
Under state law, drivers are prohibited from operating motor vehicles on forest preserve land. But if a road falls under the jurisdiction of a town highway department, the state cannot enforce any penalties on drivers.
Before last Thursday's decision, DEC officials argued both North Elba and Keene had formally abandoned Old Mountain Road. However, Grannis said the road "is a legal right of way for public use."
Lake Placid attorney Matthew Norfolk represented McCulley in the proceedings, and said Grannis made the right decision.
"The law and the facts, Jim has been saying for seven years now, were on his side and he was right," Norfolk said. "I've got to commend him. For him to stick through this, I'm very happy for him. It's the right decision that came down."
Even environmentalists who oppose motorized access to the road agree that the DEC didn't prove its case against McCulley.
John Sheehan is a spokesman for the Adirondack Council.
"It appears that the commissioner got it right, that DEC had not gone through the proper procedures to close this road officially," he said.
But the battle might not be over yet. Sheehan's group is urging Grannis to take the recommendation of Judge McClymonds and invoke section 212 of state highway law to ban motorized vehicles from the Old Mountain Road and others affected by the decision.
"I think our larger concern here is the fact that there could be a great deal of ecologic damage done if motorized traffic commences in places where town roads had not yet been abandoned and begins affecting wildlife habitat and water quality."
Grannis didn't address that issue in his ruling.
"A decision on invoking 212 is not part of this case," DEC spokesman Yancey Roy said Thursday.
Grannis wrote that its now up to the towns to maintain the road for uses that could include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking and the operation of all terrain vehicles, snowmobiles and motor vehicles.
But the commissioner noted that adding motor vehicles to the mix of current uses could present a host of liability issues for the towns.
"And I would accordingly urge the towns to take notice of the potential for incompatible uses," he wrote.
North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi suggested his town and the town of Keene host a joint public hearing to decide what kind of uses to allow on the road.
He said those decisions should be made locally and the state shouldn't pursue trying to condemn the road. "If the decision is that this is as we've always felt it was - a town road - then the people in the town of Keene and town of North Elba own it," Politi said. "We have property rights. And for the state to take away those rights, I think would be questionable."
Tony Goodwin of the Adirondack Ski Touring Council, which maintains the Jackrabbit Cross Country Ski Trail, said the decision recognizes the work his group has put into the Old Mountain Road, while noting the Lake Placid Snowmobile Club hasn't done anything to improve the road.
"The commissioner should use his power under the highway law to close that road to any further motorized use," Goodwin said. "McCulley may not get a ticket or otherwise be prosecuted for his motorized use of the road, but I consider this to be a very positive decision for skiers and the Adirondack Ski Touring Council."
McCulley had also filed a federal lawsuit against DEC. He said he hasn't decided whether to continue that case. But he plans to pursue reimbursement for his legal fees from the state.