ALBANY - Six North Country veterans have filed a federal lawsuit in an effort to restore float plane access to remote Adirondack lakes.
Maynard Baker, Douglas Irish, Mark Schumaker, Ronald Dixon, Richard Kenny and Joseph Franklin filed suit Aug. 23, in United States District Court alleging state policies restricting float planes from landing and taking off from dozens of Adirondack lakes amount to discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Baker, a former town supervisor of Warrensburg, said 40 remote lakes were once open to seaplanes prior to 1972, when the State Land Master Plan was implemented, banning the use of motorized vehicles - including seaplanes - on lands classified as Wilderness, Primitive, or Canoe.
"The DEC and Adirondack Park Agency have said, 'you able-bodied people can still walk in and enjoy those lakes,' but the only means the disabled had, they took that away from them," said Baker. "That's discrimination."
All six plaintiffs in the case are classified as qualified disabled persons under the ADA, the suit says, and all have served in the military.
Baker said the suit was filed mainly with disabled veterans in mind, including those returning from recent service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Our veterans deserve a lot more than they're getting," Baker continued. "There shouldn't be a square foot of the United States off limits to these special people, but they've done it."
The lawsuit names APA chairman Curt Stiles, DEC commissioner Pete Grannis, and Gov. David A. Paterson as defendants. It seeks an injunction against state regulation of aircraft operations within the Adirondack Park and seeks payment of legal fees.
Controversy surrounding the use of float planes on Adirondack lakes was evident in recent discussions within the DEC and APA regarding the Wilderness classification of Lows Lake, a man-made reservoir 10 miles southwest of Tupper Lake.
In April 2009, after two years of debate between preservationist groups, seaplane operators, and officials from the DEC and APA, the two agencies agreed to phase out float planes from the lake after 2011, claiming their use violated the Master Plan. The decision was made over the objections of many area residents and local officials.
Baker said Lows Lake is not among the 40 on his list, however, and the lawsuit makes no mention of Lows Lake.
DEC spokeswoman Maureen Wren said the agency would not comment on the pending litigation. APA spokesman Keith McKeever also declined comment.
New revisions to the ADA that became effective July 23, could be a key element in the access lawsuit. The amendments require state and local government programs to "make reasonable modifications in their policies" to allow access to individuals with disabilities through the use of "other power-driven mobility devices," including those powered by a fuel-driven engine, so long as such modifications do not violate "legitimate safety requirements" or pose a "substantial risk of serious harm" to natural or cultural resources in the immediate area.
The plaintiffs are being represented by attorney Matt Norfolk of Lake Placid.
"We just want to be able to have our day in court to say, 'What are the impacts of float planes compared with what's already being allowed?'" Norfolk said.
Allowing people with disabilities the use of float planes to access the remote lakes and surrounding regions would not "fundamentally alter" the way wilderness lands are currently being utilized, Norfolk said, claiming state agencies allow the unnecessary use of helicopters and other motorized vehicles to transport supplies and researchers into some remote wilderness areas.
The complaint also claims the re-utilization of float planes will have less of an impact than "the tens of thousands of hikers and campers that annually continue to devastate those lands already classified as Wilderness."
"The only thing that the preservationists and the Park Agency have complained about is the noise of a seaplane taking off," Baker said, noting the planes make very little noise when landing. "It's just 60 to 90 seconds of noise when the plane takes off, and then it's gone."