They say history repeats itself, and in a recent court decision regarding paddlers’ rights in the Adirondacks, that saying proved to be true. New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, cited a lack of evidence in its decision to send a case back to a lower court for trial, the same fate that met a similar case in the 1990s.
Adirondack Explorer editor Phil Brown is the paddler at the center of the most recent lawsuit. In 2009, he paddled on a 2-mile waterway between Little Tupper Lake and Lake Lila that cut through private property. Brown believed he was allowed to paddle on the waterway because of New York’s public right of navigation law, but the law’s “navigable” criteria is vague.
The heart of the issue was addressed by the DEC in 2013. The organization’s interpretation of the navigation law determined that the waterway was “navigable” and accessible from public lands. In contrast, the landowners have owned the area in question for over 150 years, and their interpretation of the law suggests the waterway doesn’t have a history of commercial use, and thus is not “navigable.”
We highlighted this story back in 2015 when the landowners, unsatisfied with the State Supreme Court ruling in favor of the paddler, sent the lawsuit to the Court of Appeals. It took the court a year to decide that the case lacked conclusive evidence, and must therefore be sent back to a lower court for trial.
To make a decision, the Court of Appeals must have had recorded knowledge of “the Waterway’s historical and prospective commercial utility, the Waterway’s historical accessibility to the public, the relative ease of passage by canoe, the volume of historical travel, and the volume of prospective commercial and recreational use,” Adirondack Almanack reports.
This latest ruling by the Court of Appeals mirrors its previous decision regarding a Moose River paddling case in 1998. In that case as in this one, there were too many factual questions left unanswered.
While the Moose River case ended in an out-of-court settlement, the current case faces an uncertain future. Those interested in the case will have to wait for the result of the lower court trial, or a settlement, if one can be reached.
What is your take on this ongoing story? Do you side with paddlers or with landowners?
- Adirondack Almanack – Court Orders Trial In Adirondack Paddlers’ Rights Dispute
- Adirondack Explorer – DEC sides with paddlers
- Daily Messenger – Paddling: Adirondacks waterway rights case in court
- New York’s DEC – OGC 9: Enforcement Guidance: Public Rights of Navigation and Fishing