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Boathouse fight was pricey, senseless and preventable

October 1, 2015
By Mark Wilson

The removal last week of two boathouses from the shoreline of Lake Placid marked the end of a five-year legal battle. The town of North Elba prevailed in a case that threatened to upend well-settled laws regulating development on waterways across New York state.

In the face of ever-mounting legal costs, the perseverance of Supervisor Roby Politi, the town board and adjoining property owners on the lake deserves recognition: Loss or forfeit of the case would have removed any meaningful regulation and opened the door to an unsightly and environmentally damaging construction boom.

Understanding that the pressure to overbuild the shores of our lakes will never go away, it may be worthwhile at this point to extract lessons from the case of North Elba v. Grimditch on how to best prevent future costly and prolonged legal fights. Three lessons stand out:

Article Photos

News photo — Matthew Turner
The larger of two boathouses the Grimditch family built on Lake Placid without town permits is mostly demolished Sept. 18.

The courts

Acting State Supreme Court Judge Richard Meyer presided over the case before it was reassigned to Judge Thomas Buchanan in early 2013. Judge Meyer, the former legal partner and personal friend of the attorney representing the boathouse owners, gave their side the benefit of significant legal doubts presented by attorneys for the town and neighbors. His ruling in favor of the defendants and against the town was rejected on appeal. Had Judge Meyer exercised caution and recused himself from the case when it was assigned, the dispute may have been settled within months.

Code enforcement

Perhaps the most valid argument presented by the defense in the last round of appeals was the charge that enforcement of the town and village building codes around the lake has been inconsistent. It is generally understood that the failure of the code enforcement office to reliably and regularly uphold its standards was responsible for the court's refusal to grant North Elba reimbursement of legal expenses. Code Enforcement Officer James Morganson needs to pay more attention to construction on Lake Placid, some of the most visible and ecologically sensitive building projects under his authority.

Shore owner community

In June 2011, the board of the Shore Owners' Association voted unanimously to file an amicus curiae brief in support of North Elba's jurisdiction over boathouse construction. While the organization is reluctant to act against any isolated building project on the lake, in a case that threatened to eliminate all but the most cursory regulation of shoreline development, our mission to protect the scenic and environmental qualities of Lake Placid compelled us to act. Until the town of North Elba and village of Lake Placid fully accept their share of responsibility in preserving the health and beauty of Lake Placid - the source of our community's drinking water, a renowned deep water fishery, and a valuable recreational and tourism attraction - the Shore Owners' Association must not ignore that essential mission.

This past summer, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation reported and tracked a bloom of blue green algae on Lake Placid, a hallmark of ecological stress ordinarily reserved for shallow waterways fed by heavy agricultural runoff. While Placid's fertilizer-fed bloom was not large enough to produce widespread toxins and trigger health alerts, it must serve as a wake-up call to anyone who takes the environmental health of Lake Placid, our shared resource and shared responsibility, for granted. The message to the entire community could not be more straightforward: Lake Placid is ours to protect or to lose.


Mark Wilson lives in Saranac Lake and is a former president of the Shore Owner's Association of Lake Placid.



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