SARANAC LAKE — A judge has sided with the village of Saranac Lake in a legal dispute over a section of the River Walk by the Dorsey Street parking lot that has been blocked off, ruling that the property owners need to remove the bricks, wire and plants restricting access to the walkway.
Saranac Lake village Attorney Paul Van Cott said this is not a final decision. The judge issued a preliminary injunction, meaning he believes the village will likely win in a full court case, so he is asking the property owners to allow the village its property rights on the easement before the case goes any further.
The lawsuit was over a 160-foot-long section of the River Walk, which is owned by Bruce Darring and Katheryn Stiles. The village has a two-decade-old easement for the River Walk to pass through their property, between their business and the Saranac River. In 2019, frustrated with the public’s use of the walkway, Darring and Stiles blocked off both ends of the path
On Aug. 3, Supreme Court Justice John Ellis ruled that the village has a right-of-way guaranteed through that easement and ordered Darring and Stiles to remove the blockage.
Darring and Stiles, the defendants, are represented by Attorney Michelle Storm of Monaco, Cooper, Lamme and Carr. Darring and Stiles declined to comment for this article.
The village, the plaintiff, is represented by Van Cott.
He said the village didn’t want this to go to litigation but said the village had “no choice.”
“It’s been costly for the village,” Van Cott said.
Last month, the village approved $7,941.30 from its contingency fund to be spent on Van Cott’s services in this case.
In 1998, the village and Darring signed an easement agreement, giving the village the right to build and maintain a portion of the River Walk passing through Darring’s property for public use.
In 2019, Darring allegedly blocked public access to the River Walk, putting up a wire with a “Private Property” sign, placing trees and planters along the path and building a short wall out of the walkway bricks on both ends.
People walking the River Walk have taken Broadway or Dorsey Street to the rest of the path ever since.
The village filed complaint with the Franklin County Clerk on June 10 this year and the case was picked up on June 28.
Ellis’ ruling last week tells Darring and Stiles they’ve got to remove all of the obstructions and let the village exercise its easement rights. His ruling says they’ve got 10 days to remove the obstructions, which would be on Friday, Aug. 13.
Ellis wrote that preliminary injunctive relief is a “drastic remedy” and is not granted often.
The village had to prove there would be “irreparable harm” if the preliminary injunction was not granted. The court agreed there would be “irreparable harm” to the public.
The defendants allege in court documents that the village has not taken steps to prevent the public from misusing their property.
Ellis said that does not take away the village’s property rights in his ruling.
Among the exhibits in the court records are photos of dog poop in the snow, hypodermic needles in the dirt and people urinating in the bushes near the River Walk easement.
“I have a pedestrian walkway across my property,” Darring said in 2018, discussing the Saranac Lake “poop posse,” which was a volunteer group organized that year to address dog poop on public walkways. “It’s been covered in poop for 20 years.”
Van Cott said the village plans to add signs letting people know about the rules of the River Walk. He said he recognizes that this public walkway goes through private land.
Challenges in court
Darring and Stiles tried to have the village’s complaint dismissed, but Ellis wrote in his ruling that they did not provide a specific enough reason as to why the complaint should be dismissed.
“The Court should not have to guess the grounds for the relief the Defendants seek,” he wrote.
Darring and Stiles have also filed an easement termination with Franklin County Court, but the Ellis wrote that there is not language in the original agreement which allows them to terminate it.
The agreement signed in 1998 allows Darring to terminate the easement if the River Walk project is abandoned or not undertaken. The defendants argue in court documents that the project has not been undertaken.
In court documents the village contends that the majority of the River Walk is completed and open for public use, and that it is working on completing all sections of the path.
The defendants contend that the project has been abandoned because the village hasn’t maintained the River Walk around his easement.
They say there’s another path the village pursued for the River Walk around the property. The village says this isn’t true in the court documents. Ellis adds that even if it was, it would not constitute an abandonment.
Ellis rules in his preliminary injunction that Darring and Stiles would not need to pay the village for the cost of restoring the sidewalk, since this would be like awarding damages, which he did not think was appropriate, because this was not a final decision. If the litigation goes further in court and ends up in the village’s favor, they might have to pay for it.
Village Manager John Sweeney said he’s not sure how much it is going to cost to rebuild the River Walk there, but he’s going down on Friday to get an estimate.