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Judge reserves decision in challenge of Lewis County ATV law

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LOWVILLE — A judge has reserved decision on the challenge of a 2006 Lewis County all-terrain vehicle road-opening law following a 1-day trial.

“I would love to be in a position to give you a decision right now,” acting state Supreme Court Judge Peter A. Schwerzmann, Watertown, told petitioners Janette M. Peek, Watson, and Gerald A. Smith, Barnes Corners, and Lewis County Attorney Richard J. Graham on Tuesday morning.

However, the judge said both sides had given him plenty of information to consider and promised only to issue a ruling as soon as possible.

“This has been interesting for me,” said Judge Schwerzmann, Jefferson County Surrogate Court judge. “I’ve learned a lot about the trail system here in Lewis County.”

He also commended Mrs. Peek and Mr. Smith, who filed the legal challenge in 2011 and represented themselves in court, for being the most prepared “pro se” claimants in cases over which he had presided.

In a closing statement Tuesday, Mrs. Peek reiterated her contention that county officials “exceeded their authority” under state law by allowing ATV traffic on the following county road segments: 1.5 miles of Hermitage Road in the town of Diana, 5.5 miles of Sears Pond and Liberty roads in the town of Montague, 2.5 miles of Number Four Road in the town of New Bremen and 2 miles of Seven by Nine Road in the town of Pinckney.

“The only trails shown on the official Lewis County ATV trail map are pathways that lead to only two commercial establishments,” she said.

Mrs. Peek argued that those short stretches should not provide justification for opening Seven by Nine Road and that “there are no other trails or riding areas adjacent to any roads opened by Local Law 3 of 2006.”

Municipalities may open roads to ATVs “when in the determination of the governmental agency concerned, it is otherwise impossible for ATVs to gain access to areas or trails adjacent to the highway,” according to state law. A 2005 informal opinion from the state attorney general’s office to the county said roads should not be opened to ATVs simply to connect with other roads or commercial parking lots. However, they may be opened to connect actual trails or other riding areas.

Mr. Graham, in his closing statement, questioned the two petitioners’ legal standing for all of the opened roads, some of which are many miles from their homes. He noted that the county law contains a clause allowing the balance to remain intact if portions of it are nixed.

The county attorney also suggested that legislators did “due diligence” before adopting the road-opening law, referring to a packet of material prepared by his office — in conjunction with the planning and highway departments — to assist their deliberations.

As part of his defense earlier in Tuesday’s session, Mr. Graham introduced a 2005 planning office review of the attorney general’s opinion and a pair of 2006 meeting minutes from the legislative Planning Committee during testimony by county legislative Clerk Teresa K. Clark and committee Chairman Richard C. Lucas, R-Barnes Corners.

County planning officials took the attorney general’s opinion into consideration and, both in 2005 and 2006, suggested the four road segments might be justifiable to open, he said.

The justification for two of them was to provide a connection to state truck trails that subsequently were closed to ATV traffic by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, but Mr. Graham said lawmakers could rely only on information available at the time, when the trails were open.

“There is no obligation under Vehicle and Traffic Law that if circumstances change, action has to be taken,” he said.

While no formal action has been taken to close Hermitage Road, Mr. Graham noted it no longer is marked as part of the county’s official ATV trail system.

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