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Man cannot sue village over ATVs

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CONSTABLEVILLE — A legal challenge to the village of Constableville’s all-terrain vehicle law will keep motoring along, albeit with one fewer “driver.”

State Supreme Court Judge Charles C. Merrell, in a decision filed late last month, ruled that village resident Bernadette M. DeSantis has legal standing to seek nullification of a law passed by village trustees in April that opened segments of James and High streets totaling 0.6 of a mile to ATVs.

However, the judge decided that co-petitioner Bruce R. Krug — a former Lewis County legislator who lives 1.5 miles outside the village — does not and removed him from the suit.

Village attorney Steven A. Smith had argued that neither petitioner would suffer harm greater than the public at large from the street openings. Judge Merrell ruled that Mrs. DeSantis, a past village trustee whose residence is one-quarter of a mile from the opened portion of James Street, lives in sufficient “close proximity” to meet the requirement for legal standing.

Mr. Krug said he had no problem with the judge’s ruling and is “very happy the case keeps going with Bernadette on it.”

As with other court challenges filed by Lewis County ATV opponents in the past few years, this one was filed “pro se,” meaning Mrs. DeSantis plans to represent herself in court.

Two other ATV detractors, Janette M. Peek, Watson, and Gerald A. Smith, Barnes Corners, in August 2011 filed a lawsuit seeking nullification of a June 2006 law that opened 11.5 miles of Lewis County roads to ATV traffic.

A bench trial was held in October before acting state Supreme Court Judge Peter A. Schwerzmann, Watertown, with the judge reserving decision in the matter.

A final ruling in the case has yet to be filed, and Judge Merrell, in his decision on legal standing, indicated the two cases are inter-related.

“Because the respondents have asserted that they have opened their village streets to connect a county road to a trail, the resolution of the aforementioned pending proceeding will have a direct bearing on this proceeding,” he wrote. “Consequently, this Court cannot and will not go forward and issue a final Decision/Judgement in this matter until the matter of Smith and Peck v. County of Lewis is resolved.”

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.

Mrs. DeSantis in fall 2012 sued the village over a similar street-opening law adopted earlier that year, contending trustees violated state vehicle and traffic law and did not follow proper procedure in environmental review of the move. In response, officials chose to repeal that law rather than spend money on a court defense.

While the street openings were to be part of a larger plan by the Highmarket Wheelers ATV Club to add both on- and off-road riding in the Constableville area to the county trail system, legislators in summer 2012 rejected the plan, despite Constableville officials already having passed their law.

County officials this spring approved a revised plan with more off-road trails and fewer legal questions, and Constableville trustees passed a new law with hopes that the current openings, now included in the county system, may pass legal muster.

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