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Trial continues in challenge of 2006 Lewis County ATV law

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LOWVILLE — A trial that began Monday on the challenge of a 2006 Lewis County all-terrain vehicle road-opening law is expected to conclude this morning with county defense arguments and closing statements.

Petitioners Janette M. Peek, Watson, and Gerald A. Smith, Barnes Corners, who filed the legal challenge in 2011 and are representing themselves in court, attempted to show through testimony and prior court decisions that the law in question violates state Vehicle and Traffic Law.

“These roads have neither riding areas or trails adjacent to them,” Mrs. Peek said in an opening statement to acting state Supreme Court Judge Peter A. Schwerzmann, Watertown.

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.

“It is more than curious that Lewis County ignored the opinion that they themselves sought,” Mrs. Peek said.

The road portions opened by the law are 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.

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

The county Legislature justified the road openings by saying they provide access to private trails or state truck trails, but a couple of the truck trails were closed to ATV traffic by the state Department of Environmental Conservation in 2008.

County Legislator Richard C. Lucas, R-Barnes Corners, chairman of the legislative Economic Development and Planning Committee, testified that the road openings were approved based on recommendations from officials in the Planning Department and the county attorney’s office.

“We trusted our professionals,” he said.

In cross-examination from County Attorney Richard J. Graham, Mr. Lucas noted that the county trail map shows a pair of short off-road trails extending off Seven by Nine Road. He also said that the truck trails, which were open to ATV traffic at the time the 2006 county law was passed, were considered to be legitimate trails until DEC’s decision, which he referred to as a change in designation.

However, longtime local DEC official Fred Munk, a natural resource supervisor, suggested that there was no real designation change and that they were always considered to be roads.

Former legislators William P. Walsemann and Gerald R. Reed also testified about a late 2005 law closing all county roads to ATVs and the law in question, while Mrs. Peek and Mr. Smith both took the stand to testify about their objections to the county law.

Mr. Graham, who did not make an opening statement, questioned both petitioners about their personal impact from the road openings, likely to question their legal standing in challenging all four.

Mrs. Peek and Mr. Smith, along with fellow ATV detractor and former county Legislature Chairman Bruce R. Krug of Leyden, in fall 2006 challenged three county laws — including the one now in question — that opened a combined 16.8 miles of roads. However, then-state Supreme Court Judge Joseph D. McGuire in February 2007 dismissed the suits on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked legal standing, and the current suit was filed subsequently in hopes of addressing that issue.

Judge McGuire in November 2010 also rejected a county motion to dismiss a lawsuit by Greig octogenarian Rose V. Pettit, suggesting that county road segments should not connect directly to town roads that previously were open to ATVs. However, he did not make a final ruling in the matter, and Mrs. Pettit has since died, but the suit — seeking annulment of a 2009 law opening 2.32 miles of county roads to ATVs — continues through her estate.

The village of Constableville also is facing the challenge of its recent law allowing ATVs on two village streets.

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