Municipalities can’t regulate boathouses

LAKE PLACID - A local judge has ruled in favor of a family building two boathouses on Lake Placid, which could limit how other municipalities regulate structures on water.

In ruling in favor of the Grimditch family, whose two boathouses don't comply with North Elba's land-use code, state Supreme Court Judge Richard Meyer held that, since Lake Placid is a navigable waterway, it falls under state jurisdiction, and a town can't enforce regulations stricter than the state's.

The town wants the boathouses removed and the Grimditches penalized, and it plans to appeal the ruling.

"If this ruling were to be upheld and become the law of the land, then anyone on any lake could build a boathouse that was wholly within the water, and only connected to the land by a removable gangplank, without any control whatsoever from any land-use code anywhere in the state of New York," said North Elba town attorney Ron Briggs.

The Grimditches started to build two boathouses on Lake Placid late last summer, without first applying for a building permit. One has been completed; a second is still under construction.

Meyer cited several cases in his ruling, including Higgins v. Douglas. Here, the Third Department of the state's appellate court ruled in 2003 that a dock on Lake Placid, located wholly in the water and connected to the shore by a removable gangway, wasn't covered by town zoning laws because it was entirely in a navigable water.

The boathouses violate the town land-use code, which requires boathouses to be ancillary structures on properties with a primary structure. Neither of the Grimditches' boathouses is ancillary. Also, the smaller one violates the town code's setback provisions by being too close to neighboring properties. State laws have no such requirements.

The Grimditches are members of the Lake Placid Shore Owners Association, but the group's stance is in favor of the town's position.

"We take this move in opposing (the Grimditch's) action extremely seriously," association President Mark Wilson said. "It is the mission of the organization to protect the waters of Lake Placid, and this would have direct consequences on the quality of the Lake Placid environment," Wilson said.

The Adirondack Council environmental group has a number of concerns about the ruling and plans to file an amicus curiae advisory brief supporting the town's position that it has a right to enforce regulations stricter than the state's, according to Council spokesman John Sheehan.

The town is also pursuing misdemeanor criminal charges against three Grimditch family members and four builders, alleging they broke the law by building without a permit.

The charges stem from work done in September 2010 and January 2011. The charges from September's work have already been moved from town court, where misdemeanors are generally prosecuted, to county court, on a motion from Jim Brooks, a Lake Placid lawyer who is representing the Grimditches.

William Grimditch and builders Robert Scheefer and Dan Nardiello were indicted by a county grand jury last month. Nardiello, owners Wayne Grimditch and Carol Lynn Grimditch Roda, and workers Josh Dushane and Tom Senter are also still being charged in town court for work done in January. A motion to remove these charges to county court is still pending, Brooks said.

"In our opinion, (Meyer's ruling) should have a significant effect (on the charges), but that's going to be up to the judges," Brooks said.

Briggs said Meyer's ruling in the civil case could affect the charges currently in town court, since they are for conduct that occurred after Meyer first intervened in the case in mid-September. He said he didn't think it would affect the charges in county court, since the Grimditches hadn't yet applied for a building permit at the time the alleged conduct occurred.

The Grimditches filed for permits for the boathouses' foundations on Sept. 20, which were granted two days later. This was after construction had started. They filed for permits for the boathouses themselves on Oct. 5 and 6, which town Code Enforcement Officer Jim Morganson rejected for not meeting town code. Meyer ruled that these permits should have been granted under state building code.

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