For the first year or two, their cabin on the Saranac River, in the northern reaches of the Adirondack Park, was an escape for John and Dawn Maye, a retreat from their house on busy Route 3, a place where they could bring the kids to fish and to swim.
Then in 1988, after their son John died of leukemia at 17, the cabin became their sanctuary, where the quiet of the woods and the passing of the river soothed their grief.
But, after the Adirondack Park Agency began investigating them in the summer of 2004, the cabin became a center of anxiety and pain. Their days there were filled with worries over money and their health.
John became ill. Dawn couldn't sleep.
They were being told they would have to move out of the home they had come to love, and were convinced they would lose it altogether.
They were facing fines they couldn't afford. When they consulted a lawyer, he told them they couldn't afford him, either.
Then, after four years, the enforcement action went away, along with the letters laying out the laws they had broken, along with the $2.9 million in fines, along with their hearing date at the Park Agency to determine their guilt and their punishment.
It all ended with a two-sentence letter dated Aug. 1, 2008, and signed by an Adirondack Park Agency lawyer, Paul Van Cott:
"Thank you for your courtesy and time in allowing me to visit your property last week and to talk with you about the history of your property. Based on that visit and our discussion, this enforcement matter is now formally closed."
After reading it, they felt bewildered.
"How does something so drastic turn around in such a short time?" the Mayes wrote in an Aug. 5, 2008, letter to the Black Brook Town Board.
How could the Park Agency have allowed the case to roll on for four years, then dropped it as if it were a disputed parking ticket?
One explanation is the agency's staff never considered the turmoil they were causing in the Mayes' home.
Another, put forward by the Mayes themselves and by town officials in Black Brook, is that the agency's staff was trying to force the Mayes off their land so an environmental group could buy it. The agency stopped, they say, only when that hidden agenda was exposed.
Officials with the Adirondack Park Agency say the investigation lasted so long because the Mayes refused to cooperate with it.
The questions raised by the Maye case help explain why Adirondackers still view the Park Agency, 37 years after its creation, with fear and mistrust.
The way the case played out explains why John Maye, a retired forest ranger who pauses to think before he speaks, likens the APA to an Adirondack black fly: "Once it smells your breath," he said, "it will never leave you alone until it gets what it wants - your blood."
A history of enmity
Adirondackers have resented what they see as the Park Agency's encroachment on their property rights since the agency's creation in the early 1970s.
The most bitter conflicts have involved differing interpretations of the APA law, such as the recent fight between the agency and Salim "Sandy" Lewis, an organic farmer in Essex, which Lewis won, after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers.
In that case, the agency argued that, although the APA law exempts agricultural uses, housing for farm workers is not an agricultural use.
Adirondack politicians and property owners say the agency has for decades been pushing the boundaries of the law by stretching or narrowing definitions, as it did in the Lewis case. When conflicts arise, the agency usually wins because few people have the resources Lewis had to fight back.
The agency controls the enforcement process from beginning to end, deciding which cases to pursue, investigating, determining whether violations have occurred and deciding on remedies and punishments.
Landowners called before the agency stand little chance, according to Howard Aubin, a Town Board member in Black Brook who has been helping people in disputes with the APA since the 1970s.
"The agency has certain powers to determine the facts," Aubin said. "It's virtually impossible for that agency to lose an enforcement case it goes to prosecute."
Aubin has appeared before the agency probably more often than any other private citizen in the park. He has won some rounds against the APA, but, mostly, he said, what he has done is postpone landowners' inevitable defeat.
"The individual didn't have a chance up there," he said.
APA staffers and commissioners believe they are working for a good cause - to conserve a large and beautiful forest.
Curt Stiles, who lives in Saranac Lake and is chairman of the APA's board, said convincing local people of the agency's good faith is "the toughest battle the Park Agency has."
"I think sometimes common sense does not prevail, on either side," he said.
Stiles is himself one of several current and former Park Agency commissioners who previously worked for the Adirondack Council, an environmental organization based in Elizabethtown, which has been accused of having undue influence with the APA. Two other current APA commissioners previously served with the Adirondack Council.
Stiles resigned as vice chairman of the Adirondack Council's board of directors when he was named chairman of the APA in 2007.
One of the consistent charges against the agency is that its staff shuts out local people but strategizes with groups like the Adirondack Council, even on individual enforcement cases.
The Park Agency does not collude with private environmental groups, Stiles said.
"I'm aware of those kinds of accusations, collusion nonsense," he said. "I find that sort of action incredibly hard to believe."
A hint of collusion
In the summer of 2008, members of the Black Brook Town Board suggested to Stiles that the Park Agency was colluding with a private environmental organization - The Nature Conservancy - in the John and Dawn Maye case.
In a June 24, 2008, letter (see this and other documents on poststar.com), members of the Town Board wrote to Stiles.
The letter mentions that John Maye "is also dealing with his personal fight with cancer."
Maye, who is 68, discovered in 2007 he had prostate cancer. In April 2008, he had his prostate removed and he is now healthy, he said - or, at least, "I ain't dead."
The Town Board letter also mentions The Nature Conservancy, which had earlier offered to buy the Mayes' property, an offer the Mayes rebuffed.
The letter suggests the Park Agency was battering the Mayes with a bogus enforcement case to force them to sell.
"We sincerely hope that the agency is not being used as a tool to force an individual to sell their property to the Nature Conservancy, so that the Nature Conservancy can then sell the property to the state," the letter says.
Howard Aubin said that, at first, he thought the Mayes, like other landowners over the years, would lose their case.
"I told John at first, ‘There's nothing I can do for you. They'll make you pay a fine and remove your home.' "
But The Nature Conservancy connection made Aubin look closer.
"It became quite apparent, there was something going on behind the scenes," he said. "We told them point-blank we weren't going to allow them to use the APA as a bully for hire.
"If you were seeing a bunch of bullies beat up on your neighbors, you'd realize that, sooner or later, they'd come for you. It just infuriated me."
A matter of perspective
Three weeks after the Town Board sent its letter, APA Chairman Stiles responded by driving to Black Brook for a meeting with Supervisor Ricky Nolan and Councilman Howard Aubin. For more than two hours, Aubin and Nolan harangued Stiles about the Maye case.
About 10 days later, Stiles dispatched Park Agency lawyer Paul Van Cott to Black Brook where, accompanied by Aubin, he visited the Mayes' property.
About a week later, on Aug. 1, Van Cott wrote the Mayes the two-sentence letter dropping the case.
"All of a sudden, all my violations went away," John Maye said. He described Van Cott's visit: "He got out of the car, walked around, and said, ‘You have no violations here.'"
Aubin and Nolan believe the agency backed off because they confronted Stiles with the accusation it was colluding with The Nature Conservancy.
John and Dawn Maye believe, if they had been forced to appear that summer before the agency's Enforcement Committee, as scheduled, they would have lost their home.
Stiles says it was the Mayes' own lack of cooperation that caused their four-year ordeal.
When the Mayes were first notified of their "apparent violations," they refused to allow agency staff onto their land for inspections.
If the Mayes had cooperated, Stiles said, the case could have been dropped sooner.
It's difficult to resolve such matters, he said, "if somebody doesn't want to show you something or have an open dialogue."
The local chapter of The Nature Conservancy, in Keene Valley, did put out a feeler at one point about buying the Mayes' land, according to Connie Prickett, a spokeswoman for the organization. But once the Mayes said no, the conservancy lost interest, she said.
The Nature Conservancy has had a good relationship with many Adirondack landowners and municipalities, Prickett said, and no one who works there would want to endanger that.
The conservancy deals only with landowners who want to sell, said Mike Carr, head of the Keene Valley chapter.
"That's completely inaccurate, absolutely false," said Carr, of the suggestions of collusion. "We work with landowners all over the world, all over the park. We would never even consider that."
The material facts
The memo Van Cott prepared for the Mayes' Enforcement Committee hearing calls on the committee to find that violations occurred and to penalize the Mayes appropriately (view document at www.poststar.com).
The memo says that, in 1999, the Mayes built a 784-square-foot house, set back no more than 80 feet from the river, on a spot where no house had been before.
Under APA law, construction in that area would only be allowed if the landowner rebuilt on an existing foundation.
The Mayes had picked up the 700-plus acres, which lie along both sides of the Saranac River, in a land auction that New York State Electric & Gas held in the mid-1980s.
John Maye's bid - $57,000, or less than $80 an acre - was the only one received.
He and Dawn took out a home equity loan to buy the property, which at first they used only for occasional getaways.
"We didn't do a lot with it," John said.
But, after their son died, they started going out more often to the property. Instead of watching the traffic on Route 3, they watched the river.
"This was like our solace," said Dawn Maye. "We came out here to feel better."
John began working on the place, he said, "just to have something to do.'
An old cabin, measuring about 500 square feet (the size of a two-car garage), stood on the land. Maye tore it down, dug out the cellar by hand, and built on the old foundation. He expanded the new cabin to about 750 square feet, but put the extra room on the rear, away from the river, to stay within APA regulations.
Dawn fretted about living farther from the bustle of friends and family.
"I had an awful time moving," she said. "We came out and lived for a year or two before I was willing to move."
But the seclusion "became a good thing," she said.
The quiet was what they needed.
In 1999, John retired after 38 years as a forest ranger with the Department of Environmental Conservation. He and Dawn spent warm afternoons at the cabin with their son, Mark, and his three kids, and their daughter, Mindy, and her four kids.
They rigged a floating dock on barrels, pulled it into the middle of the river and hung a ladder on it. They strung a line from one shore to the other so, standing on the dock, you could pull your way hand over hand across the river.
Then, in June of 2004, Park Agency staff sent the Mayes a letter saying a man paddling the river in a canoe had taken a photo of their cabin and brought it to the agency.
Agency staff were investigating whether any violations of law had taken place and wanted permission to come onto the Mayes' property.
The Mayes had the legal right to say no. And they were afraid of the agency. Even though they had broken no laws, they had heard stories over the years of other landowners who had lost fights with the APA because they ran out of money to defend themselves against a stream of accusations and demands.
The Mayes feared that, by giving APA staffers access to their land, they would give them the opportunity to find things to investigate.
The Mayes responded in writing: "We are aware of the way the APA operates, therefore, APA Agency employees, personnel, representatives and related people of any kind are not welcome on our property."
A safe harbor
Howard Aubin has become, over the past 37 years, the unofficial adviser to Adirondackers fighting the APA. Working for free, he is often the only adviser that people like the Mayes can afford.
Aubin has helped dozens of landowners, written scores of letters to the APA and appeared many times in person before the agency. He has no doubt the Mayes were on the brink of losing their home.
They would have been forced out, he said, by the burden of the fines the agency was threatening - up to $2,000 a day for more than four years, a total of almost $3 million.
Stiles says the agency never actually assesses fines that large.
But, in the Maye case memo, APA lawyer Paul Van Cott recommends that the Mayes' refusal to allow agency staff on their property be held against them in determining their fines.
The memo also urges "firm enforcement of the shoreline restrictions" and says "it appears that Respondents have little regard for the objectives of the Rivers Act to preserve and restore the ‘natural scenic and recreational qualities' of the Saranac River."
That memo, dated March 25, 2008, also includes the following phrase twice: "there are no material facts in dispute in this matter."
About three months later, the APA decided not only were the material facts in dispute, but the agency had them wrong.
Finding an end
What settled the case, according to Chairman Stiles, was Ricky Nolan telling him that a cabin had stood on that site for decades.
Before he was elected town supervisor, Ricky Nolan worked for years as the Black Brook assessor.
"In ‘83, when I first became assessor, I remember seeing the cabin, right where that sits now," he said.
That was all he needed to hear, Stiles said.
But, if the case could have been settled with one phone call to the Black Brook town offices, instead of putting the Mayes through four hard years, why didn't Park Agency staffers try it?
The Park Agency has not explained itself, to the Mayes or anyone else.
"That whole case could have been handled much more delicate," said Ricky Nolan. "You just don't treat people like that."
The case against them was brought, and dropped, "for absolutely no cause," said John Maye - "for wear and tear on two old people's bodies."
The case has embittered the Mayes toward the Park Agency, but has not changed their feelings about the park.
"I'll tell you what, we certainly aren't going to do any harm to it," Dawn said, of their property, "because we love it."
In the Mayes' warm cabin on a cold winter day, the silence is comfortable. The Mayes do not always find it necessary to talk. Through the big windows on the front of the cabin, you see the river - also silent - making its way toward Lake Champlain.
Tomorrow: Read about the struggles with the APA of a Black Brook landowner whose property has been in his family since the 1800s.