Editor's Note: This is the second of a two-part series.
Since his father's death in 1975, LeRoy Douglas said, he has had nothing but trouble from environmental groups trying to buy his land and from the Adirondack Park Agency telling him what he can do on his land.
"I have had nothing but a hard time ever since," Douglas said.
LeRoy Douglas, 60, owns about 3,500 acres, including about 4.5 miles of shoreline on Silver Lake, in this lonely and lovely northeast corner of the Adirondack Park.
He works as a logger and sells firewood and, in the summer, he runs a restaurant and bar and a 200-site campground on the lake and rents out 25 cabins scattered around the shore.
He lives on the high ground across the street from the lakeside restaurant, in a long, one-story house with a big comfortable main room adorned with Adirondack game trophies - deer heads, bear heads, bear paws.
Douglas, too, is big and comfortable, with round blue eyes and meaty hands he curls around each other as he talks about his years of conflict with the Adirondack Park Agency.
"I'm not a developer," he says, his voice between a shout and a sob. "These people want to steal my land."
He is the fifth generation of Douglases to live on Silver Lake, since his great-great-grandfather first bought land there in 1865.
The family's holdings have grown over the years, to the point where, Douglas said, he now pays $190,000 a year in property taxes.
To help pay those bills, he decided a few years ago to subdivide about 25 acres of his lakeshore property into seven lots for sale. He went to the Adirondack Park Agency, and changed the layout of the lots according to their staff recommendations. The agency issued him a non-jurisdictional letter, meaning he could go ahead with the subdivision without APA review.
But APA staff took issue with work he did on a road that cut through a wetland on the property so Douglas worked with APA staffers and reached a settlement under which he agreed to remove some fill and narrow the road.
But, he said, even as he was doing the work in the spring of 2007, the APA notified him it was opening a new enforcement proceeding against him over the road.
Douglas described the work he had done on the road originally as "putting in a culvert."
But the APA letter, from staff lawyer Paul Van Cott, asks whether he "has obtained the services of a wetland restoration professional to work with agency staff to ensure completion of the required restoration work."
Road to confrontation
In his long fight with the APA over the road, what astonished Douglas the most was the APA's claim that he hadn't just worked on the road, he had built it.
The road, called the Island Road, had curved down through his land for longer than Douglas could remember, from decades before the creation of the APA in the early 1970s.
But Douglas' memories wouldn't count as evidence.
Luckily for him, Howard Aubin, a Black Brook councilman and longtime defender of the property rights of Adirondack landowners, was able to locate an early 20th century map, drawn up by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, that showed the Island Road.
Aubin drove the map to APA headquarters in Ray Brook and showed it to Van Cott, an APA lawyer who works with the agency's Enforcement Committee.
According to Aubin, Van Cott told him that since the map proved the road existed, the APA would claim, instead, Douglas had abandoned the road.
"I warned him not to do that," Aubin said.
Aubin is the Clark Kent of the Adirondack land fight, as unassuming as Douglas is assertive. Behind his glasses, his eyes flash with amusement when he talks about the times he has bested lawyers at the APA.
He warned Van Cott not to twist the law to target Douglas, Aubin said.
"I told him, ‘You can't do that,' " Aubin said. " ‘It will come back to bite you.'"
Van Cott did not return several calls, made over a period of weeks to his work and his home. Keith McKeever, a press spokesman for the APA, returned one call on Friday but would not put Van Cott on the phone, saying APA policy dictates that its staff not answer press inquiries directly.
To Douglas, the claim he had abandoned the road made as little sense as the claim he had built it.
"That road was used all the time," he said.
And, he said, APA staffers had been on his land numerous times and had seen the road.
Meanwhile, Douglas' struggle with the APA continued, his legal bills mounting into the tens of thousands, his land sales left on hold.
Then he found out about the e-mails.
Party to a prosecution
Matt Norfolk, a lawyer based in Lake Placid who took over LeRoy Douglas' case in early 2009, found something that surprised and intrigued him when he looked through Douglas' file - APA correspondence, provided in response to a request under the state's Freedom of Information Law.
The correspondence, Norfolk saw, fit in with actions the APA had taken against Douglas.
One letter, for example, from Scott Lorey, the legislative director for the Adirondack Council, was sent to Cecil Wray, the APA commissioner who heads the agency's Enforcement Committee. It was dated April 7, 2008, four days before Wray's committee ruled against Douglas.
The Adirondack Council is a nonprofit environmental organization based in Elizabethtown that advocates for the conservation and expansion of the Adirondack wilderness.
In the letter, Lorey calls Douglas "one of the developers most in need of deterrence ... infamous in the Silver Lake area for his bullying and bulldozing."
Lorey urges Wray to "take decisive action" against Douglas and continues, "his bulldozing a road through a wetland should be met with a substantial fine in order to send a clear message that flagrant violations will not be tolerated."
Also in the file was a March 22, 2007, e-mail from an unidentified sender addressed to APA enforcement officer Doug Miller, urging Miller to crack down on Douglas.
On that same date - March 22, 2007 - Van Cott sent Douglas' lawyer a letter, saying the agency was opening a new enforcement action against Douglas over his road.
State law forbids members of an agency involved in a hearing to communicate about the case with anyone outside the agency without notifying all the parties involved in the case and giving them an opportunity to participate.
LeRoy Douglas had not been notified of the correspondence, nor given the opportunity to participate.
The e-mail to APA enforcement officer Doug Miller has had the name of the sender blacked out. The e-mail has a commanding tone, with the writer seeming to issue Miller orders about how to proceed on the LeRoy Douglas case.
Following are a few excerpts from the e-mail, which runs longer than a page of text, single-spaced:
- "You will send him a letter that he must comply and request that he get an outside contractor to complete the work properly."
- "You will also send a letter to the Town of Black Brook supervisor and town code enforcement officer stating that this violation has not been corrected ... "
- "Further, you will request that the town not give him a subdivision permit until this enforcement action is completely fixed ..."
- "If possible, the APA should revoke in writing the letter of non-jurisdiction sent to Douglas in November, 2006 for this subdivision ..."
The e-mail ends with a plea to "Doug and Paul," presumably Doug Miller and APA lawyer Paul Van Cott: "this is an urgent matter ... Your immediate and stern action is required. I am prepared to support whatever you can do here with my own legal team to back you up ... Please deal with this with all the force that the APA has in its arsenal."
Matt Norfolk, Douglas' lawyer, believes that Brian Ruder, chairman of the board of directors of The Adirondack Council, wrote the e-mail. Ruder lives in Scarsdale, N.Y., but owns a home on Silver Lake. He works as a marketing consultant and is a past executive with Heinz, Citigroup and Pepsi.
Ruder did not return phone messages left over a period of weeks on his cell phone and at his homes on Silver Lake and in Scarsdale, nor did he return a message left with his wife in Scarsdale.
The Adirondack Council will not confirm or deny whether Ruder wrote the e-mail but the council's spokesman, John Sheehan, said members of the council have the right to make their views known to the APA.
Advocating for the environment with the APA is the Adirondack Council's job, Sheehan said.
On Sept. 28, 2009, Norfolk filed a motion to have the APA's enforcement ruling against Douglas dismissed. The motion claims that the agency broke state law when if failed to disclose to Douglas the outside correspondence about his case.
"It appears that APA is acting in concert with private citizens and environmental interests groups, under the color of law, to strategize and plot against Mr. Douglas and his family business for no legitimate purpose and to stop lawful development," the motion reads.
Douglas believes Ruder, because of his own home on Silver Lake, wants to stop Douglas from doing any development on the lake and is using the Adirondack Council to pressure the APA to act against him.
"When this whole thing ends up coming out, people are not going to believe the collusion," Douglas said.
Not over yet
On Sept. 29, the day after Norfolk filed his motion detailing the outside correspondence with APA officials, Van Cott left three voice messages on Norfolk's phone.
Norfolk would not talk about the messages, or confirm they exist. But Douglas has a transcript of them.
Van Cott complains about the press inquiries he is getting about the motion and says, "I'm really very concerned about what you're doing, and what it means in terms of where this case is heading and our long-term relationship."
The last message ends with Van Cott expressing dismay over the "fuss" Douglas is causing and disbelief that Douglas can't compromise just a little bit."
But Douglas did not have to compromise. In a November meeting in front of Molly McBride, an administrative law judge, the APA agreed to drop its 2007 enforcement proceeding against Douglas and return to the previous settlement agreement. Douglas had already finished the work specified in that agreement, he said, so he was done.
"How many people have they done this to, that have just folded?" Douglas said recently.
The APA was climbing out of the ring, but, as it turned out, Douglas was not.
On Nov. 20, Matt Norfolk filed a summons notifying The Adirondack Council and Brian Ruder that Douglas was suing them for $2.1 million for "tortious interference with a contract," claiming they had improperly interfered with Douglas' settlement agreement with the APA.
Douglas said he has an obligation to fight back against an oppressive bureaucracy.
"I think if we don't do something, we're gonna have a lot of these problems," he said.
And Norfolk promised the fight would not end with this lawsuit, either.
"This is just the beginning," he said.