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Old Mountain Road

A sign asks people to not walk in ski tracks at the beginning of Old Mountain Road outside Lake Placid. The towns of North Elba and Keene have claimed the road after winning a legal battle in which the state tried to claim the road had been abandoned.

LAKE PLACID — Old Mountain Road, a historic highway that was, until recently, part of a state wilderness area, has been returned to two local towns after a legal battle that lasted more than a decade.

In 2003, Lake Placid resident Jim McCulley drove his snowmobile on the road, which he claimed was a town road and therefore could not be closed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation as part of its Sentinel Range Wilderness Area.

The road is in both of the towns of North Elba and Keene and runs roughly parallel to state Route 73 on the northern side of Pitchoff Mountain. McCulley’s subsequent ticket for operating a motor vehicle in a wilderness area sparked a 15-year legal battle that has now come to an end.

McCulley was found guilty, but that was overturned when an appeals court found insufficient evidence the road had been legally abandoned by the towns. Court decisions continued to uphold that the road belonged to the towns, and for a number of years the DEC agreed.

But in 2015, then-DEC Commissioner Joe Martens vacated the decision and concluded the DEC was correct in saying Old Mountain Road was an abandoned town road that had no legal right of way for public use.

North Elba filed a lawsuit, contesting Martens’ decision, and the town won that lawsuit in state court in March of this year. Recently, the DEC did not appeal the ruling, effectively ending the case.

Town supervisors Joe Pete Wilson of Keene and Roby Politi of North Elba each said, now that the road is definitively in the hands of the towns, there are no plans to change its usage. The road is largely used for cross country skiing on the Jackrabbit Trail, and also provides access for rock and ice climbing.

“We’re happy to have things clarified so we understand our ownership,” Wilson said. “At the same time, we don’t have any plans to change the way it’s managed. We’re not opening it up to additional uses.

“We see the value of it as a trail. We see the value in those uses, and that’s what we want to continue.”

Wilson said the towns have been working with both the AuSable River Association and Barkeater Trails Alliance — which manages and maintains the Jackrabbit Trail — to upgrade some stream crossings in an effort to improve the recreational use and ecology of the road.

“The town is really positioned to do that, so I think we’re going to be a really good steward of that,” he said. “We’re in agreement with the DEC about how to manage this. Both towns and the DEC are on the same page.”

Politi said the lawsuit was purely about property rights and was never intended to open the road to new uses.

“We won the case, and it was all about property rights,” he said. “The town owns the road, and it is our intention that the road will be utilized for cross-country skiing and non-motorized traffic.”

In an email, the DEC said the ruling would have no effect on the wilderness area unless the towns decide to allow some sort of motorized use.

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