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Adirondack Retreat Brings No Solace

For 13 years, a man in New York has fought to keep his unfinished cabin. The state cites environmental issues and permit problems.

May 01, 2005|Michael Gormley | Associated Press Writer

TUPPER LAKE, N.Y. — Timothy Jones looks out from his Adirondack cabin along the Raquette River and sees what isn't.

It isn't his comfortable retreat. It isn't a font of memories of raising his two sons to embrace the river's world. It isn't his retirement home.

It is, instead, a battlefield.

For 13 years, Jones has battled New York over what he asserts is his right to keep his unfinished cabin on his land. The state disagrees, and a midlevel appeals court recently found in its favor, refusing to stay an order to demolish the cabin.

He says he has spent $40,000 in legal bills, and has paid a much steeper emotional toll. Now, he could face a fine of $4,500, plus $1,500 for each day until he tears down his cabin.

Is he, as the John Birch Society and others argue, a property rights patriot fighting big government and environmentalists gone amok? Or is he a stubborn Adirondack Don Quixote, snubbing laws that protect the sensitive environment?

"It's my little piece of heaven," Jones said from the cabin as he melted snow for coffee on his black iron wood stove.

"All I wanted," he said, "was a place to bring my boys" Shane and Matthew, now in their 20s and on their own. "What they have taken away, I can never get back ... I just wanted, simply as an American citizen, the right to build on my property. It's crazy."

*

The dispute began in 1992, when Jones obtained a Tupper Lake town permit to build a cabin on the edge of the same river where his great-grandmother, his grandparents and he grew up. It was the only permit he thought he needed for the land he bought in 1978, shortly after graduating from high school.

During construction, however, the state advised him he needed additional permits because the construction was in a protected wetland and river ecosystem that regularly floods. An approved septic system is required for even a rustic cabin in the flood-prone area, said Keith McKeever of the Adirondack Park Agency.

But Jones argues the state agency that regulates the park has no jurisdiction because his parcel was part of a subdivision long before the agency was created in 1971.

The agency now agrees with that legal point, but a 1975 river protection law supersedes that statute, McKeever said. In addition, the developer had not obtained a permit to create the subdivision, although Jones did not know that when he bought the land.

Feeling angry and singled out, Jones ignored the state's attempt to settle the case in 2001, according to court papers. The agency even mailed an application to Jones as part of the settlement offer. He ignored it.

"Jones appears to have gone to war over the concept of the park agency instead of simply trying to get along," said John Sheehan of the Adirondack Council, an environmental group. "We all have rules to live by in the park, for the good of everyone."

In December, a state trial court judge in Franklin County ruled in favor of the state.

McKeever said the agency was not interested in fining Jones. "We just want him to comply with what everyone else does," he said.

*

The green single-floor cabin is supported on concrete blocks less than 100 feet from the river with a view of Mt. Morris. The cabin has no insulation and is decorated in rustic style -- as Adirondack cabins were before the region became trendy: Old fishing lures hang from a kitchen shelf, a mounted deer head keeps watch from the corner next to roughhewn bunk beds made with 2-by-4s and plywood.

Jones, 46, a machinist who lives near Syracuse, has used the cabin over the years, but it was never what he dreamed it would be. "It's not only that it's caused so much grief and anguish, but it put a sour taste in our mouths," he said.

Jones' case was featured last year in the conservative New American owned by the right-wing John Birch Society.

"It's unfortunately typical from what I've been able to see not only in the Northeast but in the mountain West," said William Norman Grigg, who wrote that mountain property owners increasingly face action by governments on "an ideological whim."

He and other supporters say Jones has been treated harshly because he fought back.

"He had the guts to take them to court," said Jones' neighbor, Larry Reandeau. "They were never going to get him a permit."

His attorney, James Morgan, says Jones may yet pursue a civil rights case in federal court. He won't even consider filing for a permit after all this time.

"If I filed a permit from them, it would basically be saying, 'Everything you've done to me for 13 years was for nothing,' " Jones said.

"All I've ever asked these people to do is leave me alone."

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