The hunting club fighting the city water department over the right of way to its property above the watershed has not only cut the lock on the gate erected to block the road, but it has taken the gate and is charging the department a $50-a-day storage fee.
As of last week, one club member said the bill stood at $500.
The situation at the top of Easterly Street Extension has escalated since summer, when club members posed in front of the locked gate adjacent to the water department’s caretaker’s house. The club incorporated and bought a second, 90-acre parcel. They also hired a lawyer who fired off two letters warning that the barricade must be removed within 10 days or the club would remove it. He also laid out case law supporting the club’s claim to the right of way.
The issue, basically, is where Easterly Road Extension ends. Two years ago, the water board erected a gate across the road, just off the entrance to its driveway, and locked it. That blocked access for landowners further up the road, which is a dead end. Property deeds indicate that there is a right of way from the public highway. But the water board contends that the road ends at its property.
The club’s lawyer, Darrell W. Harp, accuses water board officials in one letter of “summarily [erecting] the unlawful gate and barricade across the right of way easement” and warns that the department “was given sufficient time to correct its misconduct.” Harp is a Clifton Park attorney and former assistant commissioner of legal affairs at the state Department of Transportation.
The water department’s lawyer, Edward B. Flink of the Latham fi rm of Flink Smith LLC, did not return repeated phone calls last week. Water Board President Steve Mauro declined comment and referred a reporter to Flink.
A road or not a road?
In an interview last summer, Flink said of the club’s original parcel that if there is a right of way, it does not run along the old road down to the gate. He also said there is no evidence that Easterly Street Extension continues beyond the gate, and if it was a town road, it was long ago abandoned. Town officials took a similar view in regard to the road’s status.
Harp contends that the right of way exists forever unless relinquished.
“We’ve done what we had to do to open our right of way, and we hope that’s the end of it,” Harp said. “We have the right of way; there’s no question about that,” he added.
Before hiring Harp, club members were arguing their own case and were basing much of it on old maps and surveys showing Easterly Street Extension running all the way to the top of the hill and to their original property. The newly acquired 90-acre parcel comes down the hill to within a few hundred feet of the gate, and Harp said it clearly has a right of way through the gate.
Harp, asserting that the water department must demonstrate that an easement to the property was legally extinguished, said “no prior deeds to my client’s property relinquished the easement rights that its property has along the highway commonly called Easterly Street Extension.” He notes in the letter that the club property and the watershed property were sold by the same owner in the 1800s.
As he informs Flink in an Oct. 23 letter, this case going forward is all about the right of way to the new 90-acre parcel: “We are not interested, at this time, to assert a claim of a public highway, even though there clearly was a highway going back into the 1800s.”
In a second letter to Mauro, Harp makes several arguments he supports with case law, including a 2008 Appellate Division case that says “the abandonment of a public highway... does not serve to extinguish private easements, as [cited law] does not provide for compensation to the owners of any private easements that would be extinguished.”
Fighting for rights
Harp said it is apparent that the water board barricaded the road two years ago on the theory that it would protect the watershed. But, he said, “they can’t just landlock property and isolate it so they can buy it up [at diminished value].”
The club, perhaps playfully emphasizing the fact the water department does not recognize Easterly Street Extension beyond the gate, has named its corporation Easterly Street Extension Sportsmans Club.
The water board has paid Flink Smith more than $20,000 so far.
When the dispute began in 2006, the club was issued a building permit by the town of Johnstown to build a camp. Before the construction materials could be transported up the hill, the water board locked the gate.
Though club spokesman John Sira is now referring questions to Harp, when the confrontation came to a head over the summer, he pointed to the depiction of Easterly Street Extension on both century-old county tax maps and the current edition. The maps show the road running all the way to the club’s original parcel.
Sira is a Gloversville police sergeant who also happens to be the husband of Fulton County District Attorney Louise K. Sira.
Those connections carried no weight with the water department. In the summer interview, Flink said, “Mr. Sira and his group do not have any established rights over [Easterly Street Extension].”
Flink said then, “We’re doing everything we can to be eminently, eminently fair.”
Flink said the water board was then working on a new policy regarding access to old roads at both of its watersheds. That status of the policy remains unclear.
Harp said the case is clear and his clients are prepared to move beyond this dispute.
“The next move is up to them,” Harp said of the board. We hope that’s the end of it,” he said, adding, “we’ll be good neighbors. We’ll respect everybody else’s rights, and we expect our rights to be respected,” Harp said.