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Arguments heard regarding Lewis Farm legal fees

ELIZABETHTOWN - Representatives for the Adirondack Park Agency and a local organic farm now await a judge's decision regarding a potentially hefty sum of money.

Lewis Family Farm, a 1200-acre organic farm near Whallonsburg owned by Salim B. "Sandy" Lewis and his wife, Barbara, is seeking roughly $208,000 to pay for legal fees in a dispute that twice rejected an agency claim to jurisdiction over three houses built there.

On Oct. 29, Judge Richard B. Meyer heard oral arguments from John Privitera, attorney for Lewis Family Farm, and from Assistant Attorney General Loretta Simon, representing the Adirondack Park Agency.

In March 2008, the agency had fined Lewis Family Farm $50,000 for failing to obtain APA permits for three modular homes built for employees of the farm, which is on land classified as resource management.

A mid-level appeals court ruled unanimously against the APA in July after Meyer had decided in favor of the farm in November 2008. The state declined any further appeals. Now, it must demonstrate it was "substantially justified" in order to avoid paying the farm's legal fees.

Privitera said the agency should be made to pay because it made a blatant error in interpreting its own law.

"There is no case where a violation of a statutory scheme, as here, has been found to be substantially justified," he said.

Much of the APA's argument for justification hinged on an August 2007 decision of Acting Essex County Supreme Court Justice Kevin K. Ryan, who was first to hear the dispute between the APA and Lewis Family Farm and affirmed the APA's authority to issue a determination.

According to Simon, Ryan's decision also affirmed the APA's argument that the houses in question were not agricultural-use structures. Meyer challenged that assertion, however.

"Didn't he really just say that the APA had the authority to look at this and decide whether or not they had jurisdiction?" Meyer asked. "The only determination he made was that the matter was premature."

Simon also argued the APA was justified because the main issue in the case had never been argued in court before, and involved such a complex matter of law.

"If it was such a novel issue, why the $50,000 penalty, and why include a provision that the farm can't challenge the agency's jurisdiction?" Meyer asked.

After hearing arguments and rebuttals from both sides, Meyer reserved judgement on the decision.

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