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Baker v. Department of Envtl. Conservation

ELR Citation: 16 ELR 20838
Nos. No. 85-CV-145, 634 F. Supp. 1460/(N.D.N.Y., 05/16/1986)

The court holds that the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution bars an action against New York challenging the state's ban on the use of motorized vehicles, vessels, and aircraft in certain areas in Adirondack State Park, and the ban does not violate the federal Rehabilitation Act, substantive due process, procedural due process, or equal protection. The court initially holds that plaintiffs' suit against the state Department of Environmental Conservation is in actuality a suit against the state and thus is barred by the Eleventh Amendment.

The court next holds that although proper amendment of the complaint by naming specific state officials may cure the defect, it may consider the legal sufficiency of plaintiffs' allegations in determining whether to grant the amendment. Turning to the merits of plaintiffs' allegations, the court holds that the ban does not violate §504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act prohibiting the denial to handicapped persons of meaningful access to benefits offered by those receiving federal financial assistance. Although the ban may prevent the handicapped plaintiffs from using the wilderness areas of the park, the court holds they have meaningful access to the park as a whole. Motorized vehicles, vessels, and aircraft are permitted in most of the park, and access is possible even in many primitive areas affected by the ban. Moreover, allowing the use of motorized vehicles in these areas would not be a reasonable accommodation within the meaning of the Rehabilitation Act, since such use conflicts with the purpose of wilderness as defined in the Adirondack State Park Master Plan. The court next holds that the regulations implementing the ban do not violate the Fourteenth Amendment due process rights of the handicapped plaintiffs. After establishing that the right to use motorized vehicles in the wilderness is not a fundamental right calling for strict scrutiny, the court holds that the regulations are rationally connected to the legitimate state goal of preserving its undeveloped lands in a natural condition. The court also holds that the regulations do not violate the procedural due process rights of plaintiffs who engage in the business of transporting fishermen and trappers into the affected areas, since plaintiffs have not been deprived of any protected liberty or property interest. The court holds that the regulations do not violate the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. The business plaintiffs are not a suspect class since utilizing motorized transportation in the wilderness is not a fundamental right, and the court holds that, as to them, the regulations are rationally related to a legitimate state interest. The court then holds that the physically handicapped are not a suspect class, either, nor do they qualify for the intermediate level of judicial review. The court holds that although certain less physically able persons may experience difficulty in reaching remote areas of the park as a result of the ban, the regulations do not discriminate against plaintiffs and are rationally related to a legitimate state interest. Finally, the court dismisses plaintiffs' pendent state claims, since it has dismissed all plaintiffs' federal claims and denies plaintiffs' motion to amend their complaint.

Counsel for Plaintiffs
Francis X. Wallace
80 New Scotland Ave., Albany NY 12208
(518) 445-2359

Counsel for Defendant
Robert Abrams, Attorney General
The Capitol
Albany NY 12224
(518) 474-7330

Counsel for Intervenor-Defendants
Howard Fox
Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, Inc.
1516 P St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20005
(202) 667-4500