Harpersfield votes to appeal judge's decision in racetrack case

Last month, a Delaware County judge delivered a stinging defeat to Town of Harpersfield officials and the town's new motorcycle track, ruling in favor a group of angry neighbors of the track who brought a lawsuit against both the track and the town. In their lawsuit, the neighbors, who call themselves the Friends of Rural Life, claimed that the track was causing disruptive noise and harming their property values. 

On Tuesday, Feb. 11, Harpersfield town board members voted to appeal the judge's verdict. If the town loses the appeal, Harpersfield may be forced to pay at least $72,000 in attorney's fees to the lawyer for the group -- a figure that could rise as the legal battle continues.

In his Jan. 15 decision (posted here in full), Acting Supreme Court Justice Brian Burns ruled not only that Harpersfield's New York Safety Track must scale back its operations, but that town officials and their attorney had violated state open meeting law in the process of approving plans for the track, and that the town of Harpersfield must pay all of the suing neighbors' attorney's fees. 

In a news article about the decision, the Daily Star reports that a state legal expert believes this case to be the first time a public body has been found in violation of a new section of the state's open meeting law:

[Judge Burns ruled] that town officials violated a section of the Public Officers Law, enacted just a year ago, by failing to make available to the public a memorandum that outlined the site-approval agreement. Such documents that are to be discussed at public meetings are now required by law to be made available to people attending meetings.

Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, told The Daily Star that he believes the Burns decision is the first in New York to hold a public body in violation of this requirement.

The vote to appeal Burns' decision, taken at the Harpersfield town board's regular meeting, was unanimous except for Catherine Straus, who was absent from the meeting, according to information provided by town clerk Linda Goss.

Before the vote, the town board went into executive session to discuss whether to appeal the verdict. State open meeting law allows for town boards to discuss pending legal action in executive session, out of the view of the public.

Town attorney Kevin Young, who defended Harpersfield in the lawsuit, will pursue the appeal. Young is a prominent local land use lawyer with the Albany firm Young & Sommer, and represents many local municipalities in environmental cases. 

On the other side of the legal dispute is Otsego County attorney Douglas Zamelis, also a specialist in land use cases, who represented the Friends of Rural Life. 

On Feb. 6, Zamelis filed an affidavit in the case, detailing the fees owed by the town of Harpersfield. In the affidavit (posted here in full), Zamelis writes that he spent 260 hours on the case, at a rate of $275 per hour, a total of $71,500. He is also requesting $1,100.42 in costs such as filing fees, photocopying, and other out-of-pocket costs.