LAKE PLACID - If things had worked out differently, Matt Norfolk might be working for the state Adirondack Park Agency or the Department of Environmental Conservation instead of filing a string of state and federal lawsuits against them.
Norfolk, the 37-year-old Lake Placid attorney who's represented Jim McCulley, LeRoy Douglas and others in several high-profile legal battles against the APA and DEC, graduated from Cornell University in 1995 with a degree in natural resources.
"I intended on being a field biologist or getting into some sort of environmental, out-in-the field profession," Norfolk told the Enterprise in a recent interview.
Matt Norfolk, who’s represented a string of clients in lawsuits against the state Adirondack Park Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation, takes a phone call Monday at his office in Lake Placid.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
That didn't happen, obviously, and Norfolk pursued a career in law that eventually brought him to the Adirondacks. Since then, he's represented several clients who claim the state agencies have exceeded their authority and jurisdiction, and are working in concert with the Park's environmental groups. In the most recent case, filed last month in federal court, Norfolk is representing a half-dozen disabled veterans suing APA and DEC over floatplane access to lakes in the Park.
To his supporters like McCulley, Norfolk is the lawyer who's been willing to stand up and fight for the little guy.
"Matt was the first attorney that I've seen around here that was willing to take on the powers that be," McCulley said. "No one else was willing to do it."
But his critics question his tactics - he has a reputation for trying cases in the press - and think his cases against APA and DEC amount to nothing more than a "fishing expedition."
"I don't want to disparage him on a personal or professional level, but in the instances we've had to deal with the guy, I think his agenda has been pretty plain," said Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan, "that it was to intimidate those who don't agree."
Norfolk grew up in the Watertown area and graduated from Immaculate Heart Central High School in 1991. His parents, who now run a bed and breakfast in Adams Center, were civil servants: His father was a Watertown police officer and detective, and his mother was an assessor for the city.
Norfolk said he learned from an early age not to accept what you are being told by government leaders and officials at face value - a lesson that he's carried over into his law practice.
"That's ironic because my parents were civil servants," he said. "But instilling that lesson had to do with what they saw in government - that you shouldn't take everything at face value, and you should do your own independent evaluation of what's going on."
After high school, Norfolk attended Cornell and pursued a natural resources degree, thinking it was a ticket to a career in the outdoors. He realized soon, however, that his view of that line of work had been a bit romanticized and decided to go into environmental law.
Graduating from St. John's University law school in 1998, Norfolk initially worked for several law firms on Long Island. He lived in Tokyo for a year, serving as in-house counsel to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and later worked for a team of lawyers representing American Airlines in litigation stemming from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Two years later, Norfolk and his wife Darcy, who went to high school together, decided to move out of New York City. They picked the Adirondacks because his wife's family has a summer home on the Raquette River in South Colton. Norfolk also has ties to DEC's Camp Colby in Saranac Lake, where he was a camper and a counselor for several years.
Norfolk got a job at the Smith, Dwyer and Bliss law firm in Lake Placid in July 2003. He later worked part-time as an assistant district attorney for then Essex County DA Ronald Briggs. After Briggs left office, the two decided to go into practice together in Lake Placid.
Norfolk said his first exposure to the issues he'd raise in cases against the state came when he represented J. David Beneke, who built a floating boathouse on Upper Saranac Lake without a town of Santa Clara building permit. Norfolk lost the case but said it was an "eye-opener."
"I thought my adversary was just the town," he said. "But the town was talking to the APA, which was talking to DEC. Before I knew it, the property dispute involved other agencies."
The case that started it all, however, was McCulley's. Norfolk said he first met McCulley when he walked across McCulley's property to go bow hunting on adjacent state land.
"There's a right of way that I can use there to get to state land, so I thought," Norfolk said.
"I was throwing him off my property," McCulley recalls. "I saw him heading into the woods bow hunting, and I was like, 'Hey!'"
The two later talked about McCulley's ongoing legal battle with the state over motorized access to the Old Mountain Road in the towns of North Elba and Keene. McCulley had recently been ticketed by a DEC officer for driving his pickup truck on a portion of the road, which traverses the Sentinel Range Wilderness.
"I decided to take the case because I thought it had merit after researching it for hours," Norfolk said. "I didn't have any ties to the issue one way or the other."
McCulley won the case when DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis agreed with his argument that Old Mountain Road was a town road and DEC had no jurisdiction over it. McCulley later settled a federal civil rights case he had filed against the state.
"I think my case was sort of a watershed case where people realized they could beat the state," McCulley said. "Once they realized that, they said, 'OK, why are we letting ourselves be run over?'"
Painting a picture
The Old Mountain Road case opened the door for a number of similar cases for Norfolk.
"Because of that success, other clients have come to me," he said. "There's definitely a referral system out there of individuals and entities. It started with McCulley."
Among those cases, Norfolk represented Joseph and Patricia Zelanis, who were ordered by the APA last year to remove two covered porches from their 2,000-square-foot home in the town of Putnam. A judge annulled part of that enforcement order in a decision earlier this year.
Norfolk also handled the case of Marilyn and Milton Wechsler, who own a summer home on Loon Lake and were ordered by the APA to remove a retaining wall they had built in the lake. The Wechslers request to dismiss the enforcement action was rejected in April because their challenge wasn't filed on time by their prior attorney. Norfolk is appealing the decision.
In addition to the floatplane case, Norfolk is handling LeRoy Douglas' multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the APA and the Adirondack Council. Douglas claims the Council and Brian Ruder, chairman of the environmental group's board of directors and a neighbor of Douglas on Silver Lake, conspired with the APA to reopen an enforcement case against him.
Norfolk said the cases paint a picture.
"In general, if you look at these cases, there's been some sort of overstepping of the agency's jurisdiction or power," he said. "That's why I take these cases. They've got legal merit."
The Adirondack Council thinks Norfolk's cases have had little to no merit.
"From our perspective, it looks more like a fishing expedition," Sheehan said. "Mr. Norfolk is representing people who, in our case, are attacking our freedom of speech and our constitutional rights to express ourselves and to participate in government, and we think that's wrong, obviously. We are vigorously defending that in court right now."
It's still too early to compile a win-loss record for Norfolk on many of these cases, apart from the McCulley decision.
"We'll probably know more six months or a year from now whether his efforts have been successful," Sheehan said.
Norfolk knows some of the people he's representing have strong opinions against the APA, DEC and the Park's environmental groups. But he isn't adopting their agenda, he said.
"I'm not doing this with a mission or agenda to change policy in the Park, or change the Park Agency," Norfolk said. "I'm not waving that flag."
Norfolk also said he still has strong ties to his environmental roots.
"I'm a conservationist, not a preservationist," he said. "You've got to have a balance. When I see environmental rules and policies that are bent in a way that take away people's legal rights, that's where maybe a line has to be drawn."
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.