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But Now We Know Better:
Protect Pine Barrens in Calverton

In 1952, the U.S. Navy purchased about 6,000 acres along the Peconic River in Calverton.  Approximately 2,900 acres of this parcel became the Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant used to assemble, test, refit, and retrofit jets built by the Grumman Corporation.  In the 1950s, there was no consideration of protecting deep groundwater recharge areas to safeguard our water supply; there was no Federal Safe Drinking Water Act until 1974.  There was little consideration of endangered species or unique and critical habitats.  It wasn’t until 1968 that the United States, in order to protect rivers and their immediate environments, enacted the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to protect waterways like the Peconic. 

In 1952, we were still disposing of radioactive waste in our oceans, using lead in paint and gasoline, asbestos in tiles and insulation, and DDT on our food crops.  But now we know better so we do better.

In my last Dan’s article, I described the present day Central Pine Barrens Commission.  The CPBC was a result of a movement to preserve land. That didn’t begin until the 1970s.  It wasn’t until 1986 that we enacted the Open Space Program financed by the quarter percent sales tax, and it took a law suite by the Pine Barrens Society in 1989 to wake the public up to the importance of protecting the Pine Barrens; our sole source aquifer.

In 1974, the Navy donated 902 acres of undeveloped land north of Route 25 for a cemetery, and in 2000 added an additional 1,045 acres.  In September 1998, East End Aircraft Long Island Corporation was given 10 acres on Highway 25, the Grumman Memorial Park and Aerospace Museum. Another 2,935 acres was donated to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation for wildlife management, and the Navy authorized the conveyance of the 2,640-acre Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant to the Town of Riverhead subject to the condition that the real property be used for economic redevelopment of the site. In response to this, Enterprise Park at Calverton was formed (EPCAL)

Recently, Riverhead Town proposed to change the zoning on the EPCAL property so that it would be treated as one single parcel of land.  This zoning decides what part of the property remains as open space and what portions would be fully developed.  The 300 acres of Pine Barrens Core within the EPCAL site is being counted towards the 35% open space requirement; it is already protected, and doesn’t need to be protected again.  New York State DEC is now developing a habitat conservation plan for the endangered/threatened species within the EPCAL property. There are known sightings of endangered and threatened species, and species of special concern on this parcel.  Riverhead Town is deciding what to preserve without going through the review process.

Riverhead Town states that they are aggregating as much contiguous open space as they can for environmental reasons.  In fact, what they are doing is trying to get the zoning that gives the greatest flexibility to the Riverhead Resorts 755-acre and the Rechler Industries 300-acre projects.  They are not making any distinctions about the 800 acres of grasslands on the property.  This is the largest contiguous parcel of grasslands left on Long Island; 32% of the grasslands left in the Pine Barrens.

Included in the plan for the Riverhead Resorts theme park is a 70-acre artificial lake, a 350 foot ski mountain, ice and figure skating rink, many retail shops, restaurants, enclosed tropical water resort, conference and event center, spa and wellness center, hundreds of timeshare units, equestrian stadium, “wilderness” resort, and playing fields.  Over the last week, I have been walking the natural open spaces within the fence; it appears that other people do so too, judging from the many holes cut in it.  I saw an endangered short-eared owl where Riverhead Resorts plans to build the lake.  I saw flocks of turkey, quail, many raptors, and fox.  I saw people catching fish through holes in the ice; visited an old cemetery with gravestones dating back to the early1800s; Norway spruce forests, Pine Barrens lakes and streams.  What I experienced is a robust ecological theme park, and it’s not man-made.

There is a Pine Barrens Act that the State Legislature produced in 1993, and a land use plan that was adopted by the Pine Barrens Commission in 1995.  In the plan, one of the things the Commission agreed to do was exempt itself from review of the EPCAL property.  They did this because Riverhead refused to ratify the plan unless the Commission did so.  The Commission has no authority to make a rule that contradicts the Environmental Conservation Law embodied in the Legislative Act of 1993.  The Act states that the Commission has jurisdiction to review and approve all proposed development within the Central Pine Barrens area which has significant adverse impact on the goals of the land use plan. Since the Pine Barrens Act requires the Commission to review developments of regional significance, the Commission is violating the law by not doing so.

The Town is anxious about the appeal of the decision in State Supreme Court which held that the Central Pine Barrens Commission is excluded from reviewing projects at EPCAL as a result of a section of the land use plan developed in 1995. In January 2008, State Supreme Court Justice, Paul J. Baisley ruled in a case brought by Riverhead against the New York State Pine Barrens Commission, that the Commission lacked jurisdiction to review any of the ambitious projects proposed at EPCAL.  In addition, the Judge redefined the Pine Barrens Act determining that “economic development constitutes non-development.”  This would apply not only to EPCAL, but to the entire Pine Barrens.

Think about that for a minute; “economic development constitutes non-development.”

The Pine Barrens Act lists specific operations that do not constitute development, and thus exempt them from review by the Commission.  One exemption is public improvements undertaken for the health safety or welfare of the public.  The judge interprets the economic redevelopment of the site as an improvement undertaken for the public welfare and therefore asserts that it does not constitute development within the meaning of the law. The Pine Barrens Society and the Central Pine Barrens Commission will file the appeal February 10, 2009.

As I see it, the Navy was incorrect in stipulating that the land be further developed, without putting any limitations on the level of development.  A number of Federal laws had been passed subsequent to the purchase of that property that have been ignored in making that agreement.  You could argue that the property rights are grandfathered in, but that doesn’t mitigate the potential for adverse impacts that a theme park that is expected to generate 40,000 visitors a day will have on the aquifer, the quality of life for the people who live in the area, the surrounding unique and beautiful environment, and the ability for present and future generations to enjoy it.  This will further depress the commerce in downtown Riverhead; negatively impact the roads in Riverhead and the neighboring towns, and burden other public infrastructure surrounding this gargantuan theme park. This would not further public welfare.

Supervisor Cardinale is trying to negotiate a settlement in which Riverhead would agree that the mistake the judge made applies within the fence surrounding the EPCAL property, but not to the rest of the Pine Barrens.  If this is allowed to stand, there would be no legality to stop the Town of Southampton or Brookhaven from appearing at the next Commission meeting and requesting that 2,900 acres of Pine Barrens be removed from the jurisdiction of the Pine Barrens Commission!  All they would have to do is produce the votes of the other towns.

The lawsuit that is in front of the appeals court was brought against the Pine Barrens Commission for trying to assert jurisdiction.  There are five voting members to the Commission:  Suffolk County Supervisor, the Governor’s Appointee, Riverhead Town Supervisor, Southampton Town Supervisor, and Brookhaven Town Supervisor.  At the December PBC meeting, a motion was put forth by the Town of Riverhead. They attempted to get two other members of the PBC (the Supervisor of Southampton, and the County Executive) to instruct the Attorney General not to make this appeal.  The Town of Riverhead sued the Pine Barrens Commission and then tried to get two members of the Commission to vote with them to get the Attorney General not to appeal the case.  This is a conflict of interest. 

Nineteen years ago my friend Bill said “Ken, lets go for a walk.  I want to show you a special place.”  We walked westward along the Peconic River, passed within a few hundred feet of the eastern runway; we followed the river several miles and then walked north to Fox Pond, Sandy Pond, and Block Pond, continued northeast to Swan Pond, again within feet of the airport.  Heading east, we found the abandoned rail spur with trees growing between the ties and followed it back to a place where Bill loved to fish and launch his canoe.  Before this pivotal day in my life, I thought Long Island was all residential neighborhoods, traffic, and strip malls, but now I know better.  When you know better, you do better.  Let’s not allow this destruction of nature’s own theme park!

Ken Kindler, Natural Open Space Advocate www.LITLC.org

 

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Ken Kindler
Open Space & Trails Advocate
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Sayville NY 11782
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