A controversial development proposal, now going by the name Lewis Road PRD, tops the calendar for regulators and arbitrators in the region this month.
If approved, the plan would comprise a residential development of 118 units, an 18-hole private golf course and other private recreational facilities on 588 acres of land in East Quogue, 65 percent of which would be open space. The site is north and east of Lewis Road, near Spinney Road, extending north to, then beyond, Sunrise Highway. It is in the Central Pine Barrens Overlay District and Aquifer Protection Overlay District.
The Pine Barrens Commission was slated to set a hearing date for the ambitious East Quogue undertaking at its January 15 meeting, and arguments in a legal action against the town are expected to commence in State Supreme Court.
The same petitioners who sued over a Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals determination favoring the proposal — they include the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, the Group for the East End, the East Quogue Civic Association, Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and neighbors of the site — filed a second Article 78 proceeding targeting the Town Board and Planning Board late last year, asking the court to overturn a determination made by a municipal body or agent.
The petitioners launched the first proceeding in December 2018 after the Zoning Board of Appeals determined that a proposed golf course could be construed as an accessory use to the residential development. This second proceeding, a year later, comes on the heels of the Planning Board’s preliminary approval of the developer Discovery Land Company’s plan. The targeted ZBA determination set the stage for the subsequent approval.
There’s been no action yet on the first lawsuit, Bob DeLuca of the Group for the East End said. And, while petitioners requested a January 10 return date for the second proceeding, so far a date hadn’t been set.
The Lewis Road PRD is the second iteration of a proposal to create a residential golf resort in East Quogue. In 2017, the Town Board rejected a plan dubbed “The Hills.” That version of a development proposal sought a change of zone to create a planned development district, a special zoning designation that allows development beyond existing zoning.
The Town Board rejected the PDD. Those Town Board members who voted in opposition cited the potential impact to the environment as a major factor in their decision.
Following the denial, Discovery Land filed a $100 million lawsuit against the board. The company alleged that the way the project was voted down was unconstitutional.
But then the developers filed a new application for the same site. Rather than seek a zone change for a PDD, they sought approval for a planned residential development, arguing that existing zoning would allow the project.
As part of the initial PDD application, Discovery Land included a number of initiatives designed to meet environmental protection and public benefit mandates. The Lewis Road PRD excludes some of those requirements. It eliminates the construction of an on-site septic treatment facility for the East Quogue Elementary School, proposed as mitigation for the nitrogen the golf course would contribute to the water table. It also excludes the purchase of a 33-acre property in the Weesuck Creek watershed, designed to offset the intensity of development, and takes back a proposed $1 million fund to be set aside for sanitary system upgrades in the Weesuck Creek watershed. It eliminates a 4-acre water supply well field that was to be dedicated to the Suffolk County Water Authority.
A $300,000 shellfish restoration project, $250,000 in funding for Shinnecock Bay restoration efforts, and $50,000 in funding for eelgrass restoration have all been eliminated. Community benefits such as a land purchase for the East Quogue Fire Department, $100,000 in funding for a revitalization project in the hamlet, and proposed golf days for all town residents all were eliminated.
Instead, the plan offers a “concession” of restricting the use of the golf course solely to residential unit owners and their guests, as opposed to opening it to the public for membership. The concession, according to the lawsuit filed by opponents, “means virtually nothing (no less clearing, no less water consumption, no less site engineering, no less turf management) to the overall environmental impacts associated with building and managing a golf course and country club.”
To the petitioners, the changes mean the Lewis Road PRD is a whole new plan and ought to have gone through an entirely new environmental review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. It didn’t — and that’s the hub around which the petitioners’ Article 78 lawsuit turns.
“One of the significant aspects of litigating over a preliminary subdivision approval is the fact that New York State Law provides petitioners with an automatic stay on any further approval actions by the town until the matter is resolved, ” Mr. DeLuca explained. “This is critically important, as the town has clearly made substantial efforts to get this project across the finish line, and the present litigation should blunt those efforts until all the causes of action have been considered and ruled upon by the court. Any lower court rulings may also involve subsequent review by the Appellate Division of the court. So the timeline here could be considerable.”
Mr. DeLuca and other opponents have repeatedly voiced suspicion about the town’s “substantial efforts” to approve the project and rush the process. He said the application has received “the white glove treatment since it rolled in.”
The second iteration, with environmental review simply carried over from The Hills SEQRA process, became, he said, “a Frankenstein monster.”
“The town is falling over themselves to get this thing approved, so much so that they’re bungling it,” he said. “You cannot do planning for the most valuable property in the United States like it’s Hooterville.”
Mr. DeLuca acknowledged that the first municipal decision by the ZBA, the one that triggered the first Article 78 lawsuit, was shocking. The groups filed suit, he explained, after the ZBA authorized consideration of the Lewis Road PRD — containing both a 130-unit subdivision and country club, complete with a championship golf course — as representing only one primary use of the property: a residential subdivision. The country club amenities, including the golf course, were deemed a “customary accessory use” for residents of the neighborhood.
This, said Mr. DeLuca, “despite the fact that no other such non-PDD development can be found in the town residential zoning, and despite the fact that the proposal was submitted under the town’s Open Space law — a regulation that is designed to maximize the preservation of natural resources by tightly clustering residential development and minimizing environmental impacts.”
Even as the ZBA decision-triggered suit was in court, the Planning Board conducted its review and, after an all-day meeting described by Mr. DeLuca as “a circus,” working against an action deadline, approved, 4-3, a preliminary application and an environmental findings statement. This occurred, said Mr. DeLuca, “despite reams of outstanding questions from the Pine Barrens Commission, the State [Department of Environmental Conservation], and the town’s own Conservation Board.”
He continued, “All of this took place under the not-so-subtle backdrop of the town’s ongoing and parallel efforts to push the project through the Pine Barrens Commission, which failed, and Suffolk Planning Commission, which failed to muster a quorum sufficient to issue an affirmative approval, thus granting approval by default.”
The Pine Barrens Commission sent a 15-page memo to the board, which concluded that the project was not in compliance with the standards and guidelines of the Central Pine Barrens Comprehensive Land Use Plan, the day before planners held their vote. Commission members voted in favor of sending the comments, in a 4-1 vote.
On the day of their vote, Planning Board members read through the commission’s memo, along with a rebuttal memo penned by Southampton Town Planner Kyle Collins. Submitted in the middle of the night as “corrections and clarifications,” the memo raised eyebrows among opponents who saw it as more resembling an applicant’s response than a memo composed by a reviewing agency. Mr. Collins recently resigned his position.
No stranger to litigation and the court process, Mr. DeLuca concluded, “I would be flabbergasted if a judge didn’t see the pile of errors behind the SEQRA decision.”
Mr. DeLuca said he doesn’t relish litigation, but the handling of the environmental review for the project and the subsequent approval of the application by the Planning Board has “major ramifications” for future projects. Other developers could come to expect the same type of a superficial SEQRA review.
“Given the project’s progress, it was necessary to bring additional litigation against the Town of Southampton Planning Board, Discovery Land and the Town Board,” he said. “The basic grounds for the suit relate in large part to the bizarre course of events that culminated in the Planning Board’s decision not to require any additional environmental review, or conduct a mandatory SEQRA process, despite the fact that the prior project was denied on environmental grounds by the Town Board, despite substantive and negative changes in the current project’s environmental mitigation, which was previously used to justify the magnitude of the proposal when it was a PDD application, despite substantive changes in the overall project density — 118-130 units— and despite the fact that the section of law, the town Open Space law, and project site zoning, 1 unit per 5 acres, requires substantially more attention to environmental protection than the PDD legislation.”
“It’s absurd that the Town Board can disapprove a project that the Planning Board can approve,” Dick Amper of the Pine Barrens Society, another petitioner, offered. In contrast to the petitioners’ complaints about town actions, the Pine Barrens Commission, said Mr. Amper, has a “really good record” of applying SEQRA standards during review of potential development.
The Central Pine Barrens Commission received a formal application for the plan on December 23. At its meeting on January 15, the commission was expected to vote to set a public hearing for February 19.
By Kitty Merrill, 27east
Check out the original publication of this article here