If you’ve been following us for a while, then you know that we’ve been fighting a massive development project proposed for the East Quogue Pine Barrens, for quite some time!
It’s been a long and sometimes confusing process for everyone involved. The project has moved through several layers of government. There have been victories and losses. As we approach one of the most important hearings for this project later this month (more on that later), we thought we would provide proper background coverage on where we are today and how we got here.
In 2013, an application for “The Hills at Southampton” was submitted to the Town of Southampton, requesting a zoning-change under the Town’s Planned Development District (PDD) code. Although this started the process we’re in now, discussions and fights against this project date back to at least 2007.
The developer, Arizona-based Discovery Land Company, proposed to build 118 mansions, a 98 acre private golf course, a 155,000 square foot club house, and several other amenities and structures, on 590 acres of pristine Pine Barrens in East Quogue. The development site is also located in a state-designated Special Groundwater Protection Area, as well as a Suffolk County-designated Critical Environmental Area. In addition, the site is also part of a group of lands which The Nature Conservancy has given top priority for permanent preservation.
The PDD Process
From 2013 to 2017, the Pine Barrens Society and many other environmental and civic groups, banded together to participate in the Planned Development District (PDD) and the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) processes. While we worked to pull the community together – holding community forums, bringing in scientific experts, canvassing the neighborhood – the developer took a different approach. They hired people in the town to advocate on their behalf, they promised people jobs, they promised multi-million dollar “community benefit projects,” they set up food trucks outside public hearings, and they donated tens of thousands of dollars to political campaigns.
We reviewed hundreds of pages of documents and participated in countless hearings for these four years. Our coalition even worked to produce an environmentally-safe alternative for the site, if preservation options were truly off the table. We wrote letters to the editor, held rallies and lobbied local elected officials.
In the end, our hard work paid off. In December of 2017, the Southampton Town Board voted down the project. The town also repealed the PDD legislation. We were thrilled about the result, but knew the developer still owned the land and that our work wasn’t over yet.
The developer, who spent years touting what “good neighbors” they are, and how much they cared about the people of the town, immediately filed a $100-million lawsuit against the town and the two town board members who had the courage to vote against the project. This suit is still pending.
Once the project was voted down by the Town Board, proponents of the project, launched an effort to incorporate the village of East Quogue. Several members of the Village Exploratory Committee, witnesses of the signatures on the petition, the notary of the petition, and many of those who signed the petition for incorporation, had vested interests in Discovery Land Company and had been vocal advocates of the Hills project. One member of the exploratory committee was a paid consultant of Discovery. They had hoped that they would take the decision power out of the hands of the town and be able to re-run their project under a newly-formed village government. While this effort was a local town issue, we knew we had to get involved, because we knew that this was just another attempt to get “The Hills” approved.
After a few more months of work within the community, and advocacy, the residents of East Quogue voted down the idea of incorporating East Quogue into a village. The project would remain in the hands of the Town of Southampton.
The Lewis Road PRD – Same Project, New Name
Just months after the Town Board voted down the “Hills at Southampton,” the developer filed a nearly identical project under a different piece of zoning code, called a Planned Residential Development (PRD). The new project was named “The Lewis Road PRD.” Ironically enough, the developer filed for the project under the town’s Open Space Law. The project would now be reviewed by the Southampton Town Planning Board. The developer argued that its professional golf course was simply a recreational amenity to their now 130 home development project. However, the golf course wasn’t the only proposed amenity – they also proposed a baseball field, a practice fairway, a fitness center, pool, basketball court and four pickle ball courts.
The Planning Board, was not sure if a professional golf course could be considered a recreational amenity, as outlined by the Town’s Open Space Law and PRD ordinance. This had never been done before, and a golf course was not listed as an approved amenity in the town code. Therefore, they asked the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) for clarification.
The Society and our coalition testified at these hearings before the ZBA. We argued two things:
(1) The Open Space Law and the PRD ordinance explicitly do not allow for golf courses as a recreational amenity to a development project. Several leading planners testified the same, including Assemblyman Fred Thiele, who wrote the town’s Open Space Law many years ago.
(2) If the project would have been allowed to pass through under the Planned Residential Development zoning from the beginning, wouldn’t the developer have proceeded with this route in the first place, instead of trying to get their project approved under the more difficult Planned Development District zoning? In fact, the developer had stated years prior in legal documents that the PDD process was that they could proceed with their project. However, here they are now, arguing the opposite.
The Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals sided with the developer, and stated that the golf course could be considered a recreational amenity. After this, the Group for the East End filed a lawsuit challenging this decision; we joined them along with Assemblyman Fred Thiele, the East Quogue Civic Association and several neighbors that abut the property.
The project then bounced back to the Town Planning Board. Our coalition showed up again, testifying before the Board. We made all of our original arguments, along with new arguments about how the Town had completely botched the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) process in its review of this new project. Nevertheless, the Town Board approved the preliminary application. Group for the East End sued again, and we joined them again too.
Luckily, our lawsuits have placed a temporary restraining order over the site until they are settled. The developer cannot break ground until the lawsuits are settled.
The New York State Pine Barrens Commission
Since the Southampton Planning Board approved the preliminary application, the project finally heads to the New York State Pine Barrens Commission for review. We have reviewed the 174 page application sent to the Commission, and have determined that the Lewis Road PRD does not comply with at least 28 guidelines of the Comprehensive Land Use Plan. We will be submitting a report on this and participating in the hearing before the Commission, to be held on Wednesday, February 19th at 2:30 pm at Riverhead Town Hall. More details on the hearing can be found here.
We need your help! This hearing before the Pine Barrens Commission is our last chance to voice our concerns about this project. We need as many people as possible to turn out to this hearing. This project doesn’t comply with the Pine Barrens Act and the Commissioners need to hear that the public wants to see our Pine Barrens protected! We hope to see you there.
By: Katie Muether Brown, Long Island Pine Barrens Society