Environmentalist Calls On Supervisor To Recuse Himself From Pine Barrens Commission

East End environmental groups are pushing Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, who serves as a member of the Central Pine Barrens Commission, to recuse himself from the board’s decision on whether to assert jurisdiction over a proposed golf course resort in East Quogue.

Dick Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, labels Mr. Schneiderman as an avid supporter of the proposed project since the developers, Arizona-based Discovery Land Company, first introduced their plan for the Lewis Road property to town officials. Mr. Schneiderman rejects that characterization.

The town supervisor was one of three Town Board members—with only Julie Lofstad and John Bouvier dissenting—to vote in favor of granting a special change of zone for the project, which would have paved the way for the developers to build a 118-unit subdivision, complete with an 18-hole public access golf course. 

After failing to secure a super-majority of four votes necessary for the change of zone, known as a planned development district, Discovery Land revised the project, limiting the use of the golf course only to the residents of the subdivision and their non-paying guests, and resubmitted it under existing zoning. 

That plan was approved by the Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals in a 3-2 vote in November. The regulatory board found the golf course to be a comparable recreational amenity, similar to a swimming pool or tennis court for neighborhood residents, which are allowed under a little-used portion of the town code, known as a planned residential district.

Opponents to the project have taken their argument to the Central Pine Barrens Commission.

At the commission’s meeting last month, Mr. Amper and Robert DeLuca, president and CEO of the Group for the East End, called upon the Pine Barrens Commission to review the project and determine if it conforms with the restrictions and guidelines set forth in the Pine Barrens Protection Act.

After a lengthy discussion, the commission agreed to re-send a letter from last year to the Southampton Town Planning Department, as well as Discovery Land, seeking information on several aspects of the project, including its compliance with clearing and fertilization restrictions. 

Originally, Pine Barrens Commission Chairwoman Carrie Meek Gallagher, who also serves as regional director of the State Department of Environmental Conservation, had intended to send a newly written letter, but Mr. Schneiderman was hesitant to do so, having received a copy of it only just prior to the meeting. 

Since 2013, the Pine Barrens Commission has sent 10 letters to the applicant, as well as to the town’s Planning Department, seeking information on the project, to which they have yet to receive a response. 

During an interview on Monday, Mr. Schneiderman declined to comment on why the letters were not answered, stating that he did not want to speak on behalf of the Planning Department. Kyle Collins, the town’s planning and development administrator, did not respond to requests for comment this week.

“Supervisor Schneiderman is an avid supporter of this project and has been since he took office,” Mr. Amper said on Monday. “In the process, he has helped the applicant avoid responding to the New York State Pine Barrens Commission, and they have not responded to any of the 10 letters.”

In response, Mr. Schneiderman argued that he in no way has been “pushing” to get the project approved. He added that his first choice for the 591-acre parcel is preservation, but he cited the ZBA’s recent decision to allow the developer to build the golf course as a recreational amenity. 

“They’re trying to develop it now according to zoning—that’s their right,” he said. “I’ll do my job as a Pine Barrens commissioner based on the law.”

In a letter dated March 15, State Assembly members Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Steven Englebright wrote to the commissioners urging them to assert jurisdiction over the project. It read: “Please let us know that you will do your duty.” 

In response, Mr. Schneiderman wrote back: “Let there be no doubt that I take my role as a commissioner seriously.” 

Additionally, he argued that it is presently unclear whether the Pine Barrens Commission has the authority to assert jurisdiction over the project. 

Under Article 57 of the Pine Barrens Act, the commission has authority to assert jurisdiction over any project that is proposed to be built in a “critical resource area” or any “development of regional significance.”

Critical resource areas, or CRAs, are defined as any land area having significant environmental features, whereas developments of regional significance, or DRSs, are classified as projects expected to have a significant environmental impact, specifically in terms of traffic.

Building is allowed within the critical resource area of the Pine Barrens, as well as in the compatible growth area—however, there are strict guidelines that must be adhered to. 

According to documents provided by Mr. Amper, the developer’s project will encompass approximately 451 acres in the Pine Barrens compatible growth area. However, Pine Barrens Commission Executive Director John Pavacic said on Tuesday that the commission had yet to determine whether Discovery Land’s project falls within the CRA or includes an area considered a DRS.

On Tuesday, Mr. Thiele said that he had no doubt that Discovery Land’s project would qualify under both criteria for automatic jurisdiction. “I think this project is the textbook case of what the legislature had in mind in giving the commission jurisdiction in these cases,” he said. 

The Southampton Town Planning Board is currently working with an outside consultant to determine if a previous environmental impact statement under the State Environmental Quality Review Act is compatible with the developer’s revised project. The consultant, B. Laing Associates, is expected to deliver a recommendation on April 11 as to whether a supplemental study is necessary to move forward with the application.

Until that decision is made, Mr. Schneiderman said it would be “premature” for the Pine Barrens Commission to review the project. 

He argued that there is no development planned in the Pine Barrens critical resource area and that the completed SEQRA is needed in order to determine if the project falls within the definition of a development of regional significance.

Additionally, he explained that the commission is required under state law to render a decision regarding a project’s compliance with the Pine Barrens Act within 120 days of asserting jurisdiction.

“It’s very hard to comment on an application until the application is deemed complete,” Mr. Schneiderman said on Monday. “You certainly wouldn’t want to assert jurisdiction until you have something in its final form—you could be commenting on the wrong thing.” 

However, Mr. Amper argued that the commission took the “exact opposite” opinion when it decided to review two previous golf course developments—Spring Meadow at Wading River and Tall Grass Village—both of which were denied by the commission based solely on their pre-applications. 

“We believe, having spent four years refusing to provide any information on the project, that the applicant doesn’t meet the requirements of the Pine Barrens Protection Act, and that’s why they’re avoiding supplying any info,” Mr. Amper said.

Additionally, Mr. Thiele added that the purpose of SEQRA is to get the input of all involved agencies at the earliest possible stage of review. 

Although the assemblyman did not share Mr. Amper’s desire to have Mr. Schneiderman recuse himself, he did say, “I do think he should fulfill his responsibility as a commissioner, which is to include a robust review of this project and not find excuses why the Pine Barrens Commission shouldn’t be involved in this stage.”

At the commission meeting last month, Mr. Schneiderman and Mr. Collins argued that the commission should wait to take any action on the proposed project until the town’s Planning Board has deemed the previous SEQRA study—completed under the PDD—sufficient or not. After that, Mr. Schneiderman said the Pine Barrens Commission would have time to review the project.

“After the Planning Board completes the SEQRA process, only then may it deem the application complete, and only then may the Planning Board be in a position to determine whether the application meets the Central Pine Barrens Commission requirements and, more specifically, the Commission’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan,” the supervisor said in his letter to Mr. Thiele and Mr. Englebright last month.

The land use plan—which was put in place to enforce the Pine Barrens Act—provides a breakdown for clearing limits and fertilization requirements based on the zoning and square footage of a proposed project. 

Mr. Schneiderman said that the Planning Board would, in fact, be the board to determine whether the application meets that criteria as it is the lead agency under SEQRA. 

He added that the Pine Barrens Commission would supercede that jurisdiction only if and when a project falls within a critical resource area or has been deemed a development of regional significance.

Mr. Pavacic confirmed on Tuesday that the towns encompassing the Pine Barrens—Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton—are solely responsible for reviewing land use, unless the project falls within those categories.

He added that a development is defined under the Pine Barrens Act as a development of regional significance if the project constitutes as “a commercial, industrial or office development exceeding 300,000 square feet; a multifamily residential development project consisting of 300 or more units; a single-family detached residential development project consisting of 200 or more units; or a development project resulting in a traffic impact which would reduce service by two levels below existing conditions or to a level of service of D or below.” 

“If that doesn’t come into play, the commission never reviews those projects,” Mr. Pavacic said. 

In fact, he explained that when the Pine Barrens Protection Act was created in 1993, it required the three towns to incorporate the land use standards, set forth in the land use plan, into their respective town zoning codes. 

Mr. Schneiderman went as far as to say on Monday that the Southampton Town zoning code is even stricter than the Pine Barrens Act. 

Mr. Amper, however, strongly disagreed. “That is simply incorrect,” he said. “The fact of the matter is if the town’s code mirrored the Pine Barrens Act, the town couldn’t approve the project even if it wanted to.”

He added, “It’s obvious that Supervisor Schneiderman is so committed to getting this done.”

By Valerie Gordon, Southampton Press

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