Pine Barrens Commission Hosts Supporters And Opponents At Lewis Road Public Hearing

Proponents of the Lewis Road Planned Residential Development, proposed by the real estate developer Discovery Land Company, said the project could be a boon to the East Quogue economy — and the law allows the development where it’s proposed.

Opponents argued the harm to the environment could be permanent, and reviews by Southampton Town officials were mishandled.

After three hours of testimony in Riverhead Town Hall on February 19, the Central Pine Barrens Commission adjourned the hearing on the proposal until next month. The commission is the latest and final authority to weigh in on the proposed development.

If approved, the development would include 118 housing units, an 18-hole private golf course and other private recreational facilities on 588 acres of land, 65 percent of which would be preserved as open space, in the Central Pine Barrens Overlay District and Aquifer Protection Overlay District in East Quogue. The site is north and east of Lewis Road near Spinney Road, extending north to, then beyond, Sunrise Highway.

The hearing opened with a presentation by the commission’s principal planner, Julie Hargrave. She pointed out that the Lewis Road PRD is the largest project ever reviewed by the commission, and applications to develop the site date back to 2004, when subdivisions were proposed.

Then, several years later, there was an application for The Hills, which was a golf course/residential plan. Discovery Land sought a zone change from the Southampton Town Board for The Hills to create a planned development district. It was ultimately denied, after years of debate, when it failed to win a supermajority vote of the Town Board.

Shortly thereafter, the applicant submitted the Lewis Road proposal, which is similar but doesn’t require a change of zone.

The application has received preliminary approval from the Southampton Town Planning Board. That approval, as well as a Zoning Board of Appeals determination that characterized a golf course as a permitted accessory use for a residential subdivision, is the subject of litigation filed by environmental groups and neighbors.

Otherwise, the town has cleared the way for the project — but the Pine Barrens Commission must approve it as well, since the property is within its jurisdiction.

Attorney Wayne Bruyn and Charles “Chick” Voorhis, managing partner of the environmental planning consulting firm Nelson, Pope, & Voorhis, both spoke as members of Discovery Land team.

Speaking to the zone change denial, Mr. Bruyn drew titters from the audience with the observation that the PDD application actually was not denied — it just wasn’t approved. The application won three of five Town Board votes, but not the four required for by the PDD legislation at the time.

Mr. Voorhis noted that the property has many areas with “extensive clearing,” and that some areas have been used as an ATV track, while another was used illegally as a dump. He said that while existing cleared areas provided a design challenge, the areas that will be left uncleared all align with open space standards.

The project area covers some 588 acres, 140 of them are situated in the Pine Barrens Core Preservation Area, 62 are in the Critical Resource Area, and 44 acres are in a Compatible Growth Area. Most of the development will take place in the Compatible Growth Area, where, subject to strict guidelines set by the Pine Barrens Commission, development may take place.

Proponents of the project cited the Compatible Growth Area repeatedly during the public hearing, which saw over 30 speakers offering input.

Mitchell Paley of the Long Island Builders Institute pointed out that lawmakers have had the ability to move parcels in the proposal from the Compatible Growth Area to the Core Preservation or Critical Resource Areas 13 times since the Pine Barrens Act was adopted in the mid-1990s, and they have not.

State Assemblyman Steven Englebright was an original co-sponsor of the Pine Barrens Act. He urged the commission at the hearing to reject the proposal, asserting that the development was so poorly planned “it is unworthy of approval.” He said the proposal was exactly the kind of excessive development the Pine Barrens Act was adopted to protect against, giving the commission a veto over town action.

The assemblyman looked askance at the idea of approving “a massive subdivision and pollution-generating golf course” atop the water recharge area. If approved, it will, he predicted, “permanently compromise” the groundwater flow. Ideally, Mr. Englebright said, the land would be acquired and preserved instead.

Larry Penny, the longtime director of natural resources for East Hampton Town, agreed: “The best thing to do for this place is not to do anything.”

The Town of Southampton offered the developer $35 million for the land several years ago, but the offer was declined.

The assemblyman was one of several veteran environmentalists who spoke out against the proposal.

Dick Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, also was an author of the Pine Barrens Act. He called the Lewis Road PRD, as well as its earlier iteration, “The Hills at Southampton,” “the biggest and baddest development proposals ever presented” to the commission. There’s a well-documented water quality crisis in Southampton, he asserted. The proposal would threaten already impaired water bodies of Weesuck Creek and western Shinnecock Bay.

Speaking on behalf of the applicant, Mr. Voorhis said the project would meet net nitrogen/nitrate goals.

Katie Brown, the Pine Barrens Society’s deputy director, countered that “all nitrogen mitigation methods are missing from this project.”

When the plan morphed from The Hills to Lewis Road, many of the public benefit attributes — which would have been required as part of a PDD zone change and included an array of environmental impact mitigation measures — were removed.

Kevin McAllister, founder of the environmental group Defend H2O, said the presumption of net negative is a positive if systematic monitoring takes place. He, too, wished the land could be preserved, but added, “That ship has sailed.” Still, he concluded, “I don’t think the proposal is any death knell for Shinnecock Bay.”

Overall, about half the speakers were in favor of the project, with half opposed.

Bill Tymann of Aquebogue said the project was “good science and hard facts,” while Marissa Bridge of the East Quogue Civic Association called Discovery Land “a corporate bully.” She said the majority of East Quogue residents opposed the project.

Karen Kooi of the East Quogue Citizens Advisory Community disagreed. She asked the commission to simply follow its own rules and “do the right thing for the residents of East Quogue.” The land is designated precisely for the development currently proposed, she said.

“Those who oppose this project claim to be the majority, and they claim to represent the people of East Quogue,” she said. “I can assure you they do not.”

“A coalition made up of the East Quogue Civic Association, Group for the East End and Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr.,” she said, “has spent an inordinate amount of taxpayer dollars, donations and dues to fund a political smear campaign of misinformation and self-promotion against the wishes of the residents of East Quogue. There is immense support for this project.”

Cyndi McNamara, chairwoman of the East Quogue CAC, lives on Lewis Road and said her group is unanimously in favor of the project.

Public sentiment has been manipulated by activists “who claim to care about the community I live in,” she said. Citing a laundry list of issues in the community that the project opponents have not sought solutions for or spoke out about, she said, “They don’t care about our community.”

Jean Hughes, a former chairwoman of the CAC, predicted that once the developer has completed the golf course, “It will be beautiful — but it will no longer be Pine Barrens.”

There is a lot of misinformation and half-truths being told, Larry Oxman of Remsenburg offered. He said local citizens have been “enraged” when CAC members purport to speak on behalf of the community.

“We don’t know what kind of chaos” the development might cause, said Elizabeth Jackson of East Quogue. Her family has lived in the area for 11 generations and always looked to certain areas as untouchable “because that’s where the water comes from.”

Maria Hults of the Hampton Bays Civic Association said she’d been scuba diving in Shinnecock Bay for 48 years, and the water has become so impaired that “about 90 percent of the life in there doesn’t exist anymore.”

Adam Supernaught advised commission members to “pore over the numbers” to ascertain “who’s closer to telling the truth as to exactly what the environmental impact is going to be especially in terms of nitrogen.”

Elanor Daly Coble pointed out the property has been zoned to be built on, and “Discovery has done everything they have been asked.”

Representing the Southampton Business Alliance, Cameron Ackerman read a letter voicing strong support for the project. The Business Alliance believes it would mean a huge economic benefit for East Quogue.

Westhampton Beach’s Aram Terchunian noted that luxury housing is “a tremendous benefit to the tax base.”

Bob DeLuca, president of the Group for the East End, spoke about technical aspects of the project’s mandated environmental review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. SEQRA review has been “significantly mishandled” by the Southampton Town Planning Board, he asserted.

Planners accepted the review that accompanied The Hills proposal rather than embark on a new and separate detailed look at potential impacts, particularly since mitigation methods included in The Hills plan were removed from the Lewis Road plan. He said The Hills was denied in 2017 “based largely on unresolved environmental concerns and other uncertainties raised by Town Board members at the time.”

“There is no SEQRA problem here at all,” attorney Steven Barshov countered. Counsel to Discovery Land from the Manhattan firm Sive, Paget & Riesel, he provided the history of the proposals at the property. The Hills project, he said, was “approved, but an insufficient vote was cast.” His client just simply moved to the next phase of the project, there was always going to be a subdivision as part of the project.

“This isn’t a new application,” he insisted. “This isn’t a new project. This is the next phase of what was going to happen if the public element of the golf course was disapproved by the Town Board, which is what occurred because of the insufficient number of favorable votes.”

Andrea Spilka of the Southampton Town Civic Coalition observed that while Weesuck Creek was “the worst of the worst” in terms of water quality impairment, she said the biggest issue isn’t necessarily the development itself so much as the golf course. And those golfers will drive. She complained that traffic studies compiled by the developer were undertaken during the month of March and failed to look at traffic during the busy summer season.

Speaking to the proposed five-year construction plan, and additional traffic possibilities, she wondered, “How many people are we talking about coming at all times from all over to this little area? … Traffic is already a nightmare — I think it will be worse.”

When the afternoon’s activities wound down, the question became whether to keep the hearing open for additional comments or close it. The commission is under an action deadline and must make a decision by April. However, the applicant could grant an extension, and the hearing could remain open with public comment limited to certain aspects of the project.

At the outset of the hearing, Mr. Bruyn, attorney for the applicant, spoke of questions raised by the commission’s planning staff that his team was unable to answer that afternoon. He promised answers within the next two weeks.

They will be posted on the commission’s website, and the next hearing will elicit public comment on that new information only. It will be held on March 18 at 2:30 p.m. in Brookhaven Town Hall.

By Kitty Merrill, Southampton Press

Check out the original publication of this article here