The most famous accomplishment of the Society began in November 1989, when the Long Island Pine Barrens Society created the “Pine Barrens Preservation Initiative“, a lawsuit against the Suffolk County Department of Health and the Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton Town Boards, as well as their Planning Boards and their Zoning Board of Appeals. At the time, housing developments, shopping malls and other commercial projects were being proposed and approved in a piecemeal process, with little regard for the cumulative environmental impact of such projects. The suit, the largest environmental lawsuit in state history, demanded that the aggregate environmental impact of these developments be ascertained prior to the start of any construction.
Once the lawsuit was filed, the Society began a remarkable campaign to enhance the environmental awareness and knowledge of Long Islanders. The public and government leaders of Long Island, in general, and of Suffolk County, in particular, had supported many environmental initiatives in the past: the banning of phosphate-laden detergents, farmlands preservation, and directing a portion of sales tax revenues to protect drinking water supplies. However, the notion of preserving of an entire ecosystem was not a consideration for most.
Through community meetings, informational mailings and extensive media attention, the Society informed countless interested Long Islanders about their drinking water supply, habitats and the Pine Barrens. In but a few short years, the membership of the Society increased from 50-80 to over 5,000! What was more astounding was that many of these members volunteered their time and effort to lead meetings, prepare print materials and help to effect political change. A true grassroots effort!
As a result of the effort of these volunteers and the Society, the preservation initiative eventually reached the halls of New York State’s court system and then to the New York State Legislature. In 1993, an unprecedented convergence of environmentalists, business leaders and government representatives produced the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act. This Act, initiated in and passed by the New York State Legislature and signed into law by the governor, protects the Pine Barrens forever.
The Pine Barrens Protection Act has several important components. First, it established a five member Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning & Policy Commission to oversee the development and implementations of a Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP); it also delineated two major regions within the 100,000 acre area – a 53,000 acre Core Preservation Area where no new development is permitted and a 47,000 acre Compatible Growth Area where limited, environmentally compatible development is allowed. The Plan also recommends that 75% of the core preservation area be preserved through public acquisition. The CMP was adopted by the Pine Barrens Commission in 1995 and most recently amended in 2012.
To make the plan a reality, the Core Preservation Area needed to be acquired. Funds approved by voters for the preservation of drinking water were, and continue to be, used to purchase Core acreage. An interesting feature of this plan, and one needed to make this plan a reality, is the concept of transfer of development rights (TDR). This provision makes it possible for landowner/developers who own land in the Core Preservation Area to acquire the rights to build in another location by transferring ownership of the Core lands to a government entity for perpetual preservation.
Through acquisition efforts since 1993, the Core Preservation Area has grown to over 56,000 acres and the Compatible Growth Area has grown to nearly 50,000 acres for a total of over 106,000 acres preserved for future generations! The first major addition to the Pine Barrens Preserve was in 1998 when nearly 2,600 acres of Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge was added to the Pine Barrens Core. This single expansion was only surpassed in size by the 2013 addition of 3,875 acres of land near the Carmans River. Out of these nearly 4,000 acres, 1,660 acres were dedicated to the core and permanently preserved.