The Pine Barrens Society, the environmental group that spearheaded the preservation of the Central Pine Barrens in the early 1990s, is suing the panel of local elected officials that oversees its protection, the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission.
The lawsuit, filed on November 15 in State Supreme Court, concerns a waiver granted to the owners of a sand mine in Speonk several weeks prior, freeing them from the land-use controls within the pine barrens. The waiver will allow the mine, owned by Westhampton Property Associates, to operate in the environmentally sensitive zone for at least an additional 25 years, until 2041, well beyond its original 2016 permit sunset. The lawsuit demands that the commission revoke the extension, saying there is no basis in the legislation for granting it.
Pine Barrens Society Executive Director Richard Amper was particularly critical of the three town supervisors who sit on the five-member commission, and especially Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, who the tenacious environmentalist said appears to have pressed the other supervisors to support the waiver.
“The Pine Barrens Commission is beginning to depart from the purposes of its creation as it becomes populated with members who have no institutional memory of the reasons for its creation,” Mr. Amper said. “This pattern has reached a critical mass … in which the commissioners, the three town supervisors specifically, are saying to each other, ‘Hey, it’s my town, I’m the supervisor, I’m going to vote this way or that, so you should, too.’”
The commission is made up of the supervisors of Southampton, Brookhaven and Riverhead towns, plus a representative from Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s office, and is chaired by a representative appointed by the state. Currently, the county representative is Suffolk County Environmental Commissioner Sarah Lansdale, and the state representative is Department of Environmental Conservation Regional Director Peter Scully. In addition to Ms. Throne-Holst, Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter and Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine round out the board.
Mr. Amper is alleging that it is the three supervisors who primarily steer the considerations of the commission as a majority. He also charges that the commission has begun to defer only to the assessments by town officials of the merits of a proposal, rather than holding it up against the stricter filter of the pine barrens legislation.
In the instance of the Speonk sand mine, Southampton Town Chief Environmental Analyst Marty Shea prepared an assessment of the proposal at Ms. Throne-Holst’s request. The assessment suggested that the continuation of the sand mine operation, which has existed for several decades, would not have a significant impact on the pine barrens. The commission, at the Southampton supervisor’s recommendation, unanimously approved a waiver based on the hardship that forcing the mine’s closure in 2016 would have on its owners.
“The expanded use was not going to be clearing more area—they were just asking to go down a few more feet, well within the regulation,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “Marty Shea is about as environmentally sensitive as anyone in that field is, to the frustration of many—believe me.
“He is very mindful of what his charge is and what constitutes environmentally sound practices. And he felt this was a legitimate request. I would say this is one of the very rare instances where Marty and Mr. Amper don’t agree.”
In addition to suing the commission, Mr. Amper said, his group has appealed to state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office, which would be responsible for defending the commission against the suit, asking the attorneys to advise the commission to withdraw the waiver.
“We told him he should advise them to knock off doing this kind of thing,” Mr. Amper said. “The legislation is very clear—criteria for waivers are explicit. It’s not a matter of whether they think someone deserves a waiver, whether it’s good for the community. Those are not judgments they can make.”
In order to receive a core preservation area hardship waiver, Mr. Amper said, an owner must demonstrate that, absent a waiver, the subject property would be entirely unusable and financially worthless. The cause of the hardship must also not be the fault of the owner. Because the sand mine property was purchased by Westhampton Property Associates after the creation of the pine barrens, he said, the hardship was created by the current owners. The property also would not be entirely worthless, Mr. Amper added, because once the sand mine is closed, its development rights could be sold.