Jay Jacobs, the applicant behind a plan to create a seasonal day camp in North Sea, is suing two of the project’s most vocal critics, seeking $65 million in damages, claiming that they defamed him in a flier about the project.
The two individuals, John Barona and John Gorman, are president and vice president of the Little Fresh Pond Association, a group of neighbors who have mobilized with other groups in opposition to Mr. Jacobs’s plan to create a summer children’s day camp on about 17.3 acres of land along Majors Path in North Sea. Traffic, noise and potential pollution to neighboring Little Fresh Pond are at the heart of their concerns. The camp could eventually boast an enrollment of 350 to 400 children, and about 60 counselors who would live on the grounds.
On Monday afternoon, Mr. Jacobs, chairman of the State Democratic Committee, said the contents of the flier were “defamatory and malicious,” and that it included misstatements about his project, particularly in regard to its sewage flow. The flier states that the project would “dump 35 percent more sewage into North Sea’s watershed than Suffolk County’s limits,” among other assertions. It also alleges that Mr. Jacobs has been “hiding these harms and lying his way to get exemption.”
“What I would like is, I want them to apologize,” Mr. Jacobs said. “I believe they have to undo the damage they have done, in that I’d like them to take an ad in the same newspaper that I’ve been taking out full-page [advertisements] in, and at the first level state that they have no reason to believe, and no evidence of, any lying on my part, that they apologize for accusing me of it, and then that they admit that they have been exaggerating the facts.”
When reached on Monday, Mr. Barona said he believed Mr. Jacobs’s lawsuit, which was filed on Friday in State Supreme Court, was an act of desperation. He said his group’s lawyers plan to countersue Mr. Jacobs.
“I personally see it as Jay Jacobs feeling like he’s on the losing end of the battle here and he’s a desperate man,” he said. “I think he’s trying to silence us and intimidate us so that he can go forward with his project. But I think it’s going to really work to his disadvantage, because I think he’s shedding a different light on himself, and the town officials are going to stand up and notice what kind of intimidation tactics he’s taking in the neighborhood here. I don’t think this a good thing.”
In a press release sent out on Monday afternoon, Mr. Gorman denounced the suit. “This is a sad day for Southampton,” he said, “that a resident expressing their legitimate opposition to a developer’s plans is sued for tens of millions of dollars for what’s in a flier.”
The same statement, e-mailed by North Sea resident Foster Maer, claims that Mr. Jacobs’s lawsuit was a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation,” or SLAPP lawsuit, an action taken by a developer designed primarily to quash local opposition to a project. New York State has an anti-SLAPP statute.
Mr. Jacobs emphasized that his lawsuit was not intended to do that. “Let me make it clear that we have a good number of people opposed to our project,” he said. “I respect them. I respect their opinions. I disagree with them … however, I cannot allow someone to defame me, malign me personally, and I cannot let that pass.”
Mr. Jacobs added that he is changing his project once again, reducing the amount of septic flow from 6,600 gallons of sewage to 5,100 gallons, to come in line with current Suffolk County Department of Health standards, rather than claiming the higher amount as a grandfathered right. He is proposing to do so by reducing the number of people living on the grounds by 20, bringing the total number of counselors to about 40. “And that way we are now going to be exactly in compliance with every possible standard every person in the [Little] Fresh Pond area would have asked for,” Mr. Jacobs said.
The lawsuit was filed just one day after approximately 100 angry North Sea residents packed into a Southampton Zoning Board of Appeals meeting last Thursday night, October 20—following a protest on the steps of Town Hall—to deliver an emphatic message to members of the board, that they don’t want the day camp. About 30 people spoke at the meeting, including Mr. Jacobs.
The group of neighbors is asking the ZBA to rule on their challenge of a determination made this summer by Chief Building Inspector Michael Benincasa that Mr. Jacobs’s plan does not constitute an expansion or change in use from what currently exists on the residentially zoned site, and that he only needs site plan approval from the Planning Board, instead of a variance from the ZBA.