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Jan 11, 2011 9:56 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Suffolk County Moves To Preserve Rivercatwalk Property In Riverside

Jan 11, 2011 9:56 PM

When the Suffolk County Legislature authorized the acquisition of an environmentally sensitive 20-acre property off Flanders Road in Riverside for $3.5 million, it essentially eliminated any chance of economic stimulus for the area, residents argued this week.

“It would have been jobs,” said Brad Bender, the president of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association, of last month’s vote. “It would have been development. We’re dying over here in Flanders for some kind of development. We’re looking for something to be different.”

Meanwhile, Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, who cosponsored the original resolution in 2005 that began the process of preserving the property, said he viewed the pending acquisition as an environmental victory. The land was at one point targeted for the construction of a 106-room hotel by property owner Dede Gotthelf.

Once preserved as open space—Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy must still sign off on the deal, which he is expected to do later this year—the property would be targeted for use as a passive park, with trails and possibly some picnic benches, Mr. Schneiderman said. The land is being purchased with funds from the Suffolk County Drinking Water Protection Program.

“To me this is a happy moment,” Mr. Schneiderman said on Monday. “This is good for the Peconic Estuary. I’m not sure if everyone in the Riverside/Flanders area sees this as a positive thing.”

That assessment by Mr. Schneiderman seems to be right on target. Mr. Bender criticized the acquisition—after he found about it this week just hours before the FRNCA meeting on Monday evening. He said the community has been trying to get the Rivercatwalk project moving forward for years, and blamed Southampton Town officials for “dragging their feet” on the project.

Northampton resident Chris Sheldon, who attended Monday’s meeting, said he was deeply saddened to learn that the hotel project would not be going forward, adding that the community had been looking forward to it for 10 years. Now with the land preserved and off the tax rolls, there’s no chance for the community to reap tax revenue—something the area needs greatly to balance high school taxes from the Riverhead School District, he said.

“It’s a sad day,” Mr. Sheldon said. “It really is. With that property there was hope for the community. There was hope for the future. With that property preserved, there is no hope.”

The project is at the heart of a $25 million federal lawsuit that Ms. Gotthelf filed against Southampton Town in 2008, which charged that town officials violated her civil rights and discriminated against her on the basis of her gender, and that they ultimately sought to delay her project.

Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said this week that the town is still involved in the lawsuit, but she’s hoping that the county acquisition will help bring the matter to some sort of resolution.

“I’m glad that the county has seen to wanting to preserve parts of it,” Ms. Throne-Holst said on Monday. “I am sorry on one end that a part of it can’t be devoted to economic development.”

The project posed significant environmental issues that threatened to negatively affect both Peconic River and Peconic Bay with potential sanitary system impacts, runoff and construction activity in the area, according to Bill Fonda, a spokesman for the State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Ms. Throne-Holst expressed similar sentiments and said this week that the Rivercatwalk proposal had several complications, including issues with size and scope. Mr. Fonda confirmed that the project, which was revised several times over the years, would have sought a density that was about three or four times more than permissible on the site.

Suffolk County became interested in the land years ago when it was listed on the county’s master list of properties targeted for preservation due to their environmental sensitivity, said Chief Deputy County Executive Chris Kent on Tuesday.

Mr. Levy has not yet signed off on the contract to acquire the property, according to Mr. Kent. The contract as drafted lists the Peconic Land Trust, a nonprofit land conservation group, as the owner of the property, because the organization is in the process of acquiring the land from Ms. Gotthelf, according to Mr. Kent. Ms. Gotthelf confirmed that she was in the process of selling the land to the group.

At the same time, the county is conducting an environmental site assessment of the property. The process could be completed in the next month or two, he said. If all things are completed according to plan, the county could close on the property within four to six months, he said.

After filing a lawsuit against the town and undergoing what she described as years of being “stonewalled” by town officials, Ms. Gotthelf said she decided to take an offer the county extended last year to buy the property.

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