In June 2015, Brookhaven Town officials and the leader of an environmental nonprofit suggested that the state entity in charge of protecting the environment had actually violated its own rules by clearing nearly a half acre of trees in an area that is highly restricted by New York State.
As it turns out, neither the town — nor the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, a nonprofit that has a history of suing the government if it violates environmental standards — are taking any action against the state Department of Environmental Conservation, officials said recently.
John Turner, the open space program coordinator for Brookhaven Town’s Division of Land Management, said during a June 2015 meeting of the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Police Commission that the DEC had cleared more than 21,000 square feet of trees in violation of the state’s 1993 Pine Barrens Act.
According to the DEC, the clearing was part of a $462,000 project to upgrade Calverton’s Forge Pond fishing access site. The project included parking and safety improvements, installing a concrete ramp to launch trailered boats and building an accessible dock to launch canoes and kayaks.
Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine, the commission member who took the lead in criticizing the DEC’s actions, had called for commission staff to investigate the case.
After the DEC reported its actions to the Pine Barrens Commission later in 2015, no action was taken against the environmental agency. Apparently, none will be.
“We never pursued it,” Mr. Romaine said in a recent interview. “The trees were already cleared. What were we going to do? Make them replant the trees?”
The Pine Barrens Commission is composed of representatives from Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton towns. It has a Suffolk County representative and typically also includes the DEC’s regional director. At the time of the June 2015 meeting, the commission’s DEC position was vacant.
The commission was created to serve as stewards to the land, which sits atop Long Island’s largest clean-water aquifer.
Aphrodite Montalvo, a DEC spokesperson, said by email last June that Brookhaven Town had supported the project.
“It is important to note that (Brookhaven) town issued the necessary Article 15, 24 and Title 11 permits to do the boat launch expansion and commented on the project during the public review process in favor of those permits,” she wrote.
“Although they had some concern about the amount of clearing, the Town supported the additional recreation this much-improved site would provide and made no comment regarding Pine Barrens Law. The launch was upgraded to meet (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards and now provides an accessible canoe/kayak launch. Forge Pond is the pre-eminent bass resource on Long Island and was deserving of an upgraded facility.”
Richard Amper, executive director of the nonprofit Long Island Pine Barrens Society, an environmental watchdog group, said deciding not to pursue the case “was not the commission’s finest hour.”
Mr. Amper himself, according to minutes of the June 2015 meeting, had said that “stated that the Commission should hold the NYSDEC responsible for not following the procedure for submitting a Core hardship waiver application.”
In a recent interview, he said, “The commission showed no fortitude in addressing a problem caused by one of its own commissioners.”
Over the years, the Long Island Pine Barrens Society has gone to court to fight numerous alleged violations of environmental law. In fact, it took Suffolk County to court recently after it was believed the county had illegally raided a reserved environmental fund. The county ended up returning the funds.
In this most recent case, the Long Island Pine Barrens Society has decided against taking action.
“I think the DEC thought that what they were doing was within their authority, but that once the commission expressed that it thought the DEC is still required to undergo commission review and approval, that they would consent to that,” Mr. Amper said.
He added: “I’m not sure what a state court would’ve done to a state agency if we had brought an action.”