09/22/11 12:36am
09/22/2011 12:36 AM

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy blasted back over charges by environmentalist Richard Amper that the county illegally raided the drinking water protection fund.

Environmentalists are charging county lawmakers “illegally raided” funds slated for open space preservation and drinking water protection programs to balance next year’s budget without getting voter approval in the form of a mandatory referendum.

But in defending the move, County Executive Steve Levy called charges by Pine Barrens Society head Richard Amper “outrageous lies.”

During a press conference Thursday at the steps of the Suffolk County Legislature’s offices — where he was joined by other environmentalists — Mr. Amper announced the groups are suing the county over its actions. The bill, approved by the Legislature in August and endorsed by Mr. Levy, allows Suffolk to draw 37.5 percent of surpluses over $140 million from the Suffolk County Drinking Water Protection Program for non-preservation purposes.

That money would be taken from a budget line for sewer tax rate stabilization to help plug the county’s $150 million overall budget gap. Other budget lines include land acquisition and water quality and land stewardship.

Mr. Amper said the county’s move was illegal because the program, created in 1987 to safeguard drinking water by purchasing land and preventing development, can only be altered or repealed through the adoption of a Charter law that’s subject to a mandatory referendum.

“Voters have approved hundreds of millions of dollars to protect their drinking water and Suffolk government raided it,” Mr. Amper said during his press event. “We want it back.”

But Mr. Levy said both the county attorney and the counsel to the Legislature agreed that a mandatory referendum was not required. In addition, Mr. Levy, who described Mr. Amper as a “gadfly” who doesn’t represent all environmentalists, said the bill was coauthored by environmental groups Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment and The Nature Conservancy. The executive had said the Group for the East End backed the bill, but later said that was in error.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director for the Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment, later said the organization believes the public should be given the chance to vote on the change.

County officials said the bill includes applying 62.5 percent of the surplus over $140 million to sewer capital projects, including septic tank upgrades near impaired bodies of water.

The rest could go toward helping to balance the budget.

During his own press conference in Hauppauge on Wednesday, Mr. Levy refuted Mr. Amper’s claims, calling them “outrageous lies.”

“The ultimate irony here is that Mr. Amper claims that this law that we are passing is going to hurt the environment [but] it is doing the exact opposite,” Mr. Levy said. “It’s his opposition to this bill that will hurt the environment because it will stop us from funding improvements to septic systems and sewer districts through out Suffolk County.”

Mr. Levy said the public vote clause in the water quality law is “not enforceable” because the state is the only entity that can mandate a referendum.

In addition, Mr. Levy cited a recent court decision when Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s term limits were challenged.

“It has been upheld time and time again that a law that was passed by referendum in the first instance does not need a mandatory referendum in the second instance to make tweaks or changes, which is what we’re doing here,” Mr. Levy said.

Ms. Esposito said that while she’s in favor of using some of the sewer tax stabilization monies to fund sewer infrastructure, she believes the public should have ultimately made the decision to use a percentage of it to help fill the budget gap.

“I wasn’t aware this wasn’t going up for a referendum,” she said. “If the Legislature and the county executive wish to do this, they must put it up for a referendum and Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment would oppose it.”

Kevin McDonald of The Nature Conservancy wasn’t immediately available to clarify his group’s position on the bill.

Jennifer Juengst of the Long Island Environmental Voters Forum, another litigant in the case against the county, said Thursday that “voters have been defrauded” through the government’s actions.

“We urged voters to support the Drinking Water Protection Program most recently in a 2007 referendum, so it’s our responsibility to prevent elected officials from committing voter fraud by ripping taxpayers off,” Ms. Juengst said.

The lawsuit was filed Sept. 15 in state Supreme Court in Riverhead.

jennifer@northshoresun.com

09/14/11 11:40am
09/14/2011 11:40 AM

Environmental groups — led by firebrand Pine Barrens Society head Richard Amper — announced this week they are planning to file a lawsuit against Suffolk County lawmakers because the government approved the use of funds slated for drinking water and open space preservation to balance next year’s budget.

Mr. Amper, director of the nonprofit Riverhead-based Long Island Pine Barrens Society, charged in a press release this week that on Aug. 2 the Legislature and Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy illegally approved using monies from the Suffolk County Drinking Water Protection Program to help plug a $150 million budget gap.

Mr. Amper said the county’s move was illegal because the program, created in 1987 to safeguard drinking water through purchasing land and preventing development, “may only be amended, modified, repealed or altered by an enactment of an appropriate Charter Law subject to mandatory referendum.

“Lawmakers ripped-off the taxpayers, directing millions to plug a hole in the bloated county budget,” Mr. Amper said. “That’s not just a betrayal of public trust; it’s against the law.”

Long Island Environmental Voters Forum member Jennifer Juengst, whose nonprofit group is another litigant in the case, said in a press release that she believes “voters have been defrauded.”

“We urged voters to support the Drinking Water Protection Program most recently in a 2007 referendum, so it’s our responsibility to prevent elected officials from committing voter fraud by ripping taxpayers off,” she said.

The environmental groups are expected to file suit Sept. 15.

Mr. Levy did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

jennifer@northshoresun.com

05/13/11 6:31pm
05/13/2011 6:31 PM

Wading River residents who have been calling for Riverhead Town to take another look at its zoning along Route 25A may get their wish soon, as the Town Board on Thursday interviewed a consulting firm about the possibility of doing just that.

And town officials say the study may even extend beyond Route 25A.

After hearing a presentation from Wading River residents and civic leaders about what’s wrong with the town’s zoning in Wading River, the Town Board next heard from BFJ Planning, a consulting firm that did a study of zoning along Route 25A in Brookhaven Town.

Members of the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition and the Wading River Civic Association were joined by Long Island Pine Barrens Society executive director Richard Amper in calling for changes yesterday, citing four big commercial projects proposed in Wading River, three of which would be along Route 25A.

“We believe that this board is, historically, so focused on supporting business that it undermines the vision most share for our town,” said Phil Barbato, the vice president of RNPC.

Supervisor Sean Walter took issue with that statement, saying the town does enforce its code and has attorneys’ opinions backing the stances it takes, but allowed the presentation to continue.

Wading River currently has four large development projects: Great Rock golf club’s proposed expansion of its clubhouse; Knightland, a proposal to build 32,000 square feet of stores at the intersection of Sound Avenue and Route 25A; Central Square, a proposal to 52,000 square feet of commercial development on the south side of Route 25A, next to CVS; and Venezia Shopping Center, a proposal for 40,000 square feet of commercial on the south side of Route 25A between May’s farmstand and the funeral home.

The groups maintain that the a new zoning study is needed because significant additional commercial development will adversely change the hamlet and hurt existing businesses.

And they say a moratorium, in which no building could occur while the study is taking place, is needed.

“If site plans are approved before the study is completed, it’s findings will be worthless,” Mr. Amper said.

BFJ Planning had originally come in with two proposals for studying zoning in Wading River, one which would consider some text modifications to exiting zoning, and one which would involve more than that, such as redoing sections of the master plan.

But after hearing the residents’ presentation, BFJ representative Frank Fish said the town may want to consider doing a generic environmental impact study on all development proposals in the Wading River corridor, which would add another year to the estimated six to nine months needed for the first two options.

“To do it right, you want to follow SEQRA (state environmental law) to the letter of the law,” Mr. Fish said.

That option would involve holding scoping hearings, in which residents suggest issues to be examined, and public hearings, he said.

Supervisor Sean Walter said there are other things in the current master plan, which was adopted in 2003, that don’t work and don’t apply to Wading River, such as the lack of zoning for marinas.

Councilman John Dunleavy said a moratorium will decrease the value of some properties.

Mr. Walter said another issue that must be considered is that the Shoreham-Wading River school district is lacking a commercial tax base, which increases its tax rates.

BFJ Planing didn’t bring cost estimates with them, and Mr. Walter said the Town Board will need more time to decide what route it will take regarding the zoning on Route 25A and possibly elsewhere in town.

tgannon@timesreview.com