Small animals, specifically turtles, found some friends at Town Hall Tuesday afternoon. READ
Small animals, specifically turtles, found some friends at Town Hall Tuesday afternoon. READ
You don’t have to be a 5,000-square-foot farm market for Riverhead Town to cite you for violating town code. In fact, your main draw could be as small as a hummingbird or box turtle.
While Riverhead Town Board members recently split on their decision to take the owners of a Jamesport farm stand to court, Riverhead Town’s code enforcement unit recently issued notices of violation to The Baiting Hollow Hummingbird Sanctuary and Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons in Jamesport because neither operation is a permitted use under the zoning of the property where it’s located, according to Riverhead town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz, who is in charge of the code enforcement unit.
Supervisor Sean Walter said he couldn’t speak about specifics of the enforcement actions, but echoed Mr. Kozakiewicz’ sentiments.
“It’s not our intention to chase away the hummingbirds or the turtles. We just need people to come into compliance,” Mr. Walter said.
Mr. Kozakiewicz said the turtle rescue organization has been issued a summons in town Justice Court because it is not a permitted use in the Agriculture Protection Zone in which it’s located.
As for the hummingbird sanctuary, Mr. Kozakiewicz said a notice of violation was issued in order to cover the town in the event neighbors of the sanctuary filed a lawsuit, which they have since done.
The notice of violation states that operation of a hummingbird sanctuary that is open to the public is a prohibited use, and that continuing that use would require a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals as well as site plan approval from the Planning Board. It further states that if no remedy to the violation is made before Jan. 18, the town may follow through with legal action, though Mr. Kozakiewicz said he does not intend to and the town has not issued a summons to the hummingbird sanctuary.
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said she was surprised to hear that the town had taken any action at all against the organizations.
“Are you kidding me?” she said when told of the enforcement actions. “We have overcrowded houses all throughout this town and code enforcement is writing tickets to the hummingbird guy?”
Ms. Giglio said she was unaware of the notices issued to the Baiting Hollow Hummingbird Sanctuary, run by Paul Adams on his property on Sound Avenue, and Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons, run by Karen Testa Lombardo from a home on Manor Lane in Jamesport.
Mr. Adams has run the sanctuary for more than a dozen years at his Sound Avenue property , which overlooks Long Island Sound and where he has planted flowers that attract hummingbirds. The sanctuary is open to the public only during the month of August and, according to the orgnization’s website, does not accept donations or an admission fee. Mr. Adams requires visitors to sign a waiver.
Nonetheless, a group of neighbors living along the road leading to the property have recently filed a lawsuit against Mr. Adams and the hummingbird sanctuary.
The lawsuit was filed by Frederick and Debra Terry, Kamal and Sabita Bherwani, and Shawn Hamilton against Paul and Rafael Adams.
Mr. Adams said they are seeking to have the sanctuary closed and they are seeking $3 million in damages. The lawsuit, filed Dec. 23, was not on file at the county center as of Tuesday morning, except for the summary page identifying the litigants. Anthony Tohill, the plaintiffs’ attorney, did not return a call seeking comment and Mr. Terry could not be reached for comment by presstime.
Mr. Adams said the lawsuit raises two key questions: “Does the town code permit me to maintain my property in a natural state as a bird sanctuary? And does the code permit me to receive invited visitors at my residence there, via the established, deeded and surveyed right of way from Sound Avenue?”
He believes the answer to both questions is yes.
As for the turtle rescue, Charles Cuddy, the attorney for Ms. Lombardo, said she brings turtles to the site that have been injured and need to be rehabilitated. She is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and her work is recognized and endorsed by the state, Mr. Cuddy said, adding that she does all the work as a volunteer and receives no money for it.
There are usually about a dozen turtles on the property at any one time, he said, and she has other volunteers who help.
When a report of an injured turtle comes in, Ms. Lombardo goes out and brings it back to the Manor Lane house.
“The rehabilitation consists of medicating the turtles. It doesn’t consist of her conducting any surgery,” Mr. Cuddy said at a June 27 town Zoning Board of Appeals hearing on the turtle rescue operation. Turtles that need surgery are taken to a veterinarian, he said.
“She keeps turtles that are essentially without any odor, without any noise. They don’t do anything to the neighborhood,” Mr. Cuddy said. “They are without any impact that I can see, and I’ve been there many times.”
Mr. Cuddy said there are many wildlife rehabilitators in the state and many of them operate out of homes.
The turtle rescue had gone before the town Zoning Board of Appeals last year seeking an interpretation as to whether a such an operation can be considered an accessory use.
There was one hearing, during which no one raised any opposition to the operation, and the ZBA application was withdrawn a few weeks later. ZBA members had indicated they wanted to inspect the facility.
Mr. Cuddy said it was withdrawn because one ZBA member, whom he didn’t identify, had indicated that he or she would not support the application.
Mr. Kozakiewicz said he is not aware of any complaints from neighbors about the turtle rescue operation. Mr. Cuddy said one person has complained about it.
The Justice Court case against the turtle rescue is still pending, Mr. Kozakiewicz said.
Shells shattered, jaws crushed, legs and paws mangled. Karen Testa and the volunteers at Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons, which opened in Jamesport in May, see it all. And, Ms. Testa freely admits, it is physically and emotionally exhausting.
They do it because nobody else does, she says.
And it never gets any better.
“I foresee doom in their future, because of the pollution in the water and all the development,” Ms. Testa told me last week, not the slightest hint of exaggeration in her voice. “We had to euthanize 20 turtles in just over two months. And these are just the ones that people find. Could you imagine the ones that they don’t find? They die a slow, horrible death off in the woods. Or they drown at the bottom of the bay.”
Most turtles are injured by cars, boat propellers, tractors or industrial lawn mowers.
If they’re fortunate enough to be found, they end up in Jamesport.
Housed in a two-story 1929 colonial that sits on a full acre, the rescue operation is currently home to about 70 turtles, 30 of which are recovering from surgeries on the building’s second floor, which is complete with an ICU, nursery and operating tables.
Ms. Testa and her two principal volunteers, Ryan Ortiz of Orient and Beth Groff of Jamesport, are available by phone 24 hours a day for emergencies. If someone can’t bring a turtle to the rescue center, the volunteers will go to the turtle, no matter where it is on Long Island or the city.
“We’ll go somewhere just to move a turtle; say a snapper turtle is on a golf course and people don’t know what to do,” said Ms. Testa, the owner of Suffolk-based K Testa Real Estate who, not surprisingly, doesn’t spend much time selling homes nowadays.
It would be easy for anyone to imagine these animals dying out in the woods after seeing the turtles being nursed back to health in Jamesport. Some have their jaws wired shut, others have their shells stapled together. Many are missing limbs. Some have deformed shells or ear abscesses due to water pollution or mis-care or malnutrition.
Just days before my visit, volunteers had to tube-feed a two-inch baby diamondback terrapin after a woman stepped on it in her garden in Sag Harbor.
“Could you believe that?” Ms. Testa added, thrilled that the little one has been doing fine lately.
The Turtle Rescue is the kind of place that’s depressing, in a way, especially seeing the more skittish turtles and wondering what they might have been through. But it also makes you proud of mankind, just knowing there are people willing to give so much to care for these venerable yet vulnerable creatures.
Not only Ms. Testa and the volunteers, but people like Sal Caliguri of Sal’s Auto Body in St. James, which purchased and donated the one-acre property. And Dr. Robert Pisciotta of North Fork Animal Hospital in Southold, a resident vet who works pro bono in his spare time to care for the turtles.
When I asked Ms. Testa just what it was about turtles that sparked such passion in her and the others, she explained that turtles “are the underdog; they need the most help.”
And many of them shouldn’t ever have been born. Red-eared sliders, for one, are farmed specifically for the many pet stores across the state, country and overseas, where anyone could buy a juvenile for just a few bucks.
These turtles aren’t indigenous to New York but instead, Ms. Testa said, get dumped by people “after junior’s been occupied for a month.”
The dozen or so sliders at the shelter will be there their entire lives, as they can’t legally be released into local woods and waters.
“Many of them will outlive me,” Ms. Testa said.
In the wild, red-eared sliders live for about 50 years. Not in someone’s house; that’s a commitment no person can keep.
But Ms. Testa said she’s too busy to lobby in Albany to outlaw the sale of turtles, because she’s at the center all day. In some of her downtime, she hands out informational cards to local landscapers, urging them to look out for turtles and, if they hit one with a mower, to call Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons.
“Tortuga, tortuga,” she’ll tell those who don’t speak English.
A man from East Islip called the center about the time I arrived last Thursday. He had found a terrapin in distress at a marina there. It was probably injured by a boat. The rescue staff told him to take it to a local animal hospital, which he did. A vet had to put it down, the staff later learned.
“Well, that’s one less turtle suffering,” said Ms. Testa.
If you spot a turtle that appears to be in distress, call Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons at 631-603-4959, 516-729-7894 or 631-779-3737. Visit http://turtlerescueofthehamptons.org/ to find out more information about the center, or how to donate or volunteer.
Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected][nggallery id=411 template=galleryview]