Supe pitches a deal to halt court fight

06/24/2010 12:00 AM |

Riverhead Town could be on the verge of losing some of its control over development at the Enterprise Park at Calverton to the state Pine Barrens Commission, yet a proposed settlement of a lawsuit the town filed on that matter may at least give the town the ability to overrule decisions by the commission. Still, it appears that settlement wouldn’t come without resistance from at least one influential environmental group.

A state appeals court in March threw out an earlier state Supreme Court ruling that development at the former U.S. Navy-owned property was exempt from the jurisdiction of the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission.

Town officials have argued in the past that development at EPCAL was exempted from Pine Barrens jurisdiction because the property was supposed to be used for economic development. But the state disagreed with that several years ago, claiming it had jurisdiction at EPCAL, which resulted in the town taking legal action.

The appellate judges said the matter is not eligible for review because the function of the courts is to determine controversies between two litigants, not to give advisory opinions.

Subsequent to that, the appellate court in May denied the town’s request to reargue that case.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said he has instructed the town’s outside legal counsel to prepare an appeal of that ruling to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, but in the meantime, he proposed a settlement to the Pine Barrens Commission last Wednesday.

The commission is comprised of the supervisors of the towns of Riverhead, Southampton and Brookhaven, as well as a representative from Suffolk County and from New York State.

Mr. Walter is hoping the proposed settlement has the support of the three town supervisors.

“The supervisors seem to be voting as a block, which is a good thing,” he said.

In the proposed settlement, “We would refer matters to the Pine Barrens Commission for a consistency determination, in other words, does it meet the 35 percent clearing standards?” Mr. Walter said.

The Pine Barrens law requires that no more than 35 percent of a site within its jurisdiction be cleared. The town’s zoning at EPCAL is consistent with that standard.

“And once it meets it, that’s it,” Mr. Walter said. “They can only say it meets it or it doesn’t meet it.

“If they say it doesn’t and we felt it does, we could overrule them, much the same way it works with the Suffolk County Planning Commission.”

The Suffolk County Planning Commission gives rulings on some town development applications, but the Town Board can override those rulings with a supermajority vote, meaning four of five members have to override it.

Mr. Walter is proposing a similar process for the Pine Barrens Commission.

The proposed settlement would require all development applications at EPCAL be sent to the commission for a consistency determination.

Richard Amper, the executive director of the nonprofit Long Island Pine Barrens Society environmental advocacy group, opposes Mr. Walter’s proposal.

“We don’t have a vote on the Pine Barrens Commission, but we would oppose this proposed settlement because it supersedes the authority of a state agency charged with protecting our only source of drinking water,” Mr. Amper said.

He also feels it’s a conflict of interest for the town to be reviewing projects “on land where it stands to make millions of dollars” from sales and taxes.

The Pine Barrens Society had filed court papers in support of the state in the litigation with Riverhead Town.

Still, Mr. Amper said he thinks the whole issue is “much ado about nothing.”

He said there’s never been an instance where a town disagreed with a decision of the Pine Barrens Commission on whether something met the guidelines of the Pine Barrens Act.

“The town may not approve any project that doesn’t conform to the land-use plan and guidelines of the Pine Barrens Act, and the Pine Barrens Commission may not reject any plan that does conform,” he said.

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