Decision forthcoming on Boy Scouts plans?

Bob of the Scouts
TIM GANNON PHOTO | Bob Oleksiak, whose property is within 100 feet of the Baiting Hollow Scout Camp’s proposed COPE course, speaks at Thursday’s planning board hearing on the course.

A public hearing on a controversial application to allow the Baiting Hollow Boy Scouts Camp to build a soaring obstacle course within 100 feet of some homes on Silver Beech Lane in Baiting Hollow was closed by the Riverhead Planning Board Thursday night, after hearing comments from residents and scouting officials at two consecutive meetings.

The board left the hearing open for written comments for 10 days, after which, it may make a decision.

The proposed COPE (Challenging Outdoor Personal Experience) course is a series of rope and wire climbing obstacles that exist at Boy Scouts camps throughout the country.

Baiting Hollow camp director Jim Grimaldi described the proposed course as requiring the installation of twelve 35-foot high telephone poles on property east of Fresh Pond. The poles will have a variety of climbing exercises hung from wires between the poles, including a zip line, a cargo net, a Burma bridge, a balance beam, and other climbing apparatus.

At the previous hearing two weeks ago, a number of residents who live on Silver Beech Lane, as well as representatives from civic and environmental groups, said the proposed course is too close to homes and will create noise. They suggested it be moved to another part of the nearly 90-acre camp, although the Scouts say this is the only area it can go because the rest of the camp is too hilly.

Bill Duffy, the Planning Board’s attorney, said the town attorney’s office is reviewing zoning records dating back to 1971 to determine what uses are  permitted there and whether the Scouts can build the proposed COPE course or allow outside groups to use the property without it being a change of use.

“Sooner rather than later, you’ll get a recommendation,” Mr. Duffy told the Planning Board Thursday night.

The application may end up being heard by a different board, if the attorney representing homeowners Bob and Mary Oleksiak gets his way.

Attorney Phil Cardinale, a former town supervisor, urged the Town Planning Board on Thursday to send the application to the town Zoning Board of Appeals for an interpretation on whether it needs a special permit or zone change from the Riverhead Town Board.

Mr. Cardinale said that if the Planning Board doesn’t do so, he will challenge their decision if they approve the course, and he will ask for a ZBA interpretation. He suggested that the Boy Scouts might also challenge — if the decision goes against them.

“So why don’t you just refer it to the ZBA and save everyone a lot of time?” Mr. Cardinale asked.

He said town planning director Rick Hanley, who is the zoning officer on site plans, should have decided before the Planning Board hearing whether the application requires a special permit or zone change.

Mr. Hanley said he wanted to wait until after Thursday’s hearing to make that decision.

Mr. Cardinale maintains that the proposed course constitutes an expansion of a pre-existing, non-conforming use, which means that the use doesn’t meet current zoning but existed before that zoning was in place.

In order to expand such a use, a special permit from the Town Board is needed, Mr. Cardinale said. He also maintains that allowing non-scouting groups to use the facility, which the Scouts acknowledge they would consider, constitutes a new use of the property as an “exercise facility open to the public for a fee,” and requires a zone change.

“This is never going to be used for public purposes,” said John Roe, the Scouts’ attorney. “It’s not an amusement park. Anyone on the site needs a permit from the camp and no individuals are permitted on the course without approval from the Scouts.”

Mr. Roe also said there are covenants that have been placed on the property by the state Department of Environmental Conservation that say the land on the eastern part of the camp cannot be developed.

But he said the DEC has approved the COPE course use.

“DEC says it’s a great use for the property,” he said.

“I didn’t know I was fighting the DEC here,” Mr. Oleksiak said Thursday.

Silver Beech Lane resident Karen Gianfalla said her husband was an Eagle Scout and a lifeguard at the Baiting Hollow camp, but she thinks the proposed COPE course is too close to people’s homes.

“It’s not nice to put this so close to someone’s home,” she said.

Mr. Duffy said he only received a copy of the DEC covenants the day of the hearing, and he will review them and advise the Planning Board on what the covenants say.

Mr. Duffy said there are two issues he is researching. One is whether a special permit is needed because the proposed use is an expansion of a pre-existing, non-conforming use. The other is whether the Scouts allowing outside entities to use the camp constitutes a change of use.

The Planning Board’s next meeting is on May 16 at 3 p.m.

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