The head of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society wants Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter to recuse himself from voting on Kent Animal Shelter’s waiver application before the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission, of which the supervisor is a voting member.
Richard Amper, executive director of the Pine Barrens Society, a nonprofit environmental group not affiliated with the commission, said Mr. Walter gave legal advice to Kent during a March 18 public hearing before the commission.
Kent Animal Shelter wants to expand and upgrade its nearly 50-year-old facility on River Road in Calverton, but it needs a waiver from the Pine Barrens Commission to do so. The property is located in the core of the Central Pine Barrens, where new development is otherwise not permitted.
“At the March 18, 2015, meeting of the commission, you advocated for approval of such hardship waiver by showing obvious bias in support of an application upon which you were expected to vote, and lack of impartiality by advising council and coaching witnesses associated with the hardship application,” Mr. Amper wrote in a letter to the commission, which he read last Wednesday at a public hearing on Kent’s application in Brookhaven Town Hall, which was attended by close to 60 people.
“You provided direct advice to counsel for Kent, made explicit recommendations on how they might obtain a hardship waiver, prompted Kent’s witnesses and advised Kent’s legal team on a legal strategy aimed at advancing an application on which you expected to vote.”
Glenn Gruder, the attorney for Kent, objected to that request, saying he has seen members of boards give advice to applicants many times.
Mr. Walter, who has made it clear in public statements that he supports the Kent application, did not respond to Mr. Amper’s request at the hearing. He later said in an interview that he will not recuse himself from the vote.
“The whole point of having the town supervisors on the commission is because they have intricate knowledge of the local town,” he said.
The normally five-member commission, which comprises the supervisors of Riverhead, Southampton and Brookhaven towns, plus one representative each from Suffolk County and New York State, has been a member short since former state Department of Environmental Conservation regional director Peter Scully left that post to take a county job.
The advice Mr. Walter gave Kent was to use the argument that Kent meets a “compelling public need” in that it’s the only shelter that spays and neuters feral cats.
In fact, Mr. Gruder presented that argument to the commission at last week’s hearing. The “compelling public need” argument is one of only two reasons a waiver to build in the Pine Barrens core can be granted, under state law.
Part of that argument is that feral cats often contract toxoplasmosis, which can spread to other animals and humans, and presents a danger to pregnant women.
Kent also plans to remove three existing buildings on its property and build a new septic system about 300 feet from the Peconic River to replace the dilapidated existing system, which it says is practically in the river.
Kent also proposes a wetland buffer on the river.
Representatives from Kent said the existing facility is polluting the river and the proposed one can only be an improvement for the water quality.
Mr. Amper said the feral cat argument doesn’t prove “compelling need” because there will still be feral cats after the shelter is built and because, he said, toxoplasmosis is spread through contact with feral cat feces.
“This is absolutely contrived at Mr. Walter’s suggestion,” Mr. Amper said.
Most of the speakers at the Aug. 19 hearing praised Kent for the work it has done over the years.
“This has been my life’s work,” said Pamela Green, Kent’s executive director. “And since I came there 30 years ago, we’ve rescued tens of thousands of homeless animals. There’s about 130 animals there at any one time. Last year we re-homed 800 animals.”
Several people spoke in favor of the shelter.
“I’m impressed with the way they care for their animals,” speaker Leola Gonzalez said.
John Macri of New Hyde Park added: “Somebody has to speak up for animals.”
Mr. Amper said many of the comments about the great job done by Kent “don’t matter” in the context of its application, which he said requires it to prove that it can only provide the “compelling need” from the location it’s in.
And several speakers, including Mr. Walter, suggested the new septic system proposed by Kent is not “state of the art,” as has been implied, but is simply the minimum that the county health department will approve.
Mr. Walter suggested Kent upgrade the septic system to improve the level of nitrogen removal to protect the river.
Mr. Gruder said they already have county health department approval for the septic system and the types of systems Mr. Walter suggested are much more expensive.
He said Kent’s application already has approval from the state DEC for a freshwater wetland permit and for a permit allowing it to build within the state’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act boundary, which restricts most development along the river.
The commission voted to close the public hearing, but it remains open for written comments until Sept. 11.
The commission extended its deadline for making a decision until Oct. 21.