Editorial: A waiver is not the answer for Kent Animal Shelter

Not surprisingly, the ongoing debate between Kent Animal Shelter and the Pine Barrens Society over whether the shelter deserves a waiver from the Pine Barrens Protection Act to build a new 10,000-square-foot facility has been spirited and emotional.

The Calverton shelter, located by the Peconic River, has rescued thousands of dogs since the 1960s and spayed tens of thousands of feral cats. Meanwhile, the environmental group, with the mission of preserving water quality and open space, has also been successful in protecting the rural quality of the area for the sake of long-term environmental health.

Both nonprofits, however, have been misguided in their approach to resolving this matter.

Kent is seeking a waiver from the Pine Barrens Commission under a restrictive state law the Pine Barrens Society helped spearhead in the early 1990s. In essence, Kent must prove that its property either has no “beneficial use” without a waiver or that the waiver is necessary for “the public health and safety” of the area. After receiving some guidance from Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter, it is now seeking exceptions under both criteria.

Since 1994, five of the 59 waivers granted by the commission have fallen under the “public health and safety” category. Those have mostly involved utility expansions or, most recently, a communication tower for emergency services personnel.

Hardship waivers have been more common, though only nine have been granted since the Pine Barrens Act was amended in 2005, the same year Kent received a waiver to construct a 300-square-foot expansion, claiming at the time that “no other projects are anticipated.”

Kent’s argument that its property has no beneficial use without a waiver is backward. The shelter has been adopting out animals successfully for decades and tax records show it brought in $1.4 million in revenue in 2013, mostly in the form of gifts or grants. It’s hard to believe that the land has no value when the nonprofit continues to function effectively.

But the way the law is written seems to give Kent an incentive to make its land useless.

On the other hand, Kent’s argument for obtaining a waiver on “public health and safety” grounds is seriously flawed. If toxoplasmosis is as serious an issue as the shelter states, why has no effort yet been made to address it? Where has the response been from local health officials?

One possible solution would be updating the Pine Barrens Act. Kent is one of scores of properties along the Peconic River — and elsewhere in the Pine Barrens Core Preservation Area — that have outdated waste treatment systems leeching into nearby waters. With water quality clearly deteriorating on the East End, one obvious way to ensure the long-term health of the aquifer and Peconic Estuary would be to enable property owners within the Core Preservation Area to install modern waste treatment systems in exchange for currently unavailable allowances. Southampton Town is considering similar measures in an effort to redevelop Riverside.

In this case, however, there’s more at stake than just upgrading Kent’s outdated cesspool. The nonprofit wants to construct a 10,000-square-foot building in an area the state previously deemed one of Long Island’s greatest treasures.

Granting either waiver under the current proposal could set a dangerous precedent.