State Attorney General sues over alleged clearing in Pine Barrens

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is suing a Middle Island man who allegedly conducted prohibited activities in a protected area of the Long Island Central Pine Barrens. 

According to a press release from the Attorney General’s office Thursday, John Gergela violated the state’s Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act when he cleared trees and other native vegetation from his Middle Island property and a neighboring parcel of Suffolk County parkland sometime before April 2017. The properties are located within the Core Preservation Area.

Officials allegedly found evidence of grading and excavating on both properties, totaling about two acres. Mr. Gergela’s property is adjacent to Cathedral Pines County Park, located at the western edge of the Core Preservation Area, which extends east into Riverhead and Flanders.

The state said Mr. Gergela had sought to obtain a “hardship exemption” from the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission in order to clear, grade or excavate, which is required under the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act.

Also, a conservation easement on Mr. Gergela’s property, granted by the Commission in 2003, prohibited “construction activity, alteration of vegetation or change in topography” as well as “development” of the property, the Attorney General’s office said.

“Long Island’s Central Pine Barrens are one of New York’s crown jewels, home to thousands of plant and animal species – and essential to preserving clean, healthy drinking water for millions of Long Island residents,” Mr. Schneiderman said in a statement. “My office will continue to aggressively enforce New York’s environmental protection laws to ensure that our essential, irreplaceable natural resources are preserved for future generations.”

The Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission was created in 1993 “to oversee a comprehensive land use plan” for the 55,000 acres of the Pine Barrens’s Core Preservation Area.

The Pine Barrens is made up of more than 100,000 acres, and is home to a diverse number of plant and animal species, some of which are endangered or threatened.

The suit seeks full restoration of land that was cut, cleared and excavated, as well as penalties for the violations. The Act allows for a civil penalty of up to $25,000 for each violation, plus an additional penalty of up to $1,000 per day for each day each violation continues.

“The Pine Barrens were preserved to protect the quality of Long Islanders’ drinking water and their very special ecology,”  Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said in a statement. “Those who violate the Pine Barrens Protect Act must be held fully accountable. We thank Attorney General Schneiderman for taking this action and helping to ensure the protection of this truly unparalleled natural resource.”

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