Pine Barrens Commission Wants More

The Long Island Pine Barrens Commission wants more information before it decides the fate of a controversial luxury 118-unit golf resort in East Quogue.

The board members at a Riverhead Town Hall meeting February 19 gave Discovery Land Company until March 4 to provide it, although only having until April 20 to decide whether or not the project complies with strict regulations. A simple 3-2 majority is all that’s needed, and if Discovery Land does not receive approval, the battle will most likely end in court.

“The Lewis Road planned residential development and its predecessor, The Hills at Southampton, are the biggest and baddest development proposals ever presented to the Pine Barrens commission,” Long Island Pine Barrens Society Executive Director Dick Amper said. “Long Island voters have put up more than a billion dollars to preserve the island’s premier ecosystem. What they’re doing is basically urbanizing our natural treasure.”

Some environmentalists say the project would endanger trillions of gallons of pristine drinking water. On the 600 untouched wooded acres next to pastoral farmland — in the Pine Barrens core preservation area and its compatible growth area — Discovery Land is looking to build an 18-hole private golf course, a luxury clubhouse, baseball field, basketball court, four pickleball courts, a fitness center, and a pool in addition to the seasonal homes.

While Discovery Land claims golf courses don’t pollute, “it’s almost impossible for them not to,” argued one speaker at the podium.

“They spray a lot of stuff on there to control the grass and keep the fairways,” said another. “It’s a lot of pesticides.”

The Arizona-based company, which owns 23 other luxury developments across the world, including Dune Deck in Westhampton Beach, has said it will leave more than half of the land in its natural form, comply with all with all regulations, and monitor and clean the runoff before it flows back into the ground.

“We will apply the minimum amount of chemical usage,” Nelson, Pope & Voorhis, LLC development consultant Chic Voorhis told the five-person commission made up of the town supervisors from Riverhead, Brookhaven, and Southampton, plus the county executive and a representative from the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “This project is net negative in terms of nitrogen.”

Amper, who authored the 1993 Pine Barrens Protection Act, which limits permitted development, said Group for the East End presented a list of violations of state environmental law, including the State Environmental Quality Review Act. Group for the East End is a nonprofit that fights when lands, water, and wildlife are threatened.

“There is a well-documented water quality crisis in the Town of Southampton and across Long Island,” Amper said. “Drinking water and surface waters have been contaminated in almost every hamlet in the town.”

Toxic chemicals like perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) have been detected in drinking water supplied in Speonk, Westhampton, East Quogue, Hampton Bays, Bridgehampton, and surrounding areas.

“Harmful algal blooms and depleted oxygen plague the surface water in these areas,” Amper continued. “These water quality issues are a public health threat and have also resulted in beach closures, fish and turtle kills, and flooding, which undermine our marine economy. Any new development is expected to increase nitrogen in the area threatening the already impaired water bodies of Weesuck Creek and western Shinnecock Bay.”

Discovery Land has been trying to secure the necessary approvals to build for more than five years. Southampton Town already denied it once in 2017, when it was known as the Hills at Southampton. The project is now under a different zoning plan and a new name and has Southampton Town approval. In May 2019, the Pine Barrens Commission asserted its authority over what is now known as the Lewis Road PRD, kicking off a 120-day deadline that ends with a decision.

Westhampton Beach resident Billy Mack said he’s seen firsthand the diligence and concern that Discovery Land applied while developing Dune Deck.

“They create and maintain pristine properties,” he said. “They have gone out of their way to be sensitive to the local issues and concerns. I am a lifelong resident of the area and I consider myself an adamant protector of our natural environment, and I can say with complete confidence that I support this project. I think you will see very clearly hat this is not a ‘big bad development’ but that it’s what we all should be working toward, which is smart development.”

Half those at last Wednesday’s meeting were in support of the project’s approval, including the Long Island Builders Institute, and Southampton Business Alliance, which said it could use the economic boost.

“There’s a lot of environmental guidelines that they have to follow and they will follow because they’re going to have to,” Roses & Rice owner and East Quogue Citizens Advisory Committee Secretary Cathy Seeliger told CBS New York. “They will contribute to the lowering of taxes.”

Those against also included the Southampton Town Civic Coalition, the Shinnecock Indian Nation, and assemblymen Fred Thiele and Steve Englebright, of Setauket, among others.

“The Town of Southampton has taken numerous actions to protect drinking water, including up-zonings to reduce density and the intensity of land use,” added Thiele, a former Southampton Town supervisor and original Central Pine Barrens Commission member who assisted in the drafting of state legislation and the original comprehensive management plan for it. “From a perspective of water quality and open space preservation, it has long been understood that the subject property has special attributes worthy of protection,” Southampton Town Civic Coalition President Andrea Spilka said.

Those opposed also fear the approval of the project will set a bad precedent.

“It’s a natural forest that exists in very few places on Earth,” East Quogue resident Bill Kearns said.

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This version corrects the Southampton Town Civic Coalition President is Andrea Spilka

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