A controversial proposal to build a golf course and resort in the Long Island Pine Barrens has pitted preservationists against developers. Both sides argue that the 1993 Pine Barrens Protection Act is on their side.
The complex law simultaneously protects the forest and permits development. And the state-appointed Pine Barrens Commission must strike a balance between the two.
At the end of Spinney Road in East Quogue, a locked chain-link gate discourages illegal dumping on a large swath of land. Inside are pitch pine trees and vast, sandy clearings. And there’s evidence of dumping, like a jet ski and a ripped-out car seat.
This is where Discovery Land Company, an Arizona-based developer with deep pockets, owns almost 600 acres. Its plan includes 118 homes, an 18-hole golf course and a luxury clubhouse. The company owns 23 other luxury developments across the world, including Dune Deck in Westhampton Beach.
Some environmentalists say the project would endanger trillions of gallons of pristine drinking water underneath Long Island, even though Discovery Land has promised to monitor and clean the runoff before it flows back into the ground.
Discovery Land has been trying to secure the necessary approvals to build the project for more than five years. Southampton Town already denied it once in 2017, when it was known as the Hills at Southampton.
Now it’s back, under a different zoning plan and a new name: the Lewis Road Planned Residential Development, or PRD. The developers submitted an application to the town planning board. If it’s approved, the developers will then need additional approval from the Pine Barrens Commission.
“The commission has to have a hearing on it, has to review the application materials, has to hear public testimony on it, and then ultimately determine what its decision is going to be,” John Pavacic, the executive director of the commission, said about the process.
The five-person commission is made up of the town supervisors from Riverhead, Brookhaven and Southampton — representing each of the towns where the pine barrens are found — plus the county executive and a representative from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
They have the authority to make recommendations to approve or deny projects in “critical resource areas” or projects deemed a “development of regional significance.” They can also assert authority over any development in the Central Pine Barrens area.
It’s a long, complicated, and confusing process — one that includes countless meetings, public hearings and input from experts.
In May, the Pine Barrens Commission asserted its authority over the Lewis Road PRD, kicking off a 120-day deadline that ends with a decision about the project. In that time, Discovery Land has to submit plans or give the commission a time extension. If they do neither, the commission will deny the project without prejudice.
Both supporters and opponents of the project use the process to their advantage. And both say the law is on their side.
Dick Amper, executive director of the environmental group Long Island Pine Barrens Society, advocated for the passage of the 1993 Pine Barrens Protection Act, which stated that the pine barrens are essential to the groundwater quality on Long Island, and therefore must be preserved. The law created areas for preservation and areas for development within the pine barrens. Amper is worried that Discovery Land’s development circumvents this law.
“It's been a dodgy kind of project,” Amper said. “It's not just the size and the money and the influence and the advertising and the political manipulation. It's the nature of the project, the size of the project, and the location of the project that makes it a problem.”
Amper said the plan violates both the letter and the spirit of the law, claiming it doesn’t follow the Commission’s land use plan.
He thinks the property is too close to the core area and is worried about pesticide usage on the golf course and lawns in an environmentally sensitive area. He also said it would have a negative effect on vulnerable and endangered species, and that Discovery Land is removing more trees and soil than the land use plan permits.
But Mark Hissey, Discovery Land’s senior vice president of development, said they have followed the law and are taking environmental concerns into account.
“We paid very close attention to what the regulations are from the pine barrens law,” Hissey said. “I think that will be proved unequivocally when we're going through the review by them, which will happen in a month or two. We haven't asked for any variances. There's nothing that we are proposing here that is beyond the bounds of the law.”
Hissey added there’s “nothing untoward about it despite the aspersions that Mr. Amper likes to throw around.” He said Discovery Land will mitigate its environmental impact by using runoff water from nearby farms that’s already contaminated with nitrogen. Additionally, they plan to install their own wastewater treatment plant and donate land to Suffolk County Water Authority to build a new well. Because it’s a seasonal development, he said no additional children will be added to the schools.
Bill Kearns lives on Spinney Road in East Quogue. He said two of the golf course holes may be about a hundred yards from his property line. He doesn’t support the project for environmental reasons.
“Nothing of consequence should be developed in the pine barrens,” Kearns said. “It should be protected simply because it’s unique. I always thought it should be a national or state forest.”
Like Amper, Kearns wants the town to buy Discovery Land’s property and preserve it, just as it did with an adjacent property called The Links in 2012. That project was zoned for residential development on 150 acres. The town bought The Links — splitting the cost with the county — and preserved the land as open space.
The town already did try to buy Discovery Land’s property. It offered $35 million in 2016, but the company turned it down. In 2011, before Discovery Land owned the property, then-legislator and current Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman pushed to buy the land, but the deal eventually fell through.
Hissey says Discovery Land has no plans to sell the property and that they will leave the required 65% of the land untouched.
“We have property rights,” he said. “We took a big chance on buying the land and we're going to develop it. It's within our rights to do that.”
That’s because most of the land is located in the pine barrens’ Compatible Growth Area, where the law states that land can be developed — subject to strict guidelines set by the Pine Barrens Commission.
In East Quogue, this development is a divisive subject. It’s fueling a movement for independence from Southampton Town. Some local residents think incorporating as a village, with its own mayor, board of trustees and zoning board, would give East Quogue more control over their own planning and zoning.
At a Pine Barrens Commission meeting in March, Cyndi McNamara, a representative of the Concerned Citizens of East Quogue and advocate for incorporation, urged the Pine Barrens Commission not to be intimidated by protesters, who shook signs that read “Save our Water, Save our Pine Barrens,” a rallying cry since the project’s inception.
McNamara lives on Lewis Road, near Discovery Land’s site.
“The opposition has struck out with every other regulatory board, so congratulations — you’re next,” she told the commission. “Welcome to the circus. I hope you got popcorn. If I am correct, the planning board doesn’t refer a subdivision to the Pine Barrens Commission until the application is deemed complete, because to do so beforehand would be a complete waste of everyone’s time.”
Dr. Christopher Gobler, a leading expert on Long Island’s water quality, was asked by the town to analyze nitrogen output for multiple versions of the project.
Gobler said after he shared his results with Discovery, they took his research into account and designed a series of environmental benefits to combat the impact.
“There’s no doubt that preservation will have the lowest amount of environmental impact,” Gobler said. “But that being said, if you know that there’s going to be development there — the property is owned independently, not by the town at this point — then it’s a question of what option is the best for the environment.”
The commission uses its standards and guidelines as a basis to determine whether it will approve or deny proposed projects in the pine barrens.
But Pavacic said most developments never reach the commission because the three towns were required to incorporate the commission’s standards and guidelines into their respective zoning codes.
“I can't opine as to what the commission would do hypothetically,” Pavacic said. “It goes through this deliberative process and it's a very thorough process where the commission has a very, very detailed elaboration and rationale as to what it's looked at and what it's considering.”
This process is what advocates of the 1993 Pine Barrens Protection Act hoped every proposed development would go through.
New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright fought alongside Dick Amper and others to garner support for the law in the early 1990s.
“If we had not launched the pine barrens preservation initiative, if we had not taken the steps necessary to bring about the state law, there would be literally no space between suburban sprawl and the pastoral landscape of eastern-most Long Island, which is clearly a national treasure,” Englebright said.
This report is part of a series on the Pine Barrens that is a colloboration between WSHU and the Stony Brook University School of Journalism. The reporting team consisted of Margaret Osborne, Desiree D'Iorio, Taylor Beglane, Kiki Sideris, Joshua Joseph, and Kiara Thomas.