The Decades-Long Fight To Save The Long Island Pine Barrens

Aug 26, 2019

A proposed golf course on 600 acres of land in Long Island’s Pine Barrens is testing the spirit of a 1993 law that was created to protect the forests – and the drinking water underneath them. That law was hard fought, and only passed thanks to a movement inspired by three young activists more than four decades ago. 

John Turner fell in love with the Pine Barrens in the 1970s when he worked at a nature preserve in Smithtown alongside two friends, John Cryan and Bob McGrath. 

“We were kindred spirits,” Turner said. “All three of us had an intense interest in birds and bugs and butterflies and in natural history in general. We would often take time to go out and explore the Pine Barrens.”

They were worried that no one knew or cared about this unique ecosystem in Suffolk County. Together, they started the Long Island Pine Barrens Society to educate the public.

They started with slideshows on carousel projectors about the forest’s ecology. They created newsletters, reached out to local media and visited schools to get the word out that a unique ecosystem was located right in the center of Long Island. Slowly, the Pine Barrens Society’s numbers swelled with new members.

But everything changed in the 1980s. The strip malls and housing developments of suburban sprawl were creeping eastward from New York City, and the three friends feared for the Pine Barrens’ future. Developers had billions of dollars in projects planned. 

“I think it was 238 different development projects were proposed in the Pine Barrens,” Turner said. “That if they were to go forward would have actually made the Pine Barrens a Swiss cheese and would have ultimately led to their demise.” 

So the Pine Barrens Society’s educational campaign shifted gears. In their campaigns they emphasized the Pine Barrens’ connection to groundwater quality.

Before natural scientist Steve Englebright was a New York State assemblyman, he was a Suffolk County legislator, first elected in 1983. He campaigned on preserving the Pine Barrens because of the important role they play in protecting Long Island’s drinking water. 

“In the 1970s and into the ‘80s,” Englebright said, “I was beginning to see that there was a connection between the purity of water and the land that was not disturbed, not developed, not paved and not subject to very much pollution. And so I started talking about the Pine Barrens as a region, that the trees were essentially sentinels standing guard over the purest water to be found on Long Island.”

In 1989, the Society hired Dick Amper, a public relations powerhouse, to go to war against the developers. Amper says those early battles were tough, but worth it. 

The activists paid close attention to other preservation efforts – upstate, in the forests near Albany, and across the river, in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. They realized that under Article 78 of New York State law, subdivisions can’t proceed when a lawsuit has been filed against them. So the Society launched their so-called “Pine Barrens Preservation Initiative” and sued all three of the Pine Barrens towns in 1989. Every time a subdivision was approved by the town planning boards, Society members updated their lawsuit to include it, stopping each one bit by bit. 

Dick Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, holds a press conference on their ongoing lawsuit against the towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton in 1991.
Credit The Long Island Pine Barrens Society

“We wanted the cumulative impacts of development to be looked at in the Pine Barrens before any other projects could go forward,” Bob McGrath, co-founder and vice president of the Pine Barrens Society’s board, said. He said they sued to force the state to measure what effect so much development would have on the environment and water quality. 

Most development was stalled as the lawsuit moved through the courts. First they were denied, then they appealed, were approved, and, finally, lost. In its final decision, the court ruled that even though a cumulative impact study was warranted, nothing in the existing law required it. A new state law would have to be passed.

State lawmakers then faced an intense storm of lobbying pressure from business leaders, developers and environmentalists. They needed to balance water protection with the building necessary to keep Long Island’s economy healthy. Eventually, they reached a compromise – the Pine Barrens Protection Act of 1993.

The law created the 100,000-acre Central Pine Barrens Region – and sliced it in two. 

“You got the core preservation area, that’s no development,” Turner said, “And then you've got the compatible growth area where limited development in accordance with certain guidelines can take place.”

It also created the Pine Barrens Commission to make sure the law is followed. This five-member commission is made up of the three supervisors from the Pine Barrens towns, the Suffolk County executive, and a representative from the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. 

The Commission can review every project in the Pine Barrens and make sure it follows the land use plan, which the act also created. It set up strict parameters for wastewater contamination, requires that natural streams and wetlands be left alone, and limits vegetation clearing to preserve large patches of unbroken forest. 

Even small changes to a piece of property must be approved by the commission, and even small infractions can rack up tens of thousands of dollars in fines. 

When then-Governor Mario Cuomo signed the bill into law in 1993, he said the words “New York” usually conjure subway muggings, but that really, New Yorkers are environmentalists.

“You’re looking for something larger than yourself and then it occurs to you,” Cuomo said before signing. “Niagara Falls, the Adirondacks, the Pine Barrens, the water under Long Island, the rivers, the chestnut tree in the park in South Jamaica, Queens – the environment. Ecology, preserving it, saving it, fighting for it...With sureness I go to bed tonight, having signed a bill and made it law, knowing I did the right thing,” Cuomo said.

When helping craft the legislation, Assemblyman Englebright says he took a practical view of the delicate balance between preservation and development. 

“We're keenly aware that you can't preserve everything,” Englebright said. “You can't do that economically. So there's going to be some development – indeed, our children are going to have to live somewhere. How do you find the proper balance, is the question.” 

It’s this balance that makes projects like the proposed golf course resort possible. The developer, Discovery Land Company, owns almost 600 acres in the Pine Barrens, and plans to build 118 homes plus the golf course and a clubhouse in East Quogue.

The protection act requires that the project follow strict guidelines to offset any potential environmental impact. The developer says they’ve done that, but Dick Amper is not convinced.  

“If indeed they could alter the project and make it conform, we would not have a problem with that,” Amper said. “We believe that the law was a good one, a fair one, and it was not abusive of property owners but it was protective of the public water quality.” 

The Lewis Road PRD, which includes plans to develop on these pine barrens in East Quogue, is testing the spirit of the 1993 Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act.
Credit Kiki Sideris

The developer’s plans include building their own water treatment facility, leaving 65% of the land untouched and building in areas that are already cleared of vegetation. It will be up to the Pine Barrens Commission to decide if the developer’s efforts are enough to satisfy the law. 

“The people who are questioning our project, or oppose it outright, have great concerns, and they’re concerns that all of us share, as citizens, as community members, as developers – as Discovery is.”  Brian Tymann, a community outreach manager for Discovery Land, said. “But it's a really well-vetted project…by a company like Discovery, who has a track record and a history of building properties that are very responsible. They go above and beyond. There are a lot of sustainability aspects to them.”

After the developer’s application is done with the Southampton Town Planning Board process, it will be brought before the Pine Barrens Commission. 

Then, the Commission will do the job they’ve been doing for four decades: trying to strike a balance between preservation and development.

This report is part of a series on the Pine Barrens that is a collaboration 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.