William Milner of Cutchogue pleaded not guilty in Southold Town Justice Court on Monday to violating the town code by removing cedar trees and bayberry bushes from the site of The Heritage at Cutchogue, a proposed 139-unit luxury senior housing project pending since 2003.
The 46-acre property at the northwest corner of Griffing Street and Schoolhouse Lane in Cutchogue was once a farm field but has lain fallow for years while the Town Planning Board’s review of the housing project has continued.
Court action was delayed until June 14 following the plea. Mr. Milner, 53, and the property owners, Nocron Ltd., face fines of up to $5,000 for each violation.
According to the code, Planning Board approval is required before trees and shrubs can be removed from a property under active site plan review.
Neighbors of the property who were present at the arraignment said that the land was being “raped,” that much of the activity took place at night and that Mr. Milner was “flouting town code.”
Mr. Milner, a professional landscaper who grew up on Depot Lane in Cutchogue, said that he has permission from the property owners and maintains that none of his activities is illegal.
“I’m just digging up trees I can sell,” he said. “That’s what I do for a living. Nothing is in conflict with any construction that is going on, and I’ve done it up there before. What I’m digging up is considered a weed, and those trees will grow back. I’ve never been up there at night, and I have permission from the property owners. Until the site plan is approved, I don’t see why these people are making such a big deal out of this.”
“We are concerned about the situation,” said Ellen Paterno of Cutchogue, who was in the courtroom that day. “We don’t think a fine is enough. If he’s allowed to do this, then he’ll just do what he wants and disrespect the town’s authority.”
Damon Rallis, Southold Town’s code enforcer, said that since he issued Mr. Milner a ticket on March 18, Mr. Milner “has not done anything he is not supposed to do.” Mr. Rallis added that while the case is open, he and the town attorney will meet with the planning department to talk about “what sort of remediation is needed at the site,” since the complaint originated in that department.
Mr. Rallis said that both Mr. Milner and the property owners are responsible for the violation against the town.
“Whatever is going on between them, they need to work out amongst themselves,” he said, adding that he doesn’t expect any more trees to be removed while the case is open.
“But if he goes back out there and does it again, then I’ll give him another ticket,” Mr. Rallis said.