08/02/13 10:00am
08/02/2013 10:00 AM
PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | A reproduction of a painting of a forest fire in the Long Island Pine Barrens is featured in an exhibit detailing the history of the island's oldest forests.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | A reproduction of a painting of a forest fire in the Long Island Pine Barrens is featured in an exhibit detailing the history of the island’s oldest forests.

On the Fourth of July in 1993, the “War of the Woods” was coming to a head, and Long Island Pine Barrens Society co-founder John Turner was on the front lines.

Mr. Turner sat upstairs in the chambers of the New York State Senate and Assembly in Albany, tracking the progress of a landmark bill that would protect the Long Island Central Pine Barrens.

On that day, in the closing moments of the year’s legislative session, the act passed unanimously in both houses.

“That was a euphoric moment,” Mr. Turner said.

Senator Ken LaValle, a sponsor of the legislation, recalled seeing environmental activists and developers celebrate as the act was approved.

“People who were combatants in the ‘War of the Woods’ were literally embracing one another, jumping up and down like little kids,” he said.

Pine Barrens wild fire

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | Life flourishing in charred forest in Manorville in April, a year the Wildfire of 2012 burned over 1,000 acres of pine barrens.

On July 14, 1993, the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act was signed into law by Gov. Mario Cuomo, creating one of the largest comprehensive land management plans in state history.

Now, more than 20 years later, those who helped drum up support for the legislation say the act — and the cooperation of environmentalists, state politicians and land developers — helped to save more than 100,000 acres of Long Island’s last remaining wilderness and change the future of Long Island.

“It was as though Long Islanders just got up one day and said, ‘The pavement stops here.’ ” said Richard Amper, executive director of the Pine Barrens Society. “If it hadn’t been for litigation and the Pine Barrens Act, [development] would have turned the Pine Barrens into a piece of swiss cheese.”

The Pine Barrens — named by Native Americans and early colonists for the abundance of pine trees and the infertility of its porous, sandy soil — were born after the last glaciers retreated from Long Island, roughly 12,000 years ago. The Pine Barrens sit atop Long Island’s designated sole source aquifer, recharging a section of its drinking water supply.

At one time, the Pine Barrens covered a quarter of Long Island, or about 250,000 acres. But much of the forest was cut down during the late 19th century to be used as cordwood for a growing New York City. In the 1970s, about 125,000 acres remained untouched. By the 1980s, however, nearly 5,000 acres of forest were being lost to development each year.

Preservation efforts began in earnest with the Pine Barrens Society, founded in 1977 by John Cryan, Robert McGrath and Mr. Turner.

“We would give talks to anybody who would listen,” Mr. Turner said. “It was just a tireless campaign by the society to get the word out.”

The group pushed back against pressure to develop the land and filed a lawsuit in 1989 against Suffolk County and the towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton to stop development.

Ken LaValle

Ken LaValle

The society ultimately lost the case in the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, which said a law would need to be adopted to protect the land. The group appealed to local politicians to take up the cause and Mr. LaValle and then-assemblyman Tom DiNapoli became involved, meeting one night at an Italian restaurant to discuss how to engineer support for legislation to protect the forest.

“He and I sat down over a spaghetti dinner as two Italian boys and we talked about our strategy,” Mr. LaValle said.

Their solution was simple: Get everyone — environmentalists and developers alike — together at the same table.

“We began to talk about this word by word, line by line, even where we were putting commas and periods,” Mr. LaValle said. “The stakeholders actually sat around the table and wrote [the law].”

Ultimately they reached a “grand bargain” to keep a core area of about 53,000 acres safe from development while opening the remaining 45,000 acres to “compatible growth” that would be subject to environmental safeguards.

The act sailed through the state Legislature, but faced another test: ratification by the three affected towns, any of which could have vetoed the plan.

“We weren’t out of the woods yet,” Mr. Turner said. “If the plan in 1995 had not been adopted this whole thing would have fallen apart.”

Though Brookhaven and Southampton towns quickly came on board, the Town of Riverhead resisted, citing concerns over development at the Enterprise Park at Calverton.

“The Town of Riverhead was being, how we say, difficult,” Mr. Turner said. “But ultimately things worked out.”

Since then, the Pine Barrens Protection Act and the subsequent ratification of land acquisitions across the region have served as a model for policy scholars.

“We’ve gotten offers to lecture at law schools across the country,” Mr. LaValle said.

On the anniversary of the act’s passage last month, co-sponsor Mr. DiNapoli — now the state comptroller — said his legislative legacy was defined by the Pine Barrens Protection Act.

“Of all the issues I’ve been involved with, the Pine Barrens really stands out as the one I’m most proud of,” he said in a video interview the Pine Barrens Society created for this year’s anniversary. “We achieved something for the environment and for economic development and for public health.”

Advocates say much of the credit for the act’s success belongs to Long Island residents who supported the legislation.

“The people of Long Island did a remarkable thing in the name of water preservation and habitat protection,” Mr. Amper said.

But politicians and activists alike say more can still be done to protect the Pine Barrens and its water supply.

The Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission was formed through the act, and is tasked with stewardship of the land regulated by the act. It’s made up of representatives from the state, local towns and environmental organizations.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter is one of its members.

“It’s been a wonderful success, but I think it’s imperative that the supervisors keep taking their roles as commission members seriously,” he said, adding that in recent years the commission has included more direct participation from stakeholders.

“We have to be vigilant in what our original mission is, which is protecting the Pine Barrens, but not … adding on another layer of government bureaucracy,” Mr. Walter said. “It’s a difficult balance but I think the Pine Barrens Commission has done a good job of keeping that balance.”

Mr. Turner said politicians and the commission will both have to tackle managing the wildlife and forest to keep the Pine Barrens safe from invasive species and out-of-control wildfires, one of which burned more than 1,000 acres of the Pine Barrens in April 2012.

“Those lands are a gift to all Long Islanders,” he said.

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To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Pine Barrens Protection Act, an exhibit has been installed at the Suffolk County Center in Riverside on the history of the Pine Barrens.

It will be on display in the lobby of the Evans K. Griffing building through Sept. 30. 

12/29/12 5:00pm
12/29/2012 5:00 PM

SUFFOLK COUNTY COMMUNITY COLLEGE PHOTO | The proposed pool and fitness center at Suffolk County Community College’s eastern campus would be similar to this one at the Brentwood campus.

Suffolk County Community College’s proposed “Health and Wellness Center” at the Eastern Campus in Northampton, a project that would include an indoor swimming pool, will need to get an exemption from the state’s Central Pine Barrens Commission before it can move forward.

The Eastern Campus, which was built in 1977, is located within the core of the Central Pine Barrens, an area where the state’s 1993 Pine Barrens Protection Act places strict limits on new development.

But the college argues that the health and wellness center was part of a 1973 college master plan for the Eastern Campus, and that many other components of that plan have been allowed to be built by the Pine Barrens Commission.

The fitness center project, which would be similar to what the college has at its Brentwood campus, would include an eight lane indoor swimming pool, fitness center, meeting space and nursing laboratory, according to George Gatta, an executive vice president at the college.

The fitness center would include a strength training room, aerobic room, gymnasium, classroom space, office space, locker rooms and lobby, according to the county.

The Suffok County Legislature has included $17.75 million for the project in its capital budget.

The college plans to make the fitness center and pool opened for use by the general public when not being used by the college. At Brentwood, the fitness center and pool have more than 1,440 members, who pay a membership fee, and the pool is also used by local high schools and swim clubs that rent it for meets, according to Mary Lou Araneo, the college’s vice president for institutional advancement.

Mr. Gatta argued at a Dec. 21 meeting of the Pine Barrens Commission that the college’s 1973 master plan for the Eastern Campus included six buildings that the Pine Barrens Commission has allowed to be built on the campus since 1995, including the 40,000 square foot Montauk Learning Resource Center, which was formally opened last year.

In order to get an exemption to build in the Pine Barrens Core, a development must qualify as “non-development” under the guidelines of the 1993 law.

One category that the Pine Barrens law does not define as “development” is “public improvements undertaken for the health, safety and welfare of the public.”

The college is arguing that the health and fitness center falls under that category.

In 1995, the college submitted its 1993 master plan for the Eastern Campus, which included the health and wellness center in a “phase two,” and which included the Montaukett building in Phase One, to the Pine Barrens Commission.

The commission, on Jan. 3, 1995, ruled that Phase One of the master plan “constitutes non-development” under the Pine Barrens Act, but it made no mention of phase two or three of the college master plan.

“We never got an explanation why phase two and three were not included,” said Louis Petrizzo, the college’s general counsel.

“The college continued to inform the commission of its plans to implement the remaining elements of the 1973-76 and 1993 master plans, as well as the 2001 master plan update,” Mr. Gatta said. They sent letters to the commission in 2005 and 2006 and have received no response or explanation why the second and third phases of their master plan didn’t receive approval.

He said the college, “receiving no response to either communication, moved forward with the planning and contraction of the Learning Resource Center and continued to plan for the implementation of the Health and Wellness Center.”

The Pine Barrens Commission is made up of the supervisors of Riverhead, Southampton and Brookhaven towns, along with one representative each from Suffolk County and New York State.

“We’ve already passed judgment that this is non-development,” said Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter, alluding to the 1995 Pine Barrens ruling.

John Milazzo, the attorney for the commission, reminded him that the master plan was in three phases, and only the first one received commission approval in 1995.

“So, if the first phase was non-development, couldn’t we just pass a resolution at the next meeting saying this is non-development too?” Mr. Walter asked.

Richard Amper, the executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society (which is not part of the pine barrens commission, although Mr. Amper was instrumental in developing the Pine Barrens Act), pointed that there were amendments to the Pine Barrens Act in 2005, and that there may be different criteria now than there was in 1995.

Mr. Milazzo concurred. He also said that the presentation at the Dec. 21 meeting was just for informational purposes, and that there is currently no formal application before the commission for the college’s plans, so they couldn’t approve them yet.

Mr. Amper later criticized commissioner members during a hearing that same day on Kent Animal Shelter’s proposal for a new shelter building at its River Road location, which needs an exception to build in the Pine Barrens core.

During that hearing, Mr. Walter praised Kent, saying they are “our defacto municipal shelter” and handle 50 percent of the dog needs for the town.

Mr. Amper said that “Kent’s providing a great public service is entirely irrelevant to the application.”

He said he’s been complaining lately that the commission members are judging applications based on whether they are a good use or provide a public service, rather then whether they meet the criteria set forth of the Pine Barrens legislation.

“Even if it were a place to honor saints, that doesn’t mean it qualifies for a hardship exemption,” Mr. Amper said.

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08/23/12 10:10am
08/23/2012 10:10 AM

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | The April wildfire as seen from Exit 69 of the Long Island Expressway.

The massive wildfire that torched more than 1,100 acres of Long Island Pine Barrens in April was intentionally set, according to Suffolk County police, who have offered a reward for information about the person or people who started the fire.

The fire began on the north side of the Brookhaven National Laboratory property about 2:30 p.m. April 9, and quickly spread through the surrounding forest, eventually finding its way into residential areas in Manorville south of Calverton thanks to dry conditions and high winds, authorities said.

Dozens of fire departments from across Long Island were called to fight the blaze, the seventh-largest in state history, which raged for more than 24 hours, destroyed buildings and property, and forced the evacuations of many Manorville residents from their homes.

An official at the Suffolk County Arson Squad said detectives had exhausted their leads in the case and were asking for the public’s help. Though the fire was “intentionally set,” meaning that the person could have “lit a cigarette” and accidentally caused the wildfire, officials said they believe the fire may have been arson, which means someone started the fire with the intent of causing damage.

“If that’s true then I think … it’s disturbing to think someone would do that intentionally, especially since so many firefighters risked their lives and safety [to fight the fire],” said Jamesport Second Assistant Chief John Andrejack, who added that whoever started the fire should come forward.

Riverhead fire officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

In May, the state Department of Environmental Conservation deemed the fire set by man, according to a Newsday report, but Suffolk County Arson Squad officials said at the time it was too early to say whether the wildfire was intentionally set.

Police have offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case.

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