LI Pine Barrens conservation area to expand

A swan stands along the banks of the

A swan stands along the banks of the Carmans River in South Haven Park in Brookhaven. (July 18, 2013) (Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara)

Twenty years after it was created to limit development, preserve the ecosystem and protect drinking water supplies, the Central Pine Barrens conservation area is set to expand by 3,875 acres in the Town of Brookhaven.

The expansion, which will limit development, focuses on land near Carmans River and is a key part of a town plan to protect the watershed.

Both houses of the State Legislature passed the bill authorizing the expansion in June. If signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, it will take effect Jan. 1.

Brookhaven Supervisor Edward P. Romaine said the legislation is crucial to preservation plans. The town has set a public hearing for July 30 on a proposal to restrict Carmans River development through new zoning and land acquisition.

"The plan is dependent on the state having passed that legislation," Romaine said.

The Carmans River flows for 10 miles from Middle Island to the Great South Bay. The town has long been seeking a way to protect surface and groundwater quality and has sought to limit development to do so.

"The bill . . . merely outlines the boundaries," said its sponsor, state Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson). "We're making this a protected and environmentally sensitive area."

The Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act, passed in 1993, set boundaries around 102,500 acres in the towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton. Of that, 55,000 acres of mostly publicly owned or protected parcels are considered a core preservation area, where development is generally prohibited.

The remaining 47,500 acres are in compatible growth areas and are a mix of developed sections, privately owned open space and some public parkland or conservation areas. Development is allowed but is subject to more stringent zoning standards established by the Central Pine Barrens Commission, which oversees development and conservation efforts.

In 1998, the core area was expanded. This year's state legislation would affect 587 tax parcels, including 94 homes and two commercial properties, within the 1,660-acre Pine Barrens core, and 2,941 parcels, including roughly 1,300 acres of residential land and about 300 acres of commercial property, in the 2,215-acre compatible growth area, town officials said.

No current projects will be affected, Romaine said.

Within Pine Barrens areas, town zoning must mirror the Central Pine Barrens Commission regulations. Zoning requests only go to the commission for a waiver or variance if the town has turned them down and that is rare, commission executive director John Pavacic said.

"If somebody has a house right now, they'll be able to continue to use that house, add on to that house without getting Pine Barrens Commission approval," he said.

Legislation passed in 2011 expanding the Pine Barrens area did not take effect because the town was unable to adopt a Carmans River protection plan. This bill does not have that requirement. If Brookhaven's latest plan does not pass, development must still adhere to Pine Barrens zoning, officials said.

"From a political standpoint, I think it is an effort to avoid linking preservation with development," said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society.

Nesconset attorney Richard I. Scheyer said the town requested the legislation because of previous failures.

"They can't do it publicly . . . It's not popular," said Scheyer, who this year sued Brookhaven and the commission. The suit seeks compensation for property owners who cannot develop their properties. "A lot of people live in that area. It affects jobs, it affects taxes."

Public hearings about the legislation were not held but briefings about the Carmans River Conservation and Management Plan have included discussions about expanding the Pine Barrens boundaries.

"This has kind of been an ongoing decision for years," said Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), a bill sponsor. "It certainly wasn't a brand new concept."

Mitchell Pally, chief executive of the Long Island Builders Institute, said the group does not oppose the state legislation or the town's plan. Much of the available land along the river is publicly controlled -- such as the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge in Shirley -- or unsuitable for development. "Everybody understood that there were parts of the Carmans River that really couldn't be built on," he said. "Some of the land you can probably build on, but it's not a good idea."

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