Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy said he plans a "preliminary review and investigatory analysis" of the county’s recent approval of an exclusive lease for 265 acres of preserved county land in Manorville for use by a private gun club.
Kennedy said in an interview with Newsday that he had spoken with officials in the administration of County Executive Steve Bellone, who said the 25-year lease agreement has been "vetted six ways to Sunday."
But Kennedy said he would review it in using independent standards and in line with a state comptroller’s report of guidelines for the alienation of public parkland, which asserts that parcels given over for such uses should be assessed to determine fair market value. Alienation refers to a government entity's decision to sell, lease or discontinue use of owned parkland to a nonpublic entity. Suffolk first granted a lease for the Peconic River Sportsman's Club to use the property in 1998, following passage of a state law.
"It's my role to make sure any action taken on the part of county government comports with our legal and financial obligations," Kennedy said, adding his aim was to "confirm the independent and arms-length validity of the financial and general access requirements that the handling of any public land parcel might have."
Last month, the Bellone administration, with unanimous consent from the county legislature, approved the lease agreement with the Peconic River Sportsman’s Club — four years before it was set to expire. The new agreement provides for payments starting at $9,030 per year to the county for a 265-acre parcel of woodlands that includes a mile-long stretch of the Peconic River and a portion of Donahue Pond. The payments increase 3% a year.
The county land abuts two parcels comprising 120 acres that are listed in the names of the club and a predecessor club.
Whether Suffolk County conducted a pre-vote assessment of the new lease and whether or not the annual payment constituted fair market value for Suffolk taxpayers is unknown, and something Kennedy said he will investigate. A spokesman for Bellone declined to say whether there would been an assessment.
State records show the sportsmen's club was represented by McBride Consulting & Business Development Group, and specifically by former Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider. McBride was paid $4,000 a month to "work to secure [a] 25-year extension" of the lease, including "lobbying Suffolk County officials," and "outreach efforts on behalf" of the club to "improve community relations," the records show. Schneider, who also worked as Brookhaven Democratic Committee chairman in 2010, left the Bellone administration in 2017.
In an interview with Newsday, Schneider noted new provisions in the lease that provide for some public access, with club approval, and the requirement that the group hold at least five charitable events there a year. The group has already done so. In 2019, county Legis. Sarah S. Anker (D-Mount Sinai) attended a "Break 'Em for Breast Cancer" event at the club and thanked the group for hosting the event, which raised $33,000 for groups around Long Island.
Anker, who owns a shotgun and shot during the event, said the county land provides a "safe buffer" from the shooting club's pistol and rifle ranges. She said she supported increased access to the land, but said she wants to make sure non-shooters who do visit are kept safe.
Schneider said the new lease will address all those concerns.
"There are a number of provisions that are very beneficial that have never been in before," Schneider said. Asked why the club sought an extension of the lease four years before it expired, he said club leaders viewed the expiration as "as something right around the corner." The lease is "so central to the club, from their perspective this is almost waiting till the last minute."
He noted the lease "has existed since the 1960s," and cited letters of support for the bill from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the New York State Police's Troop L in Farmingdale, and the Babylon Breast Cancer Coalition."
After public comments during the legislative session by John Turner, senior conservation advocate for the Seatuck Environmental Association, the county built language into the now-finalized lease that includes the prospect of public access to "any member of the public who desires" it, with the approval of the Peconic River Sportsman’s Club. Potential visitors must send an email to the club at firstname.lastname@example.org indicating the time and date requested for access. They can also call the club for access at 631-727-5248. The club has 72 hours to respond.
Subsequent language added to the lease includes a requirement to hold at least five charitable events a year that serve county residents, a provision to abide by an agreement with the Pine Barrens Commission to "maintain or replace existing facilities when necessary," and a restriction on expansion of existing facilities. The club must also work with an aquatic resource professional to monitor and control invasive species in Donahue Pond.
Turner took issue with the fact that a fence will remain in the park restricting open access to public land, and that fact the use of the county land is at the club’s discretion.
Anker suggested that the club lease was no different from leases provided for county golf courses and even land stewardships such as those afforded Turner's Seatuck Environmental. Asked where she had heard that talking point, she said, "The county executive's office told me that."
Neither the county nor the Peconic River Sportsman’s Club, or its lobbyist, would discuss the club’s affiliation with the National Rifle Association, a lobbying group that has been a focus of state Attorney General Letitia James. James last year filed a lawsuit that seeks to dissolve the NRA amid charges the organization diverted "millions of dollars away from the charitable mission of the organization for personal use by senior leadership." The NRA has denied the charges.
The NRA in 2015 awarded Gold Medal status to the Peconic River Sportsman’s Club, calling it and other awardees that year, "affiliated organizations that promote and support the purposes, objectives, policies and programs of the NRA."
Club officials didn’t respond to a claim by Long Islander Thomas Finn, who said he was accepted for membership into the club in the 1980s but declined when he was told he had to be an NRA member, he said.
In an online gun enthusiasts’ website, shooters said it costs $1,500 to gain entry into the club, but only if an existing member sponsors you. Annual membership was $500 at the time, and the waiting list for the 500-member club was hundreds of people long.
The lease for the club was finalized last month.
Visiting the Suffolk land controlled by the Peconic River Sportsman's Club:
- Any member of the public can request access to the park by writing to: Admin@peconicriver.com, or calling (631) 727-5248.
- Visitors must supply the names of all visitors, describe planned use and list date and time of requested visit.
- The club must respond within 72 hours.
- Only the county's 265-plus acres can be visited.
- The club can't "unreasonably" withhold access to any person, but it can "prevent trespass."